By Christopher M. Campion Jr.
As firefighters, we have many sayings. One that has always resonated with me, whose truthfulness has been validated for me with each passing year of experience, is that firefighting is 100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress. For me , there is no stronger statement that succinctly captures the image of the evolution of firefighting. I remember that the statement sounded almost comical to me when I first heard it. Traditions are great; they’re our history. Why change something if you don’t have to? If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
The problem with holding on to these beliefs is that it immediately limits a person or an agency. We see the world through our own lenses, which filter the world around us through our biases, based on our experience and knowledge. In many departments, the experiences may be limited. Knowledge is maximized only by the limited experiences of a department’s local culture. To compensate for the limited local experience, many of us choose to learn from others. Today’s technological advancements have made this a much easier task. Through Internet connectivity, we have an abundance of articles, videos, news reports, and online training at our fingertips. What not too long ago would have been published in a magazine and read at the firehouse or conducted through outreach training and guest speakers when available, is now readily accessible to anyone with Internet access.
Technology has permeated our lives in many positive ways. We have conveniences that not too long ago would have been beyond the wildest imagination. Life happens at lightning speed; Information and data are transferred globally in the blink of an eye. Critical infrastructure and essential services have embraced these technologies to function more effectively. Advancements in engineering and design allow for greater application of technologies in facilities and built structures. The built environment has changed drastically over the past few decades. We are now building structures faster and cheaper than ever. These structures are packed with higher risks in life safety and property protection. While we have witnessed the evolution in construction methods and materials, the quantity and definition of critical infrastructure facilities have changed to include a greater number of buildings.
Photos by author 1
Early in my career, I attended a fire officer level response class at our local fire academy. The course focused on addressing the unique fire risks associated with high-rise fires. I vividly recollect the instructor showing a slide of a fan control panel that was part of the fire alarm system for a high-rise office tower. I instantly recognized the image as a system with which I had personally been involved. I not only programmed the sequence of operations, but I was involved also with the smoke testing done to verify the system’s operation. The instructor showed the image on his Power Point, which had switches, buttons, and LEDs labeled for a variety of air flow dampers, purge fans, and supply fans. He said that when he responded to the facility, the first thing he was turn off all of those switches and shut off the fans. I was stunned. The facility had spent millions of dollars on an advanced smoke-control system that could detect smoke in a specific area or compartment of the facility and isolate the air flow in the area, exhausting from the area of origin and providing a positive pressure to surrounding areas to aid in containment. The system also had a built-in safety mechanism to detect smoke movement in the supply fans and shut them down if they began moving smoke. This included maintaining a positive pressure in the stairwells to keep smoke from entering and keeping the exit pathway clear. To shut down this system, in my eyes, was like going to the zoo and opening all the cages and letting the lions run free to get a better look at the animals. It just didn’t make sense.
What I Didn’t Know But Thought I Knew
I entered the fire service in 1997, roughly 20 years ago. Some of my fondest memories come from my earlier years before I rose through the ranks and gradually transitioned from a wet-behind-the-ear rookie to a chief level officer. Looking back brings a smile to my face when I think of all those things I didn’t know but was sure I knew. I have been fortunate to have been rewarded with diverse experiences during my career. We have all have been taught that fire safety is a multipronged approach comprised of education, enforcement, prevention–and when all else fails, suppression. My journey has brought me into most of the arenas from manual suppression to education and enforcement, as well as facility fire and life systems design and installation.
Over the past few decades, the structures and facilities to which we respond have changed. If you are a firefighter or an officer, there is no doubt that you have studied building construction and learned of the risks of certain types of materials and methods when exposed to fire. You’ve probably already learned about fuel loads and the changes over the past few decades based on materials and components of furnishings and finishes. Electronics and the wiring and equipment to support that function add to the fire load. When you expand those risks and consider that the general application of the methods and products used to create more economical single-family homes are being applied to larger structures, you hopefully begin to appreciate the need for preplanning responses and evacuations to allow for a more efficient and effective response. Not only have the consumed items related to these greater hazards increased, but the retailing, storing, and manufacturing of a large range of unique hazard items have also increased. They are also more widespread through communities than in the past.
Departments should be preplanning responses to special facilities such as industrial and high-occupancy buildings. Many of the response plans I have seen are very well done and contain a good amount of site specific details for a location. The same technology we use in our everyday life has allowed for the collection of facility data in one neat package that is available at our fingertips during an emergency response. Response plans typically follow a common collection of information–how to respond to the facility, where apparatus should be positioned, building construction, water supply options, known hazards, utility information, evacuation routes, access limitations, and key contact information for
personnel and contractors associated with the site. Most of the time, these plans are detailed and contain floor plans; some (ideally) are updated regularly to keep them useful and relevant.
