Letters to the Editor: May 2021

Fireman cactus
Paul Combs/Drawn by Fire
“Never Say Never”

Some would say that the fire service enjoys 200 years of tradition … unimpeded by progress. Let’s make this clear from the start: I think tradition is very important in the fire service. It is part of the foundation that enables us to serve our communities. Yet, tradition should not stand in the way of progress. In fact, tradition and progress are not mutually exclusive—nor should they be.

Some time ago, I was able to try on a prototype of the new “jet” style helmet being showcased at FDIC International. At that time, it seemed interesting, but I didn’t give much thought about how it would perform in the real world. A few years later, my curiosity was piqued when I was provided with a demo helmet to put through its paces.

Like many new things in the fire service, these helmets have sparked intense, and often emotional, debate. To be honest, it’s one of the reasons I wanted to try it out.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The main reason I wanted to try it out was because I believe that you shouldn’t criticize anything (or anyone) unless you have first-hand experience to base it on. Yet, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that I wanted to spark an energetic discussion. I also knew that I would be a target for some good-natured ribbing because firefighters like nothing more than choosing sides about most everything. Well, let me tell you, I hit the bullseye on all three counts.

First, the comments came almost instantaneously after I posted that I was going to try the helmet. Some were supportive and some questioned my sanity. In fact, I thought my firefighter son was going to hire a lawyer so he could disown me.

Second, the ribbing came from both friends and strangers. To some, I may forever be known as Darth Vader, Buzz Lightyear, Maverick, or some combination of all three. In the end, I believe the many conversations (and a few laughs at my expense) reminded me of the privilege of being part of a brotherhood that crosses towns, states, and even countries.

Third, I got to try the thing out for myself. So, how does it perform, you ask? Putting tradition aside for the moment, I have yet to find a real negative with the helmet. It is very light, extremely comfortable, stays in place better, and provides significantly more protection than a traditional helmet. Because of its “brimless” shape, it provides a full range of motion, and I can even wear it in the apparatus without hitting the self-contained breathing apparatus bottle behind me.

Perhaps the only slight negative is that sounds are a bit muffled—not to the point where you can’t hear or understand but where you might have to turn the radio volume up a bit.

So, what’s the bottom line? Well, I think there are two bottom lines. As far as the helmet goes, I like it a lot, and it performs much better than expected. Does that mean that I’m not going back to my traditional? Time will tell.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the helmet conversation is not the discussion itself but rather our responsibility to be open to new ways of doing things. As firefighters, our strength comes from being adaptable. That doesn’t mean giving up on the tried-and-true ways; it just means blending the old and the new together so we come out stronger and more effective in the end.

As far as the helmet goes, the people we serve really don’t care what’s on our heads. Wear whatever style enables you to put fire in its place or get that accident victim out as quickly as possible. And respect those who make a different choice, because the one tradition that must never change is that I am not here for me; I am here for we, and we are here for them.

John D’Alessandro
Association Secretary
Firemen’s Association of the State of New York

How Essential Is Ventilation?

Forty years ago, I was a young firefighter on the West Side of Chicago. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) existed but did not get used except in extreme instances (basement fires). I remember numerous occasions when getting to the seat of the fire would depend on how quickly ventilation started. A good engine company needed a good truck company—period! Often, we felt the positive effects of a skylight being opened and could not advance without some form of ventilation. The crashing of a windowpane sounded better that Led Zeppelin. Truckies were taught to look for a charged line before venting!

A West Side battalion chief by the name of Richard Sinnott first documented several fires that dramatically went bad soon after rooftop ventilation occurred. He noted fires where a truck response was delayed and extinguishment efforts went very smoothly when water was applied to the seat of the fire before any ventilation efforts took place. He demonstrated how using SCBA was the key to getting to the seat of the fire, not ventilation. He drafted a report asking the Chicago (IL) Fire Department (CFD) Training Division to reconsider the opening of a roof as a routine objective in our procedures.

Also, during this era, the CFD was experimenting with what we called “quick water,” otherwise known as a transitional attack. Lieutenants John McNamara and Pat Durkin were key cogs in this wheel. Although the concept was not accepted in some areas of Chicago, the 5th District on Chicago’s South Side used it with tremendous success. The idea was to get water on the fire as soon as possible, often using a deck gun to darken visible flames from the outside as interior attack lines were being put in place.

It was suggested that the effectiveness of an exterior stream diminished at heights beyond the third floor. Pat Durkin proved everyone wrong by hitting the 16th floor of the Robert Taylor Homes during an apartment fire. With fire blowing out a window on the uppermost floor, Engine 61 used a deck gun. When the firefighters got to the upper floor, they basically used hand pumps to overhaul.

So, what changed? Why is ventilation not so essential? In a short answer, fuels. In a very short time, the world went from wood, wool, and cotton to plastics and synthetic materials. Furnishings and the things we put in our homes became plastic almost overnight. What’s the difference in these products when they burn? The fires of yesteryear were fuel-driven, and time was on your side. Adding oxygen to the burning fuel made it burn quicker but relatively slow growing.

The new modern fuels (petroleum-based) are oxygen-driven and have been known to change fire conditions from “clear as a bell” to “I’m burning and need to get out now!” What we need to know is that ventilating a fire building containing older fuels had a positive effect and permitted hoselines to get to the seat of the fire. Ventilating a fire building containing modern fuels will have a very negative effect if water is not already being applied to the seat of the fire.

The following concepts work very well with modern fuel structure fires:

  1. Get water on any visible flames from the outside as soon as possible. Direct a solid bore stream at the ceiling, causing a sprinkler head effect. Shut down as soon as flames are no longer visible.
  2. Stretch interior lines to the seat of the fire.
  3. Control the inflow of air until water is applied to the seat of the fire. Make no openings in windows, doors, or roofs until water is on the fire. The oxygen-driven fire needs to be deprived of fresh air!
  4. No matter how small or benign the fire appears, full personal protective equipment with SCBA is a must. We have seen too many fires go from tiny to big in seconds.

Mark Nielsen
Deputy Fire Commissioner (Ret.)
Chicago (IL) Fire Department

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