Taking firefighting research from the lab to the street

Some fire departments have fully incorporated fire-behavior research findings into their strategies and tactics; here's how those chiefs pulled it off


This feature is part of our Fire Chief Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to FireChief.com that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing fire chiefs and fire service leaders everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Fall 2015 issue, click here.

By Cathy Sivak

The science is there. Much of the fire service has at least an awareness of terms like flow path and transitional attack. Many are familiar with and had some training with SLICE-RS.

The data from numerous live-burn tests is consistent, reliable and no longer new. Yet, how many fire departments are using this data to change how they do business at the street level? Widespread acceptance is still a ways off. And that, of course, is the gorilla in the room for fire chiefs looking to make their departments safer and more effective.

Humans resist change. And while largely untrue, the adage that the fire service is 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress resonates when it comes to fire-behavior research.

"A lot of those traditions impede us," says Jason Caughey, fire chief of Laramie County (Wyo.) Fire Protection District 2. He urges chiefs and other brass to recognize that training from 30 or 40 years ago does not all apply today, and to overcome objections from traditionalists with information that makes them want to know more. "Allow the next generations to grow their own traditions."

Change agents

It is up to chief officers, company officers, and union leaders to lead by example.

"Create a culture within your department that is open to change and always puts the response to the citizens first. Don't let the natural fear of change drive the organization," says Jason Starck, battalion chief for Loveland (Colo.) Fire Rescue Authority.

Resources, testing and training opportunities through Underwriters Laboratories, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Kill the Flashover program can help effect changes at many levels, Starck says. Chiefs must not only keep up with new information, but also must relay that information in a format that makes it real for their firefighters and officers.

"Don't underestimate the need to educate," Starck says.

Early protocol adapters such as the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the Phoenix Fire Department show a marked decline in fire-related injuries and property loss.

"Understanding the 'why' of how things happen on the fireground, that's the first step," says Lt. Sean Gray of Cobb County (Ga.) Fire & Emergency Services. "We have the knowledge. We can do better; we can put fires out faster and with less damage and fewer injuries."

Rank-and-file resistance is a common challenge: It's not easy to be different than neighboring departments, says Jim Silvernail, battalion chief, shift commander and lead recruit trainer for West Metro (Mo.) Fire District. He is also a member of multiple fire service committees and programs and author of "Suburban Fire Tactics."

"The world is still round. They aren't saying it is oval," Silvernail says. "Getting water on a fire quickly is still there. The old strategies — locate, contain, confine — are still there."

Tactics based on modern fire research produce results, particularly when standard operating procedures are specifically tailored for your organization's circumstances and compliant to your area, Silvernail says. "Understand your capabilities on the fireground, be realistic about it," he said. "Consider your staffing, your resources, the type of construction you have in your area. It's not only saving victims, but also what is going to get your guys home safely every day. If you put the fire out quick, that's good for everyone."

Laramie County tracks significant reductions in structure fire property damage since it initiated research-based protocols 14 years ago, Caughey says. The department also experienced less damage to equipment and fewer injuries to firefighters, with zero workers' compensation claims over the last three years compared with two or three injuries annually in the past.

The process is a constant evolution, Caughey says, with up to one-third of the initial methods and protocols further developed since implementation training. "The guys are working smarter and more efficiently."

Reteaching truckies

Caughey says a kitchen fire in 2011 is where the science hit the streets with a prime example of new protocol effectiveness. Arriving officers assessed the fire and closed a connecting door prior to any other action.

"By the time they stretched hoses to attack, the fire was out," he says. "All they had to do was go in and dribble a little bit of water. Without the new protocol, that fire would have demolished that kitchen and the majority of the front room; at the very least, the house would have required major renovation, or possibly even a complete tear down."

Coordination of vertical ventilation with water application is one of the biggest protocol changes for Georgia's Cobb County.

"The truck companies are very task-oriented, they want to get up on the roof and tear a hole," Gray says. "The ventilation task is to lift the smoke for visibility purposes. If you make a hole prior to water on the fire, the fire is going to react to air on the fire. It's all about timing. Coordination between fire attack and ventilation, and the fastest way to get water onto the fire."

As chiefs interpret research and set protocol, they should keep in mind that blanket policies are no longer applicable.

"We have to adjust our tactics to a dynamic fireground," Gray says, and that implementation will stall with faulty interpretation of the research such as "never do this" or "always do that."

Most firefighters learned to never flow water into the superheated gases in the top of a room, but research shows controlled water flow is effective.

"Always and never are terrible words; these tactics are about understanding science. The new tactics are part of the toolbox," Silvernail says. For instance, there is no blanket "how to ventilate" policy in written West Metro procedures, because the chief officer on scene is the one to make the call on a horizontal or vertical ventilation. "The victim needs the heat taken away and the ability to get the smoke taken away."

Loveland Fire Rescue Authority officers use what Starck describes as a robust risk vs. benefit analysis through effective command and control procedures rooted in the Chief Alan Brunacini's Blue Card Certification Program along with continual training on risk analysis, tactical decision making under stress and situational awareness.

"Concepts such as putting water in from the outside are not only proven over and over to be beneficial to the firefighters' safety, but if done correctly, will also improve conditions for any occupants trapped inside," Starck says.

Placement of hose lines is quicker and overall fire control times are shorter thanks to proper assessment of fire spread, water placement and structure entry. Forceful entry is ventilation, and can create external exposure that auto-ignites up the side of newer structures to envelop the second floor or attic, Silvernail says. "That size-up of a structure fire has to include the flow path."