Often overlooked during preplanning are the facility’s life safety systems and design features. Most firefighters I know are aware of the existence of fire sprinklers and fire alarm systems and may even be familiar with them, but very few understand the thoughts behind the design and engineering involved in protecting today’s facilities.
Fire protection engineers have provided solutions for the wide variety of hazards in modern complex facilities. There is a greater demand for these professionals. As code and standards officials began to accept performance-based design principles–that is, to design application-specific solutions to manage hazards–specialized engineers with a comprehensive understanding of fire science work to apply engineering principles to structural survivability and limiting the spread of fire and products of combustion to increase life safety and protect critical assets.
Fire Protection Systems
Fire protection engineer solutions to the hazards posed by modern complex buildings fall into two main categories–passive fire protection and active fire protection systems. Passive fire protection systems are designed and installed as part of the facility construction process. These features function simply by being present in the building; they do not need external action to perform their function. They are implemented into a facility to help slow the spread of fire and the products of combustion, limit the impact of the fire on structural elements, and contain the fire to an area of origin. Active fire protection systems necessitate that a function or task manually or automatically be performed to trigger their response in response to detecting signatures associated with fire.
In manual fire suppression activities, passive fire protection systems help by limiting the spread of fire, maintaining the integrity of exit pathways, and protecting the structural elements, allowing time for evacuation and suppression of a fire. These systems are installed to increase survivability by slowing the spread of fire and the products of combustion and protecting critical facility components. There is little firefighters can do to interact with these systems during a fire. Fire inspectors, however, can watch for compromises to these systems during annual inspections. Holes through levels or protected exit pathways caused by contractors, for instance, not only compromise life safety during an evacuation but they also can cause our crews to be exposed to risks that otherwise would not exist if the system were not compromised.
An active fire protection system is the greatest asset we can interface with during an emergency response, thus, the department should thoroughly preplan it before an event occurs. Active fire protection systems are essentially comprised of three main components: the detection and notification systems, control functions, and automatic or manual suppression systems. All of these systems require that an event occur and an activation trigger a response. Firefighters know about fire alarms, since they comprise a large number of responses for most departments. We spend much time with fire prevention ensuring that proper testing and maintenance are done simply to reduce false alarms. Many departments proactively understand the importance of the functioning of these systems, but many are not familiar with the variety of systems that exist to protect facilities and how they can aid a department in its response.
Several cities embrace the need for personnel on site who know the critical systems and how they operate on a basic level. Some jurisdictions require that a safety director dedicated to testing and certification and knowledgeable in operating and locations of these critical systems be on site during normal operations to assist in responses and evacuations. It is reasonable to think that firefighters cannot be expected to know how to use all of the various types of equipment available, especially when they can be applied in a custom form to function at a particular location. As you learn more of what these systems can do, you should begin to understand the necessity of preplanning facilities by identifying the types of systems installed and how to integrate them into an emergency.
When teaching fire and life safety systems to emergency responders, the course usually begins by asking for a show of hands of how many responders have elevators in their jurisdiction. Typically, a considerable number answer in the affirmative. They then are asked if they know how to use the elevator in fire service mode, called phase II operation. Usually, most respond positively, indicating they know how to use the keys to get between levels. Attendees are also asked if they are aware that under certain conditions a building fire system can automatically and instantaneously shut off power to an elevator car without warning, trapping the occupants and first responders. The result usually is a group of very shocked individuals who have never heard of the concept of elevator shunt trip. I assure you, it is very real.
Whereas codes and standards have required a variety of systems be applied to provide a minimum level of protection, fire protection technology has evolved to provide a higher level of protection for unique hazards that don’t always fit the basic mold. For example, the ability to manage and control a special application with alternate suppression agents provides for greater survivability or the suppressing of a fire that could not be extinguished with water alone. Advancements in computing and networking over the past decade alone have produced facility systems that provide responders with real-time facility intelligence of what is occurring while enabling them to control and interface with these facilities to provide a safer, more effective response to ever-changing threats.
Christopher M. Campion Jr. is the former chief of the Spring Lake (NJ) Fire Department; a fire inspector in Belmar, New Jersey; and the emergency management coordinator for Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey. He has a B.S. degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology from Eastern Kentucky University and is a National Fire Protection Association-certified Fire Protection Specialist. He is the founder and managing partner of Eastern Fire & Safety, LLC, an all fire protection equipment contractor based out of New Jersey. He maintains multiple state contractor licenses and several industry recognized certifications including National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies certifications in fire alarm systems, water-based systems, and special hazard suppression system sub-fields.