Joe Berchtold: Flashover


Often firefighters in hast to do their tasks are unaware of their surroundings. That situation often leads to serious injury or death. While operating on the fireground, firefighters need to change the way they look at smoke and how it’s being created by the fire.

Smoke is a unignited flammable gas that, if not handled correctly, will produce explosive results such as spreading fire to other areas, flashing over, and creating a backdraft, or  a smoke explosion.

Firefighters who have not had any flashover training can even be lulled into not paying attention to smoke. Firefighters with little fire behavior training may think that they will always be able to recognize the visible warning signs of a flashover. This is not always true. Flashovers can develop with little or none of the warning signs present.

The warning signs can also be masked or hidden on the fireground by smoke, hidden voids, high ceilings, or by distance (the explosion occurs far from where the firefighters are operating).

Firefighters need to know how explosive and deadly smoke can be. They have to understand how smoke will behave on the fireground. Many firefighters think they will have enough time to react if they see the warning signs of a flashover. This is also not true. By the time a firefighter sees the warning signs, it could be too late. Flashovers occur in as quickly as seconds and travel from others areas of the building, trapping firefighters.

We need to retrain firefighters to know their surroundings and to be aware of the deadly potential of flashovers. Smoke is a highly deadly and flammable gas, and firefighters must understand smoke, its volume, velocity, pressure, and color. They need to know that they must ventilate ahead of the nozzle crew, have adequate water and flow capability on the attack handline to cool these deadly gases, and that the . This is the only way to prevent a flashover from occurring. Firefighters need to sometimes ventilate and then allow the flashover to occur before entering the structure. Instead, firefighters tend to rush right in unaware of what waits for them inside. Firefighters also need to keep the building closed up and starved of oxygen. This will slow fire progress and reduce the potential for a flashover.

When firefighters have been trained in a flashover simulator, which is a controlled environment, they often neglect to take into account fuels that could be influencing the fire they will be encountering in the real world. The reality is, there is no comparison between the two.

Through continued awareness, lectures, videos, and hands-on training in flashover training simulators, I believe we can retrain our firefighters to become aware of the increase in this deadly fire event called flashover.


JOSEPH BERCHTOLD, 23-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief on the fourth platoon in the Teaneck (NJ) Fire Department. He holds New Jersey certifications as a level II instructor, an arson investigator, a fire official, and an EMT. He teaches at the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy. He formerly worked for Cairns Advanced Technologies’ Thermal Imaging and Helmet Division. He has a B.S. degree in business management.