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How to fight fires

In learning how to fight fires, it’s important to be able to differentiate between different types of fire situations. Being able to do this requires a ‘reading’ of the fire, which is the method by which a firefighter determines the best way to approach it and the safest way to extinguish it.

Firefighters face considerable danger in their work, especially if they have to enter a burning building. Reading the fire to see if there are indications of a potential explosion or back draft is an important part of maintaining firefighting safety when learning how to fight fires. They also must determine if there are chemicals that may pose additional hazards to bystanders as well as firefighters. The things that firefighters look for when reading a fire are:

• Detection of hot zones. Checking a door temperature before opening it to prevent a flash. Detecting window soot to see if combustion is incomplete.
• Smoke movement out of a window or door frame.
• Spraying water on a surface to see if it hisses indicating extreme heat or if it drips off of the surface, which indicates less intense heat.

Learning how to fight fires also involves learning the elements that are involved in creating and sustaining a fire. These are fuel, heat, an oxidizing agent and a self-sustained chemical reaction.

The fuel in building fires is the materials used to construct it such as wood, sheetrock, paint. Another fuel component of these types of fires is the building contents, such as the furniture, carpeting and drapes. Heat comes from the fire itself. The self-sustained chemical chain reaction is the way the fire’s components react to each other. The oxidizing agent is a material or substance that when the proper conditions exist will release gases, including oxygen. These are all things that a firefighter studies when learning how to fight fires.

In order to fight a fire, you must take out any one of the fire elements. The most common method is to use water to put out the fire. The water takes away heat by cooling the fire. Water also smothers the fire, taking away oxygen. Some firefighters use foam as an alternative to water. Fire extinguishers also use foam to fight fires. Removing the fuel is another fire fighting method. In learning to fight a fire, you often have to let the fuel burn until the fire goes out. Another method of extinguishing fires is chemical flame inhibition. These fire retardant agents interrupt the combustion reaction put out the fire. This is especially effective on gas and liquid fuels, which are extremely difficult and dangerous to extinguish.

For professional firefighters, learning how to fight fires requires both education and experience. In firefighting training, they learn the science of fire, which tells them the causes and components of the fire, as well as the methods of extinguishing it. They also learn how to use the tools necessary for firefighting, such as hoses, chemicals, shovels and axes. By combining classroom instruction with hands-on firefighting exercises, firefighters become valuable safety and rescue officers of our communities.

Firefighting 101 articles are intended to educate a non-fire service audience about the fire service profession. These articles are written by FireRescue1 staff members and FireRescue1 contributors, and cover a wide range of topics from how to join a fire academy to how to pass the exams required to be a firefighter. If there’s a topic you’d like to see covered, or are interested in writing for Firefighting 101, email

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