Fire Commentary: European Firefighting Operations

By George H. Potter

The fundamental difference between North American and European firefighting strategies and operations can be found in the principal difference in building construction on the two continents. In the United States and Canada, individual residences, small businesses, and downtown small-to medium-sized municipality buildings tend to have wood-frame siding and roofing. Similar occupancies in nearly all European countries (except much of Scandinavia and some specific regions of other countries) are concrete structured, with brick or concrete block sidings and concrete, tile, or slate roofing. The timeless philosophy applies again: Wood buildings burn easily; concrete buildings tend not to burn.

Nonetheless, larger structures on both continents are indeed quite similar. Large commercial malls and warehouses, for example, generally have steel structures (protected or unprotected, depending on local building codes) with sheet-metal sandwich sidings and roofs. High-rises have steel or concrete structures, lightweight floors, and–most recently–glass-paneled facades from street to tops. These and many, many other similar buildings burn almost identically wherever they are located, whether in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Seattle, Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Stockholm, or Madrid.

There is considerable variation from country to country in how fire situations are anticipated and planned for, how the response structures are stipulated, and how fire scene operations are conducted. The general strategical concept of small fire, small water, big fire, big water can be applied pretty much all over the United States and much of Canada (Southern Canada, at any rate), even to the point of certainty–surround and drown the fire. However, strategies and tactics can differ substantially in Europe, where municipalities both large and small can be up to 2,000 years old and have marginal water supplies and narrow streets in addition to centuries-old buildings. Again, the absolute basic method of applying enough wet stuff on the hot stuff is common wherever firefighting is performed. The fundamental differences, however, deal with who does the job, how many people are involved, and what resources are used.

The chief of the London (UK) fire brigade in the latter part of the 19th Century, Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, had a basic strategy: “In order to extinguish a fire properly, it is necessary for the firemen to approach it for the purpose of putting the water wherever it is most wanted. Any attempt to extinguish a fire from a distance almost invariably proves a failure.” This strategy still holds true some 130 years later. On both continents (in fact, almost the world over), firefighters respond with motorized apparatus, stretch varied diameter hoselines, climb ladders, search for and rescue victims, find the fires, attack, contain, and control and extinguish them. Interior structural firefighting is generally the same anywhere.

Some 50 years ago when I got started in this “business,” we used 1½-inch rubber-lined fabric jacket hoses fitted with the now classic “mystery nozzle” (one of history’s greatest inventions), wore canvas turnouts with hip boots, used demand SCBA (if we had any), and went jolly away into burning buildings. We had no incident command system in those days, but we did have sound, basic firefighting training that helped to keep our rear ends from getting roasted. Now, accountability; two-in/two-out; high-tech bunker gear; digital SCBA; GPS; and smooth synthetic lined 1 3/4-, 2-, and 2½-inch attack lines fitted with multiple-flow automatic nozzles are the tools of the trade. These tools are similar all around the globe.

Now, let’s look at a few examples of how fires are handled and by whom in different geographic scenarios. Three 1,500-gpm pumpers, a 100-foot aerial, 20 or more firefighters, and additional officers will respond to a typical residential fire in Queens, New York,. All will arrive within some five minutes of having been called. If needed, probably some 30 or more firefighters on at least four engines and two aerials, senior officers, and emergency medical support, can be mobilized in around 15 minutes.

In Los Angeles, some 380 firefighters and officers were needed at the First Interstate Bank fire in 1988. This is an outstanding example of fire response and resource reinforcement, as was the 1990 fire on the 51st floor of the Empire State Building in New York City. Case histories over the years demonstrate the capabilities of U.S. fire departments to mobilize resorces when and where they are needed.

In most European countries, fire service staffing is similar to that in the United States, but operational assignments differ greatly. In some parts of the United Status, engines are staffed with four firefighters; others have three (or sometimes even fewer) firefighters on an engine. Few fire departments have five firefighters on a ladder truck; most of the time, it is four or fewer (some departments even have a single firefighter on the ladder truck). Each unit has defined duties. Engine personnel are essentially “hose handlers,” whose primary job is to put the wet stuff on the hot stuff. Aerial people generally perform entry, search and rescue, ventilation, and extinguishment. A firefighter in a medium-to-large municipality can spend the majority of his career essentially performing the same duties. In Europe, a firefighter may be assigned to an engine on one shift, an aerial the next, and a rescue unit the one after that. The phrase “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” is partially true, but only partially. All European firefighters receive basic and advanced training in fire extinguishment. In recent years, extensive training in interior firefighting based on the Swedish concepts of flashover intervention has become one of the major tactics employed nearly everywhere.

