The Never-Changing Fire Service

The Never-Changing Fire Service
Built in 1926, the Golden State Theater in Monterey, California, seats 1,000 people on multiple levels. This venue hosts different events from church services to rock concerts. The Golden State Theater has no fire sprinkler system. Photo by Demetrius A. Kastros

By Demetrius A. Kastros

When I joined the fire service 41 years ago, the engines were red. Our units were an open cab (no roof) design without seat belts, and the weather conditions determined your “climate control.” The motors were inefficient gas clunkers. Five-speed manual transmissions were common.

For parking, the engines were equipped with hydraulic maxi-brakes. Setting these systems was tricky; one wrong step, the brakes locked, freezing the engine in place until a mechanic came to the scene; crawled under the rig; and bled off some hydraulic fluid. There was no hearing protection except your hands. The big Q2 siren was mounted on top of the windshield frame a deafening three feet from your ears. The engine “Com-System” was hand signals because the siren and engine noise made speaking useless. Firefighters rode on the tailboard; you needed to hold on tight, as that was their only “securing” device. The hose was burst-prone cotton-jacket with heavy, brass couplings. Turnouts were made from flammable canvas and rubber liners. The self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) were steel cylinder—bulky units that weighed almost 50 pounds, and REAL smoke eaters didn’t use them.

The SCBA low-pressure warning device caused your air supply to shut off. Then, you needed to switch to “reserve” and get out fast. If there was a portable radio in the department, it was in the chief’s hands. There was no incident command system (ICS), personal accountability reports (PARs), personnel alert locators (PALs), rapid intervention team (RIT), thermal imaging camera (TIC), or common command system. When we arrived at a fire donned in bulky turnouts, we might use SCBA. We pulled heavy hoses down hot, smoky hallways with zero visibility in a desperate attempt to find victims and extinguish the fire. Every year, there were more than 100 firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), and every month Fire Engineering ran stories about LODDs and firefighter injuries. Thousands of civilians died in fires each year. Our tactics and strategies were dictated by the extent of the fire, largely determined by the building owner’s decisions about design and contents. Most communities had no ordinances requiring sprinkler systems in new construction, even in high-rise buildings. Retro-active sprinkler ordinances did not exist. Millions of buildings in our country had no built-in fire protection system.

Today, the engines are red. Units have enclosed, insulated crew cabs with collision and rollover air bag systems. Climate controls keep the cab interior comfortable. Drive systems are efficient, smooth running diesel motors with automatic transmissions. Air brakes firmly secure the vehicle when stopped and provide efficient breaking when driving. Sirens and other audible warning systems are mounted in the front bumper. Head mounted com-systems provide clear crew communication and excellent hearing protection while the engine is in motion. Everyone rides inside, secured in their seat by a three-point belt system. Hose is burst-resistant synthetic material, with light-weight aluminum couplings. Turnouts are still bulky, but made of flame resistant materials in the shell and “breathable” liners.

The breathing apparatus weigh about 30 pounds featuring high-pressure spun aluminum cylinders. Low-pressure, audible warning devices give you several minutes of notice that you need to exit the fire. Everyone on the scene has a portable radio (Right?!?). ICS is a common command system. Good incident commanders initiate regular PARs. Every SCBA is equipped with a PAL. Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) regulations require a RIT to be present prior to the start of interior operations. TICs greatly enhance our ability to locate victims and find the fire. We pull heavy hoses down hot, smoky hallways with zero visibility in a desperate attempt to find victims and extinguish the fire. Every year, there are over 100 Firefighter Line of Duty Deaths (LODD’s) and every month Fire Engineering still runs stories about LODDs and firefighter injuries. And thousands of civilians die in fires each year.

Our tactics and strategies are usually dictated by the extent of the fire, largely determined by the building owner’s decisions about design and contents. Essentially all communities have ordinances requiring sprinkler systems in new commercial construction, with many even requiring sprinklers in new single family, detached residences. With the exception of high-rises, very few communities have retroactive sprinkler ordinances requiring full fire protection in all existing commercial and multiunit residential structures. Millions of buildings in our country have no built-in fire protection system.

In terms of tools and equipment, much has improved in our profession. In terms of tactics and our level of risk being dictated by the building owner’s decisions about design and content, little difference has occurred. We need to change this NOW!

Scenario: Imagine two similar warehouse type buildings each measuring 400 feet × 400 feet. In the first, the owner has made the sensible and profitable decision to install a sprinkler system. The decision is sensible because the sprinkler system protects the business and employee jobs. It is profitable because after seven or eight years, dramatically reduced fire insurance premiums will have paid for the fire protection system and, beyond that, the building owner enjoys that money in his pocket forever.

A fire starts in the center portion of this protected building. Flames quickly lap up to the ceiling. The heat activates several sprinkler heads, which quickly control the fire. The water flow sensor immediately activates an automatic call to the fire department, which dispatches a first-alarm assignment of four engines, a truck, and one battalion chief (BC). The first arriving company officer reports: “Nothing showing, investigating, evacuation in progress.”

