BY KENNETH O. BURRIS, JR.
America’s fire safety rec-ord is unacceptable. Thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of injuries, and billions of dollars in property loss annually add up to make the United States first on the list of countries with the highest life and property losses from fire in the industrialized world. Because of that record, the need for improvement of the transfer of research and technology and the application of their results is clearly evident. This is true not only for the operational arena, where its application can often be seen and touched and the results of its use is readily apparent, but also in the area of prevention, where its application goes unnoticed and oftentimes is underappreciated because of the lack of a visible incident.
Research and technology are buzzwords being tossed around frequently in today’s fire service. Each carries with it a perception of value that ranges from plain frustration to elation. Transfer of technology and the use of technology at the service delivery level foster a love-hate relationship. The very technology that created the much-loved automatic external defibrillator (AED) of today also is the creator of the much-disdained electronic reporting system.
Although the USFA does not have in-house capabilities to conduct laboratory research, it is able to partner with laboratories in other government agencies and the private sector. These laboratories often have conducted much of the basic or theoretical research on which the USFA builds when it funds applied research. Research is expensive, and it can be a high-risk undertaking. The results may not be able to demonstrate to the marketplace that the further development of a concept or service can be accomplished profitably. This is a significant issue for an organization such as the USFA when its constituency is looking for outcome-based performance.
Research can be conducted in a variety of ways including data analysis, management and operations studies, and other special studies and analyses. This research arena can be related to the Fire Administration’s program work. The Fire Administration models pilot programs such as the National Arson Prevention Initiative, tests them, and monitors the results. These results then provide the basis for the development of off-the-shelf programs that are adapted for use at the local level.
Most of the USFA’s technical research may be categorized as research of an applied nature. This type of research is used to support the standards-making process through the funding provided by the USFA. Such efforts are perhaps the least obvious of the USFA accomplishments. The most notable of recent USFA efforts is the sponsoring of research in support of NFPA 1971, Protective Ensemble for Structural Firefighting. Recent results from that project include the validation of the proper sizing of firefighters’ uniforms and the impact sizing has on the ability of the garment to protect the firefighter. The data derived from the study resulted in ASTM Standard F 1731, Practice for Body Measurement and Sizing for Fire and Rescue Services Uniforms and other Thermal Hazard Protective Uniforms.
Additionally, the USFA is working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on a project to evaluate personal alert safety system (PASS) devices. Recently, in Phoenix, Arizona, full-scale burn experiments were conducted to determine the activation temperature of various PASS devices. Those burns also served to support another USFA-funded initiative, the examination of structural collapse prediction technology. Other USFA-funded research initiatives include working with the Boston Fire Department on the utilization of Class A foam in an urban environment and burn pattern analysis done in conjunction with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the NIST.
The Fire Administration’s most exciting use of technology has been for the virtual reality simulations developed and in use by the USFA’s National Fire Academy, in which state-of-the-art computer technology is used to provide interactive training tools. The USFA Incident Command Simulator and Interfire VR discussed in my column on arson (Fire Engineering, April 2000), are examples of technology being put to good use for the nation’s fire service. The USFA is excited to have its efforts in this area recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Information Technology Division (IT). IT will be using this program as FEMA’s example of what can be accomplished in the federal government through effective IT partnerships.
The USFA is moving forward in the research arena. The report to Congress on the development of a Fire Research Agenda is nearing completion and will be submitted to the House Committee on Science and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The USFA needs the fire service’s support to provide a focus on a national fire research agenda. It provides a critical link in FEMA and USFA’s efforts in achieving a future that is having a positive impact on an America at risk.
KENNETH O. BURRIS, JR., is the chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration. He retired as fire chief from the City of Marietta, Georgia. He has an MPA from Kennesaw State University and a bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology from the University of Cincinnati. He formerly served as treasurer of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.