Fire researcher lands national award

Dan Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer with NIST, has spent 28 years burning down buildings to study how fire behaves


WASHINGTON — Firefighting expert Dan Madrzykowski was one of four civil servants to win this year's National Institute of Standards and Technology Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal for Citizen Services award. Madrzykowski won for his research that changed firefighting practices resulting in more lives save and more property protected around the world.

Dan Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer with NIST, has spent 28 years burning down buildings to study how fire behaves.

“I burn things for a living,” said Madrzykowski. “We burn a building, change one variable and do it again.”

Madrzykowski finds buildings scheduled for demolition and recreates previous fires using sophisticated research tools and fire-modeling software to analyze the blaze, according to the Washington Post.

He then analyzes the results and spreads the word to firefighters on what was learned.

“Dan has been able to use science to show that the traditional practices don’t always provide the best outcomes and, in some cases, they’re putting firefighters in harm’s way,” said Willie May, NIST’s associate director for laboratory programs.

Madrzykowski and his team have improved everything from ventilation and fire-suppression tactics to the protective equipment firefighters wear. He has had a major impact on understanding and mitigating the dangerous problem of fire driven by wind, according to the report.

Madrzykowski’s most significant research has been on how, when and where firefighters should ventilate a building, said Morgan J. Hurley, technical director at the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. “Doing it at the wrong place or time can actually exacerbate the situation.”

The wind-driven fire research started when Madrzykowski was called to study the dynamics of a 1998 Brooklyn blaze that killed three firefighters on the top floor of a 10-story building, according to the report.

Madrzykowski conducted fire tests in high-wind conditions and fire departments are now trained to consider the impact of wind of structure fires and employ tactics to use the wind to their advantage, according to the report.

“I’m empowering the firefighters with information and introducing new techniques that don’t cost a lot of money to implement,” he said. “They can change tactics overnight.”

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