Lessons Learned at FDIC 2013

Firefighting Lessons Learned at FDIC 2013: Photo by Tom Bierds

By Jerry Knapp
Photo by Tom Bierds

When we arrived on the scene, there was fire from the shrubs in front to the peak of the roof of the house and heavy fire out every door and window. Initial dispatch was for a mulch fire but at an unusual time, 0145 hours. En route, police reported that the front of the house was involved, so we were expecting an exterior fire involving the vinyl siding. Instead it was a house fully involved.

I asked the police officer if everyone was out and he said yes. I asked if he was sure and he said yes, definitely. That was a real relief, because it would have been a body bag job for sure. The 360 revealed there was no chance of getting in anywhere and less chance for a rescue of any kind. Exposures on both sides were dripping vinyl siding and the four cars in the combined driveway were smoking. Success was getting the first line into operation on the exposures before they lit up. We were able to protect the exposures and knock the fire down with a tower ladder operation and large handlines.

Interestingly, at FDIC 2013, Chief Kevin Gallagher of the Acushnet (MA) Fire Department related that he had a similar fire in a modular home that resulted in a total loss. The rapid fire spread puzzled him, so he undertook a thorough and intense investigation.  Among the investigations conclusions and other critical facts, his presentation showed that once the fire gets inside or a simple room-and-contents fire gets going in a modular home, the glue holding the drywall up on the ceiling melts around 400º F. Fire then enters the void space between the modules and takes control of the entire home very quickly. I had shared this information last week with my fire science class at Rockland Community College. One of my students (also one of our firefighters) said to me on the scene, "Yup, we just learned about this."

APPLYING WHAT YOU LEARN

FDIC is always filled with very practical, up-to-date, and very applicable information, but I was surprised that it would be applied this quickly.

The exhibits at FDIC are always full of useful new products, including great training props. As Dan Madrzykowski (NIST) and Steve Kerber (UL) noted, firefighters don't get much training on understanding fire development. In Rockland County, New York, we have been using a flashover trainer since 1996, which gives our members at least a visual demonstration of the full life cycle of a fire. Additionally, they get to see how contained structure fires are controlled by the amount of air that is available to the fire. Instructors control the fires leading to flashovers by admitting air by opening the rear door and opening the vent at the top. Trainees sit below the fire floor and witness the fire developed through the underventilated stage to flashover. Controlling the door and vent to the simulator essentially creates a flow path for fire and hot gases, as Dan and Steve expertly described in their presentations.

It does seem strange that firefighters don't often understand our enemy as well as we should. General George Patton is reported to have stood in the desert before a battle with German General Rommel, Patton shook his fist in the air and said, "Rommel, you bastard, I read your book." This indicated he had studied his enemy in great detail and was aware of his favorite strategies and tactics. We should take a lesson from the good (and very successful) General Patton and learn our enemy thoroughly.

MAKING A BETTER FIREFIGHTER

There is always tons of fun at FDIC as well. My favorite event is the 110-story National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Stair Climb in the stadium, a memorial to those FDNY firefighters killed in the 9/11 World Trade Center terror attacks. Bobby Halton conducted his usual stirring and emotional remembrance ceremony with a reminder of the brothers and sisters that were recently killed in Texas and those civilians killed and injured in the gutless terror attack in Boston.

The stair climb was a good workout that always starts out quite somber, but, as often happens with firefighters, turns positive along the way, ending up in joking and encouraging others for the duration of the event. Like the annual Courage & Valor Run, it also is a brilliant reminder that we are truly warriors who need to be in top physical condition: We don't get a warm-up period, we work in the microclimate (inside our gear) of 100º F (body heat) and 100-percent humidity (sweat) until we are completely exhausted. Any other profession you know of work under those conditions? An important lesson every year from FDIC is to keep yourself in fighting condition.

Of all the lifesaving info and fun we had (and beer we drank), what really touched me was the Opening Ceremony and the honors paid to those firefighters that were killed during 2012 serving their departments. It shook me to the core as we stood at attention as the pipes played "Amazing Grace" and the names of fallen firefighters rolled by on the screens. Each deceased member had a family at home and in the firehouse. That empty seat at the kitchen table, both in the fire station and at home will, always remain empty. It happens in a moment on the fireground but lasts forever.

On January 16, 2012, I was very nearly killed while standing near a house that exploded during evacuation operations at an underground natural gas leak. It was really close and only the grace of God and a lot of luck allowed my captain and I to survive and avoid having our names roll by.  Surely many firefighters have experienced similar situations. This could have happened to any firefighter in America, and surely some in the room have equally chilling stories to tell of their close call.

We were lucky and learned important lessons from our experience. There is, however, one inescapable truth about firefighting that FDIC helps us remember: Don't ever forget how dangerous our jobs as firefighters really are. The sad reality is that everyone does not go home, every time--some go on to a bigger house.

The best method of keeping your name off the scroll of the fallen, as Jason Brezler said in his FDIC presentation, is to make yourself hard to kill. You can make yourself hard to kill by updating your knowledge, continually sharpening your perishable skill sets, and learning new skills that make you as effective as possible on the fireground. One of the best ways to do all of these is to come to FDIC, absorb all you can, and take it back to your department to make yourself and your members better firefighters.. Do it with the ultimate goal of keeping your name and your members' names off that scroll of the fallen next year.

Jerry KnappJERRY KNAPP is the assistant chief for the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a 35-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department, has a degree in fire protection, and was a nationally registered paramedic. Knapp is the former plans officer for the Directorate of Emergency Services at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.

 

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