Dunn’s Dispatch: Getting Burned

By Vincent Dunn

Firefighters who advance the initial attack hoseline are some of the toughest, most hard-working, courageous, and dedicated members of a fire department. They are often the youngest and strongest, too, and are the unsung heroes of every successful firefighting operation. After a fire is extinguished, television reporters will interview the fire chief, and photos of the firefighters who operated outside the burning building will appear in the next morning’s newspapers. Meanwhile, the firefighters who put out the fire are in a small group by their pumper nursing their wounds: scalded necks, blistered knees, and scorched wrists.

Firefighters who advance attack hoselines are most frequently the ones burned at a fire, and tend to suffer the most serious burns. They work extremely close to raging flames and heated gas and smoke. They come face to face with fire. Their work environment is hellish. They may crawl over a bed of red-hot ashes or beneath falling burning embers, dragging a hundred pounds of hose and whipping around a high-pressure nozzle, throwing tons of water around a flaming hallway or room.

The water from this hose stream immediately turns to steam, and scalding rain pours down, along with heated chunks of ceiling plaster and melted paint, around their helmets and shoulders. They blindly crawl steadily forward into this environment, stopping only when the heat seems to lessen, signaling the fire’s extinguishment.

Firefighters operating an attack hoseline suffer more than twice the number of burn injuries as firefighters performing other duties. Scientific tests show a firefighter will suffer a second-degree burn when subjected to 160°F for 60 seconds, 180°F for 30 seconds, or 212°F for 15 seconds. Also, tests show temperatures of 280°F to 320°F cause intense pain and damage to exposed skin. Inhaling superheated smoke or gas at a temperature of 300 degrees F for several seconds will kill a firefighter. The temperatures in a burning room are much hotter than this; flames at the ceiling level of a burning room may be 1,000°F, while steam created by the vaporization of the hose stream is 500°F.

For more information on this subject, go to vincentdunn.com. Chief Dunn can be reached at 1-800-231-3388 or via e-mail at vincentdunn@earthlink.net.

Deputy Chief Dunn (Ret., Fire Department of New York) is the author of a number of textbooks, including the new Strategy of Firefighting (Fire Engineering, 2007), Collapse of Burning Buildings (Fire Engineering, 1988), Safety and Survival on the Fireground (Fire Engineering, 1992), and Command and Control of Fires and Emergencies (Fire Engineering, 1999).

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