By Jerry Knapp
FDIC International 2018 was the first time I ever saw my dad cry. The massed pipers were playing Amazing Grace. Dad had heard it so many times at firefighter funerals that he must have reached the breaking point that day. A lot has changed since that FDIC International 16 years ago. Dad had just transferred to be on shift at the “big” station. Multiple cancers had finally caught up with him. These were just a few observations running through my head as I cleaned out his chief’s office.
To put our family history in a historical context, my dad’s generation learned from my grandfather’s contemporaries, also known as “The Greatest Generation.” These men and women saved the world at great sacrifice from the Empire of Japan, the Nazis, and Stalin. Dad’s father (Grand Pop) was with the 2nd Marine Division in the South Pacific—in ferocious places such as Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan, where young American heroes still sleep in the sand. He learned hard-won lessons in life that he passed on to my brother and I in small glimpses. Grand Pop taught us a lot in a subtle way, usually with very few words but a lot of emotion.
In my hand is a picture of dad wearing his turnout gear, sometime in 2012. In this photo he wore ¾ boots. However, after a few guys were burned to death working in the major cities, bunker gear was finally required for structural fires. Every step forward in the American fire service has always been paid for in firefighter’s blood and sacrifice; bunker pants and hoods were no different.
Dad was always exuded proud when he was at the station. When the tones came in, he donned his traditional gear and was all business, the same way Grand Pop was like in his Marine uniform. The “game was on” when the tones came in, although too often the response ended in life and death.
Early in his career, he experienced two fatal house fires that killed five kids; this made dad “all business” at the firehouse. First, he put on his bunker pants and, of course, red suspenders mated to rubber boots that give him blisters. Next, he slung his radio over his shoulder with the required leather strap. He donned the separate hood and then put his coat over the radio to protect it. Then, on went the traditional leather helmet, which was the treasure of his generation of firefighters. If you did not wear leather in those days you were less of a firefighter; it had to be covered with soot (although we now know soot as being cancerous). Even as a kid, watching dad go through all these steps to don his gear, I always thought it would be great if we could combine those items into one package and make them of modern materials.
Today, my new helmet is made of a similar material as the tiles on the old space shuttle. Super light, it may be a glowing red on the outside, but it does not transmit the heat to my head on the inside. My integrated heads-up thermal imaging display in my face piece can switch to drone imaging, thermal imaging, or show data or preplans if needed; one click, and my new self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) face piece simply clicks in to the helmet. I recall dad doing what he called the “fire attack dance”; he held his leather helmet between his knees while tightening his four face piece straps with those bulky gloves. Back then, research showed that his face piece would fail at around 400°F; mine is good beyond 2400°F.
Dad’s radio was not at all fire resistant, which is why he kept it under his coat. The radio’s Mayday buttons have improved as well. When a member activates his 3-D global positioning system, the location shows up on my head’s up display and at the command post, overriding other displays. The locator signal is also transmitted automatically and sends a drone over his position—inside or outside the building. I received a live video and data feed of conditions near him as well as his vital signs from his smart coat (coats featuring thermal sensors and other critical data collectors); the live feed also goes to my chief’s aide at the command post. It’s a long way from dad’s old personal alert safety system alarms; even when activated, you could not tell from where the alarm was coming. Our radios have been micronized and now fit in our helmets, providing duplex voice coms for the entire operation and for the entire crew. In past years, dad had to push the mic up to his face piece, and sometimes intelligible transmissions came out. Now, it’s clear as day.
Today’s turnout gear is superior to my dad’s generation’s as well. Capillary-sized liquid nitrogen cooling systems make heat stress and burns a thing of the past. The nitrogen vents out into the fire area and displaces oxygen in the fire area. It also keeps my crew from worrying about flashover. If needed, we can simply work in that environment, but we’ll always have time to get out. No firefighter has burned to death in the past five years unless they were trapped in a collapse. Similar to the way my dad’s coworkers fought wearing bunker pants, my guys also fought this excellent innovation. Because we now understand fire dynamics, flashover was redefined about 10 years ago as working in the flow path. Probies get 25 hours of this subject in recruit school including computer modeling of famous line-of-duty-death (LODD) fires; dad’s generation only got the “fire triangle.”
