FDIC 2012: Knapp on Private-Dwelling Fires

"All firefighters need to know how important house fires are to our goal of protecting life and property. House fires are the most important alarm we go to," said Jerry Knapp at  "Modern Private-Dwelling Fires: Not Just House Fires." A training officer with the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York, Knapp described his inspiration for ths FDIC 2012 classroom session.

He responded to a fatal house fire early in his career in which three children were killed. He removed the five-year-old boy in the black body bag to the medical examiner's truck, where his brother and sister already were. There was no place to place him separately, so Knapp stacked the body on top of the others. He did not know what else to do.

Every day, on average eight Americans die in fires in their own homes; 75 percent or more of these fatalities are in one- and two-family homes. Three out of every four of us live in a one- or two-family house. The house fire has a long history of killing civilians and firefighters and often is overlooked.

Knapp emphasized the following points, among others:

1.  Houses have changed, house fire development has changed, so we must also change and update our strategy and tactics. Many homes that look like single-family dwellings are really divided up into apartments, or worse, single-room occupancies.  These "gopher houses" are in every town and city in the United States and present life-threatening conditions for firefighters. Often well hidden, these dangerous conditions--locked doors, illegal construction, blocked doors and hallways/stairs--put firefighters in life and death situations. Studies prove house size has increased in the past generation; the problem is simply bigger containing more stuff to burn. Disposable construction, wood I-beams, lightweight trusses, and so forth make house fires much more dangerous as case histories of firefighters killed in the line of duty prove.

2.  The recent Underwriters Laboratories study on ventilation of house fires must be taken seriously and should force us to reconsider our procedures for search/rescue and fire attack operations. The new house fire/fire growth model has multiple rapid development phases that we may not be familiar with but can kill us.

3.  The engine company mission--putting out the fire--is now more important than ever at house fires. We must flow test our fire attack systems (from the intake side of the pump to the discharge of the nozzle) to be sure they are flowing decisive amounts of water. Experience across the American fire service has proven that we are not flowing decisive amounts of water from our fire attack lines at house fires.

Jerry Knapp is co-author with George Zayas of the June 2011 Fire Engineering article, "The Dangers of Illegally Converted Private Dwellings." He is also the author of the Fire Engineering Web column "Suburban Firefighting."

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