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Firefighting physics: Current research will change when we go in

Although much has changed in firefighting in the past 20 years, we still approach interior attack with the same mindset, and that may be about to change too

Editor's note: Chief Adam K. Thiel explores the U.S. fire service's collective attitude toward interior attacks and how the new round of fire testing will bring more physics into play as we decide when and how to go in.

The well-worn phrase, "200 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress," (also visible in the now-classic movie Backdraft) is sometimes applied to the U.S. fire service as either an indictment of our alleged unwillingness to change, or a proud statement of our traditional values and commitment to service.

From my experiences, and given the difficulty of generalizing across the many fire departments in our country, the truth is probably somewhere in-between.

As far as firefighting strategy and tactics, however, I guess I'm constantly amazed that we're all still pretty much doing the exact same things I learned 21 years ago in my first recruit academy.

Sure, from coast to coast we use different-sized hoselines for attack and supply, employ various types of ventilation (natural, mechanical, horizontal, vertical and hydraulic), throw (or raise) different kinds of ground and aerial ladders, select nozzles with various attributes, and wear different types of PPE. But generally speaking, we all approach structure fires with a single-minded determination to "get inside and put the wet stuff on the red stuff." (Unless it's brutally obvious that we can't, or shouldn't, expose our brothers and sisters to a seriously unbalanced risk vs benefit profile.)

Although it appears from the available data that we're making progress toward improving firefighter health, safety and survival nationwide, we all know that interior structural firefighting remains an extremely hazardous, and sometimes deadly, endeavor. In fact, one could argue that "going inside" is more dangerous than ever, since the mass of newer (and many renovated) buildings is continuing to decrease with the prevalence of lightweight structural components, while the fire load continues to increase.

As emotional as we can get during the inside/outside debate, it's really about physics.

For that reason, and with great respect for our history, I believe the path-breaking work being done in Spartanburg, S.C. — along with other studies conducted during the past several years in New York City, Chicago and other places — is vitally important for the future of the U.S. fire service.

And I would suggest that the future is now.

Stay safe!

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