Tabletop and full-scale fire dynamics simulators clearly show the trainees what a fire needs and how it develops. The old flashover training units are now long gone. Burning carcinogenic particle board and glue has been replaced by what we call “full sensory” training; it is very effective, and no one complains that it is unrealistic. It is so realistic, in fact, that a trainee quit before he even finished our academy. (He simply determined that this job was not for him.) The simulator includes 3-D video using turnout gear that simulates heat saturation as if the cooling system has failed. The SCBA air consumption is also realistic, and the computer controller can take the air supply to zero if the trainee does not react properly. It is safe, and he can simply remove the regulator to save himself, but it is a very realistic training event. As dad used to say, “train like you fight.” Now, we do.
Mentioned previously, smart coats send data on fire conditions and physiological conditions of a firefighter to the Firefighter Reconnaissance Analysis Network Command (FRANC). FRANC has existed for several years and provides real-time data to my aide, my “head’s up” display, and the command post. Today, I receive that data at my command post in the head’s up commander’s display in real time (with a delay of about 1.73 seconds); the data then gets recorded and I can them play back after each fire. FRANC also receives data from drones, and all of our firefighters share the data through their head’s-up displays. FRANC has helped cut down LODDs by monitoring vitals and sounding alarms to the command post and the individual firefighter (if he is exceeding personal safe parameters inside or outside his personal protective equipment).
FRANC also records physiological data from all on-scene firefighters. An interior drone relays these data from the smart coat to the command post, where the aide can order rehab for severely stressed firefighters. These data are also important for developing and improving a firefighter’s fitness plan. As a result of these data, firefighter heart attacks are down to accounting for about five percent of all LODDs; that is 10 times less than dad’s generation.
Size-up has changed some as well. My chief’s truck can automatically launch two drones fly that inside and outside of the fire building. The exterior drone does an autonomous 360° of the fire building until we direct it back to the launch platform on the roof of my truck. These data are mostly video, but I can get a thermal image and forward-looking radar views as well. With a couple of voice commands, I can lay a visual from the drone over a 3-D drawing of the building. This gives me a visual of the fire’s location and the location and progress of the engine company. FRANC also has construction and occupancy data including hazardous materials locations for all the buildings in our first-due area and provides a continuous list of hazards until we acknowledge our understanding of them.
Forty years ago, my fire station had an autonomous drone vacuum cleaner. I’m not sure why it took so long for my department to invest in one of these; they are great for size-up and to continuously monitor fire conditions and the progress of the fire attack. The interior drones send back data on oxygen, heat flux, air pressures, and temperature.
Back in 2018 Underwriters Laboratory (UL) conducted similar, vital research, but it took weeks for it to get these critical data. It was controversial for some firefighters, but the first time learning anything is a rough course. The facts uncovered destroyed some urban myths we used to perpetuate in our training. We taught what we saw on the fireground and made assumptions from conditions in our immediate area. It turns out that, for residential fires, we had to change a lot of what we were teaching.
The interior drone will hover over the nozzleman’s head and send back data, even on water flow and the direction from the nozzle. From these data, I can see if we have water on the fire and if we are “winning” or “losing.” My dad thought the UL data was good; now, I get it in real time at every fire at my command post in the head’s-up commanders display. The drone takes air samples that we send to the lab for analysis to determine which members were exposed to during the fire. FRANC has allowed us to predict a cancer diagnosis well into a firefighter’s career, although it is only with an accuracy rate of about 85 percent.