Opening minds

If a "macho, burn on the helmet" mentality is an obstacle, remind firefighters that the research-based tactics build on what firefighters already know, says Silvernail. With a 7.5-mile suburban area made up of a blend of modern construction and homes dating back to the 1950s, West Metro firefighters are well-versed in situational awareness.

"When you can show them, they are open-minded to other concepts" such as cooling from a safe distance, Silvernail says. "We are getting water on the fire faster than in the old days, concentrating more on that first line. My goal every day in my battalion is to get 27 guys home safely."

If large-scale changes are underway for your organization, testing and demonstrations of your department's current theory of firefighting within the modern fire environment can help lower resistance to new methods. "Bring in quality instructors or send your people out to quality classes that embrace the changes going on now in the fire service," Starck says. 

While some firefighters may immediately embrace new methods, others will have reservations. The biggest obstacle is helping firefighters overcome devotion to initial fire service education, which may have been decades ago.

"There is definitely a camp that thinks that they are against it, they want to go into the fire every time. They just don't like the tactics that are being developed," Silvernail says.

To be effective, training must help firefighters overcome their skepticism, Caughey says.

"The fight has changed," he says. "What we were taught in the past was appropriate for the fuel load packages in the houses built and furnished 50 years ago. The only way to get our guys to believe that is to put them in a controlled environment and let them see that it works."

One of the challenges with implementation is the traditional training structure. "You learn from a captain, who learned from the captain before him, and it becomes fourth or fifth generation — it's diluted. Break that training cycle to allow new information to come into your organizations," Caughey says.

Provide firefighters with the opportunities to review and try new methods to reduce implementation resistance.

"Get them outside the parameters of your own organization," Caughey says. "It's an opportunity to rub shoulders with the experts, ask those questions. When they see it, try it, taste it, they want to learn more, try more. They take ownership of the development of the modern tactics."

With more than 20 years as a firefighter, Gray says the lack of exact answers was difficult for him to overcome until he turned fire behavior education into a self-learning objective.

"We want a hard and fast answer: Tell me how many seconds I need to put water in the window," Gray says. "But they'll say it depends: How big is the fire? What is the room size? Fire is very dynamic; there isn't one answer. Reading smoke, reading fire, I've hammered it into my head over the last five to seven years. I feel like I am a much better fireground supervisor. When I pull up, it's not just a light show."

Free interactive training modules available through UL (ulfirefightersafety.com) have proven valuable to firefighters in Cobb County. The department's four battalions total 700 members. Each has completed the three current modules, which range from one-hour overview courses to three-hour, in-depth scientific exploration of fire behavior. "That's the easiest way to start, educate the guys. The training is free, just reach out and grab it," Gray says. 

"Light it and fight it" training scenarios designed to help firefighters assess the fire and complete tasks like transitional attacks and door control are crucial to implementation of new tactics, Gray says. "We set up situations: 'There is fire rolling out the window. What do you do?' In the past, it was taboo to put water through the window."

Once firefighters connect new information to their past experience, they move beyond the "because that's the way we've always done it" mentality to become proponents of the new methods, Gray says.

"Educate from the ground up," Gray says. For instance, his department is implementing use of smoke control curtains on two of its busiest ladder truck while concurrently educating firefighters on uses such as preventing smoke from entering stairwells. "Give them the tool, and they start having their own ideas on how the tools can work — and they are enthusiastic about incorporating it."

Getting buy in

Chiefs can improve implementation buy-in with use of custom materials, such as the UL-modeled video training used in L.A. County that features the department's gear as well as its saltiest battalion chief, Gray says. "You have to have the right group of guys disseminate the message so that it is delivered correctly."

As departments reinforce the reasoning, case study and basic science, the firefighters explore the concepts and technology in informal discussions and on the fireground.

"We after-action every fire we go to. The difference between a non-progressive and progressive fire department is building tactics," Silvernail says. "Be careful of the word aggressive. We're not here for the macho badge, we're here to protect our citizens, our property and our firefighters."

Post-fire debriefing is crucial to the learning process, as it shows that the methods work. When fire calls don't go well, Gray says the team often discovers one simple cause: "The guys were not doing the right thing."

The biggest sign of buy-in for Loveland Fire Rescue is fire behavior and tactics discussions with battalion chiefs as a result of research by individuals in the stations, Starck says. Open tests of current and proposed tactics or department theories with realistic fuels and buildings are crucial to get firefighters on-board new protocol implementation.

During implementation, seek advice and information from those who conduct the research as well as departments with modernized protocols. "It has been my experience that those departments are open to sharing all that they know to better the fire service as a whole," Starck says.

"Empower your people to conduct their own research on the research. They have to be able to apply it their community," Caughey says, noting regional differences in construction materials and methods. Slow, consistent pressure entrenches the new tactics. "These are people who are genuinely concerned about their well-being and that of the community."

At the same time, departments should monitor the sources of firefighter information. "Social medial and YouTube have given firefighters unlimited access to good and bad information," Starck says. "Much like a parent would not let reality TV raise their child, don't let Facebook and YouTube raise your firefighters."

"One area that we constantly face is a feeling that we will be taking away from the firefighters and the tactics they love to accomplish on scene, even though they are often very risky operations," Starck says. "What everyone on the fireground needs to realize is we have to be coordinated and effective in our timing to best deal with our modern fires." 

Cathy Sivak is a freelance writer and award-winning journalist who spent several years covering the police, fire and emergency response beat for a daily newspaper.

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