The configuration of pumper apparatus throughout Europe is quite similar: commercial or a reduced number of purpose-built chassis fitted with rear-mounted single- or multi-stage pumps, six- to eight- seat extended cabs, and roller shutter closed bodywork around a 600- to a 1,000-gallon tank. Pump outputs range from 400 gpm (majority) through about 500 gpm and occasionally up to 800 gpm. Most working pressures run from 50 psi to 250 psi (low pressure) and up to 600 psi in high-pressure mode. In the side compartments are carried 2 3/4-, 1 3/4- and one-inch ID hoses in 50- to 60-foot rolls along with various nozzles (most often combined stream types), hydraulic rescue tools, ventilators, foam generators and concentrate, portable fire pumps and electric generators, ground ladders, rope rescue equipment, hand lights, SCBA, and just about every other piece of equipment one may need on the fireground or an accident scene.

Aerial work is not as extensive as in the United States. European aerials carry only an hydraulic extension ladder (normally 100 feet, although the available range is between 50 feet up to just over 150 feet), or articulated/extension devices sometimes called “snorkels,” generally between 50 and 155 feet, although several 190 feet-plus units have been delivered to various countries and at least six 300-feet units are under construction in Finland. Staffing can be anywhere from one (driver/operator alone onboard) up to five. These vehicles do not carry ground ladders, although they may carry ventilators and high-angle rescue equipment. Their duties usually include search and rescue and extinguishment because of their alternating crew assignments.

Probably the most unique fire department in Europe is in the Mediterranean resort city of Benidorm, Spain, where the population in mid-vacation season reaches nearly 1 million people of diverse nationalities, all shoehorned into the world’s highest concentration of high-rises. The city is protected by an average of nine firefighters responding from one station (thank the Lord for fire-resistant concrete construction).

Although most European fire services are staffed by civil service employees under the command of technically trained officers, the Paris and Marseille departments in France are military units. The more than 7,000 Paris firefighters are French army soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers (specific career specialization) led by a brigader general. The Marseille personnel are Navy sailors commanded by an admiral. The remainder of the country’s firefighters are civil servants in the major cities or volunteers in smaller towns. The French are considered Europe’s leaders in wildland fire combat.

Many European fire services in small- to mid-sized municipalities and rural areas are either combination or all-volunteer departments. Some 98 percent of Germany’s 900,000 firefighters are volunteers (one firefighter for every 70 Germans–the closest ratio in the world), while the vast majority of Portugal’s some 45,000 firefighters are also volunteers. In Great Britain, Scotland, and Ireland, the major cities are protected by civil service paid staff fire departments, whereas paid on-call or fully volunteer brigades cover the more rural regions. In Denmark, a private enterprise called FALK operates the national fire and rescue service; all the firefighters and officers are employees. In Spain, about 90 percent of the country’s 22,000 firefighters are civil servants or employees of purpose-conceived consortiums plus some 1,500 volunteers.

The use of combination stream nozzles became pretty much universal in Europe in the latter half of the 20th century, except in Germany, where the Marauder/Fire Chief/TFT, etc. variable stream/flow concept was only officially approved for use by their fire services in the year 2003. Many European manufacturers produce nozzles similar to the U.S. types, and at least one has developed a variable flow/stream model for 1 3/4-inch hose with a maximum flow of 850 liters per minute (220 gpm).

One of the most prominent aspects of firefighter training in Europe is operating in confined space fires where the potential for a flashover may be imminent. This training philosophy had its beginning in Sweden in the early 1990s after several Swedish firefighters died in flashover situations. The Swedish national fire school began experiments using steel shipping containers, generally the 40-foot-long by 10-feet-wide by 10-feet-high model, modified over a period of trial and, at times, error until the ideal configuration evolved with a specific burn space, smoke chimney, multiple access/egress points, and other features. At the same time, the Swedes developed procedures for the application of optimum quantities of water in specific stream patterns during calculated times according to the volume of space and fire. Today, this training procedure is being used successfully in Great Britain, Germany, France and Spain, among other nations.

Curiously, French firefighters were prohibited from using interior live-fire training until several young Paris brigade firefighters lost their lives in a tragic fire some five years ago. The Interior Minister at the time (and now Prime Minister) Nicholas Sarkozy immediately ordered that all career firefighters receive confined space fire and flashover training with periodic recycling.

In summary, the basic concepts of extinguishing fires follow pretty much the same sequence anywhere in the world: respond, deploy, attack, contain, control, and extinguish. The process requires highly motivated, well-trained, and well-equipped people to get the assorted jobs done quickly and safely with the intent to reduce to a minimum the loss of lives and property.

George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 45 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County, Maryland, volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as firefighter, apparatus driver/operator, and crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain certified as a fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish firefighters’ association ASELF.

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