By Robert “Bobby” Magee
We should always be looking for better ways to serve our communities with knowledge and training. The recent release of scientific data from our friends at Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) gives us a great place to start updating our training methods. According to the findings of the recent report, “Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction,” we can see that some of our strongly held beliefs may have been making our jobs more difficult instead of better! Here are a few highlights of scientific data that could change how we practice our art:
1) Time starts when we force the door or perform any other ventilation prior to deploying the hoseline. A typical single-story house allows us approximately 100 seconds to control the fire before the possibility of a significant fire event. (UL)
2) Wherever we vent, we create a “ventilation pathway” where air mixes with the ventilation-controlled fire. If not rapidly controlled, this fire will intensify and spread rapidly throughout that pathway. (UL)
3) The more we “open up,” the faster the fire will intensify, meaning that we can control the fire by keeping the building closed, not by rapidly opening it up! (UL)
4) Legacy furnishings (Class A) produce 8,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs) per pound when burning; contemporary synthetics are capable of producing 16,000-19,000 BTUs per pound. But even more significant, synthetics release their heat potentials 10 times faster than traditional Class A materials. This is why a flashover in the 1960s was expected to occur in 20 to 30 minutes. Nowadays we see flashover in two to three minutes!
5) Because of the increased heat release rates and the predominance of synthetics in modern construction, the amount of oxygen needed for combustion is significantly higher, causing a ventilation-controlled fire to develop quickly. Since ventilation is necessary to sustain the fire and allow for its growth, we firefighters should reconsider our ventilation techniques.
It becomes apparent that things are happening very quickly on the modern fireground. We need to develop strategies and techniques to allow our firefighters to operate more aggressively and more safely while accounting for the accelerated time to a significant fire event.
We must break the old traditions of static training and develop time-based training to better prepare ourselves for a modern fire attack and rescue profiles. We must train and practice to maximize our efficiency and ability to remain oriented at all times. For example, we all have had those coffee-table conversations about which hoseload is better. Minuteman, tri-fold, flat load, etc. We argue about it, but do we try out each to see which one is faster to deploy? Do we know the maximum time it should take to stretch and advance a line, to force an inward-opening door, or to search a second floor in limited visibility? Which is faster–crawling or duckwalking?
Let’s review our training practices and standard operating procedures and incorporate any improvements in our approach. For example, so that everyone understands his role, we could write out some considerations:
- The engine company will give the orders to open up.
- The vent-enter-search team must secure the door to the hallway.
Our officers must be trained to understand the different techniques and the science behind them so that we can all carry out the fire department’s functions as one team. We need to enhance our training to incorporate plenty of skills practice and a review of new scientific findings as they become available and alter our objectives. We should listen to everyone as they discuss how the new time-based training is progressing and acknowledge when they have an improved way to accomplish a skill and, after testing the new procedure, roll that into the our training.
Once we begin to change our training and practice culture, it becomes much easier to keep the firefighters motivated since both time and success benchmarks are easy to identify. Our competitive nature naturally pushes each of us to “do it a little better or faster.” We then should push for weekly or even daily practice of our most basic functions, e.g., stretching a line or throwing a ladder, to shave valuable time off the performance of necessary functions and to fine-tune our art. We should cultivate a culture of training every day and discourage harsh criticism while our members are training or practicing. Let’s spread out our training capabilities to as many members as possible, because the final stage of learning is teaching. Most importantly, we should always lead by example, and be able to answer the question, “Why do we do it this way?” and demonstrate the proper skills on actual incidents.
(1-3) Photos of firefighters participating in time-based training evolutions: throwing ladders and stretching hoselines.
We must be ever vigilant at improving our art and employ the science that we have learned so that we can be the best at what we do. We can create a culture of training and help each other to be better firefighters every day. We can become better by making our training dynamic and pertinent. In these times of reduced staffing, decreased funding, and less frequent (but more severe) fire responses, we must improve our efficiency and training. We must become more familiar with the current scientific information available. As we become a better fire service, we can go back to our community and explain why we need increases in funding and staffing to better serve their needs.
Robert “Bobby“ Magee is the deputy chief of the Millville (DE) Volunteer Fire Company, a firefighter-paramedic and instructor with the Ocean City (MD) Fire Department, and an instructor at the Delaware State Fire School.