A quick size-up and meet with employees confirms the fire is out, contained by the sprinkler system with some overhaul already in progress by the business emergency response team (ERT), who have deployed a hose cabinet line to the fire area. The heads are still actively flowing. The company officer continues the truck and cancels the balance of the assignment. The truck is assigned to shut the post indicator valve, drain the system, replace the activated heads, and recharge the sprinkler system. Maintenance employees are already using water vacuums to remove the water discharged from the heads. The engine deploys smoke ejectors to clear the atmosphere in the building. Both the truck and engine will clear the scene within 60 minutes. Although certainly affected, the business will be back to 100-percent operation by 0800 hours the next morning. The 200 employees of the business keep their jobs. The community is hardly affected.

Two days later, a fire starts in the center portion of the unprotected building across the street. With no built-in protection, flames quickly lap up to the ceiling and start to mushroom in all directions. Employees try to suppress the fire with dry powder extinguishers, but the fire and smoke conditions are spreading too far and too fast. There is a two-minute delay before a phone call is made to 911 reporting the fire. Employees pull a manual alarm, triggering an evacuation. A first-alarm assignment is dispatched of four engines, a truck, and one BC. The first-due company officer reports smoke showing from six blocks away and requests a second alarm. On arrival, the first-due reports heavy smoke coming from the building, with employees still evacuating through the smoke. First-due lays a five-inch supply line to the main entrance and decides to deploy an uncharged 2½-inch line to the interior, where visibility is deteriorating quickly. Crawling and dragging the hoseline, the first-due company penetrates deeper and deeper into the building, not realizing that because of the smoke conditions, they have fire running the ceiling above them. The BC arrives on scene, sets up incident command, and requests a third-alarm assignment.

Tactical communications with the interior crew are difficult and unclear, but the BC is certain that with the building content and truss construction, the crew inside has a very limited window to either extinguish the fire, or make a fast egress. The BC assigns two more crews to back up the interior efforts. Trucks 1and 2 are assigned to ventilate the roof, where flames are starting to break through from the inside. The initial attack crew reaches what they think is the seat of the fire and directs its engineer to charge the 2½-inch line, making it next to impossible to effectively maneuver any significant distance. Unknown to the attack crew, the ceiling fire is dropping burning material all over the warehouse, starting spot fires in multiple locations between the interior crew and their exit. Visibility is now total zero.

The BC realizes this is fast becoming a loser and soon switches to an exterior, defensive mode. All interior and roof crews are directed to evacuate the building. Two additional alarm assignments are requested. The BC is counting the seconds until he can confirm that all crews are safely away from the building. He is in terse communication with the RIT. Truck companies are directed to set up elevated master streams at the corners of the building.

The remainder should be obvious. This building is going to be destroyed by the fire. The business will be ruined, and the 200 employees will lose their jobs. The fire department will need to make an enormous commitment to this fire, depleting resources and city coverage. Mutual aid is called from neighboring communities. Overtime impacts for station back-fill will cost thousands of dollars. Only through the Grace of God will all the interior and roof personnel safely exit the building.

The magnitude of the fire, tactics, strategy, and level of risk to the fire department was determined long ago, when the building owner, unlike his competitor across the street, decided not to make the sensible and profitable decision to install a sprinkler system. The building owner, not the fire department, determined the outcome and the tremendous risk firefighters would be exposed to. THIS NEEDS TO STOP!

The American fire service must embark on a grass roots campaign to get a retroactive sprinkler ordinance in every community. Every existing commercial and multiresidential building more than 3,000 square feet—or more than two stories tall—should have a sprinkler system installed. No new apparatus, book, tool, DVD, ICS, or person on the seminar circuit can save as many firefighter and civilian lives as this effort. Civilian and firefighter lives continue to be lost in tenements, apartment buildings, and commercial structures because these buildings do not have built-in fire protection; so, we assume a higher level of risk than in those buildings owned by responsible people. No new construction, even for detached single family dwelling, should ever occur without including fire sprinklers. We continue to lose lives in fires when the solution has existed for decades. The citizen stock-holders, the shareholders, and owners of the fire departments for which we work (the people in our communities) deserve our very best. There is no excuse for having large buildings without sprinkler systems anywhere in this country.

Cost is always an issue. I would think Wall Street and our banking community can come up with some sort of financing vehicle where investors, either individually or in a pool, provide financing for sprinkler systems that is repaid by the building owners dramatically reduced fire insurance premiums.

I refuse to believe that we, the American fire service, the most advanced firefighting community on Earth, cannot bring this effort to our jurisdictions. I refuse to believe that this is beyond our reach. And I will NEVER believe that there is a building anywhere is this country worth the life of one firefighter. We are losing our brothers because building owners either refuse to be responsible or just don’t understand the incentives of sprinkler systems. It is our duty to change that.

The future of the fire service is one of preventing fires. We know how to accomplish this. Sprinkler systems are a sensible and profitable way for building owners to assure the continued operation of their businesses and the protection of the lives inside their buildings. We need to stop letting building owners decide the outcome of fires and the level of risk to which we are exposed. We, the American fire service, need to bring forth this effort NOW. The clock is ticking, and still another year will pass with 100 or more firefighter LODDs and thousands of civilian lives lost.

Fire Sprinkler

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Adrian Sampson.


Demetrius A. Kastros is the lead instructor for the Monterey (CA) CERT program and a retired battalion chief with the Milpitas (CA) Fire Department.

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