(February 2013)

Victims should come first, regardless

Christopher Chavez’s “Wind-Driven Fires: Lessons Learned in Houston,” (October 2012) was disturbing to me. Since when have technological findings caused fire departments to “… [delay] the rescue of victims until after the fire has been knocked down”? Whatever happened to communicating on the fireground and coordinating effort in the quest to achieve our primary objective-saving lives? Wind-driven fires have been around since the good Lord created the universe. They are not new. Following time-honored firefighting procedures regarding engine company firefighters [e.g., not entering the fire area without a charged hoseline and ladder company firefighters closing the door/window on entry into the fire building during vent-enter-isolate-search] goes a long way toward keeping members safe.

I disagree with the statement, “Even with victims inside, we must recognize that firefighter safety comes first and that we can do the victims no good if we need to be rescued ourselves.” Professional firefighters are trained to take calculated risks pertaining to the dangers of firefighting-risk a lot to save a lot. Every day firefighters risk their lives to save victims in need of rescue. A known life hazard cannot be ignored and placed on the back burner until we knock down the fire during a wind-driven fire. I am talking about the fire department here!

Regarding the statement, “In a wind-driven fire with firefighter casualties, the incident commander (IC) will be closely scrutinized and possibly be held responsible should anything happen,” the IC always will get second-guessed and be held accountable when things go wrong. That is the nature of the job. At fires in occupied buildings, decisions need to be made by evaluating information, and time is of the essence. When life is endangered, the IC has to address it. A fire occurring on a windy day should not dictate the initiation of an exterior operation in lieu of an aggressive, coordinated interior attack.

In essence, if you follow the article’s wind-driven fire action plan during fires in occupied buildings, civilian lives may be lost needlessly.

Ronald R. Spadafora
Assistant Chief
Fire Department of New York

Firefighters need air-monitoring skills

In Hazmat Specialist Bruce Lake’s excellent article “Firefighter Safety Depends on Gas Detector Accuracy” (November 2012), the principles of air monitoring, gas detection, and instrument calibration were reviewed. Although many firefighters think air monitoring is for hazmat technicians, if your department and your firefighters are responding to natural gas or propane leaks, carbon monoxide alarms, and noxious odor calls, your firefighters need to be proficient in air monitoring and interpretation of that data. The article expertly summarized these key principles.

Natural gas (or propane) odor or leak calls are the most common and most dangerous alarms we face where air monitoring is a critical skill. Two additional important considerations not included in the article are the following. First, the utility company will measure and discuss flammable gas concentrations in percent gas-that is percent gas in air. The flammable range of natural gas is five to 15 percent gas in air. Typically, most combustible gas indicators fire departments use read in percent of the lower explosive limit (LEL), not percent gas in air. Percent gas in air and percent LEL are very different.

This can cause confusion between fire department and gas company technicians. A gas company representative will report to you in percent gas in air. So when he reports four percent, for example, it is 80 percent LEL. Typically, our action level in the interest of safety is 10 percent LEL. The 10 percent action level gives us a margin of safety. Leaking flammable gases are sneaky and may in fact be in much higher concentrations in concealed spaces, basements, walls, drop ceilings, and so on. Therefore, if we are getting 10 percent LEL readings, concentrations may be much higher in other areas. The 10 percent LEL is often the lower alarm limit for many multigas meters in use by fire departments. Although 10 percent LEL seems low, this also allows for correction factors if the instrument is calibrated to a different gas than the one you are monitoring. For example, if your meter is calibrated to methane and you are detecting propane levels, it may read significantly lower LEL (propane) than is present. Correction factors vary by instrument manufacturer.

The second key to safe response is to get your gas company’s response procedures and become familiar with them. I was surprised to find that our gas company does not take certain actions until the gas concentration is 100 percent LEL. This is considerably different from what we would expect. Firefighters often assume that the gas company action levels are the same as those of the fire department. It is also critical to recall that we have different functions. The gas company is in business to make a profit by continuously supplying gas to customers. Our mission is life safety, and profit does not enter into our equation when choosing courses of action at the scene.

If your gas company will not supply its procedures to you, they are available, in total, by filing a simple Freedom of Information Act form from your state public service commission. It is worth the time to read over these procedures. You may be surprised at what you find. I was.

Jerry Knapp
Battalion Chief
Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team

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