My dad told me a story about talking to Frank Brannigan at FDIC International 2000. Dad asked him how we should deal with the “new” hazard of truss construction that was killing firefighters in the 1990s and the turn of the century. Brannigan responded abruptly to dad, saying that we should not be surprised by construction weaknesses: “Did the building just land from Mars and catch fire?” Brannigan’s point was that we were not doing our prefire inspections. FRANC has fixed this for us.
As a kid, the thermal imaging camera was one of the coolest things I recall seeing at the firehouse. It was very heavy; I recall trying to hold it up with two hands. As a teenager, I hoped it would act like an x-ray camera, but that of course it never worked that way.
And now here we are in 2034, and the house fire problem still exists. After more than 8,000 Americans died in 1,560 fatal house fires during the drought of 2023, Congress almost passed a nationwide mandatory sprinkler code for residences. However, it somehow got blocked…again! Dad’s contemporaries were fighting for it back then as well. Some things never change.
Autonomous air ambulances have replaced the old helicopter-type vehicles with crews that we used to use for critical patients. The newest model looks like a cross between a hover craft and a flying saucer. They look cool, sleek, and ominous, but they are a real lifesaver. One push of a button on my command board and someone is immediately dispatched to my scene. Often, the dispatcher would send an air ambulance to stand by at a 1,000-foot hover close to the scene if the call sounds bad. When we need it for a critical patient, it is on scene in about 20 seconds. This minimizes the time we need to get the patient to the hospital for definitive care. Once our medics load the patient and hook up the life support, one push of the launch button sends the air ambulance to the 10th floor of our city hospital. Bay doors open on the side of the hospital and the rig lands inside next to the trauma/burn suite. The clamshell doors open on the rig, and the stretcher rolls down the ramp, delivering the patient to a level-one trauma care room. This system is an innovation from the continuing global war on terrorism.
The hospital receiving area is like the bay doors on the back of the USS Enterprise (where they launched the shuttle craft in Star Trek). Dad has some pictures from Grand Pop’s time at Guadalcanal with four marines carrying a casualty on a stretcher. Battlefield or house fire, the autonomous air ambulance is saving countless lives.
Recently, my dad’s friend Jim died. Dad loved to call him by his nickname: Ring Around the Collar. After a fire, Jim would pull his hood down around his neck, causing a dark ring to show. Dad’s generation had a terrible incidence of all kinds of cancers; dad was not exception—it’s what finally killed him. Ring Around the Collar also died from cancer, which started around his neck. All United States Fire Departments now have electro-static decon units through which members walk after a fire; this removes 99.44 percent of all contaminates in the smoke and soot. I believe we are now cleaner after the fire than before! Cancer rates have dropped to the same level as cardiac deaths, and retirees are living to unprecedented age levels.
Today’s fire service has a new set of problems. From electronics devices, cars, phones, bicycles, lawn mowers, everything has batteries, which today causes many fires All cars are either electric, compressed natural gas, or fuel cells, and we are just learning how to handle these safely. Recently near me, an engine company in a neighboring rural volunteer department was wiped out when a storage cylinder from a fuel cell exploded. Solar panel fires are everywhere and, just like house fires, we are having a hard time understanding them. However, FDIC International is still a huge help!
Of course, this article is pure conjecture. It was stimulated by a conversation I had with Chief Pete Van Dorpe at FDIC International 2018. Chief Van Dorpe is a visionary. He said to me during the conversation the following “Imagine if you went to a cardiologist, and he used an old glass syringe to draw blood, and his degree on the wall said he was trained by his father who himself was a cardiologist and trained in the traditional methods. Would you stay in that office if you had a serious heart condition?” This conversation made me think of what the future of the American fire service will be like when my son cleans out my office.
Jerry Knapp is a 40-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He has a degree in fire protection and is the chief of the Rockland County Hazmat Team and a battalion chief and a member of the Rockland County Hazmat Task Force. He is the author of the Fire Attack chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II and of numerous articles for Fire Engineering. He is on the technical panel for the latest UL study on fire attack at house fires and recently retired from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, as the plans officer, Directorate of Emergency Services.