By George Healy
There has been much question and healthy debate regarding the partnership of the fire service with the fire protection engineering community. Of course, educated debate and discussion are good things. We all desire better training and safe operations on the fireground. The members of the fire service who have been involved with this partnership incorporate into the fire research their extensive and diverse experience. We involved in this endeavor are dedicated to firefighter safety and education. In this article, I present my perspective of how this research evolved and how the base of knowledge has grown.
In the early part of 2006, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) experienced several challenging fires in high-rise fireproof residential buildings. These fires were similar to several incidents that in the past had claimed the lives of firefighters and civilians. One fire in particular nearly claimed the lives of several firefighters and sent multiple members to the hospital with burns. This fire occurred in a building that had been the scene of a line-of-duty death of an FDNY member 10 years earlier. With this near-miss incident, interest was renewed in developing tactics that would better protect firefighters and civilians. In this effort, the FDNY requested the assistance of the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST). Dan Madrzykowski and Steve Kerber, fire protection engineers in NIST’s Firefighting Technology Group answered the request.
Fortunately, NIST was in the process of planning a series of tests for the spring of 2006 with the Toledo (OH) Fire Department. The focus of these tests was using positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) fans for stairwell pressurization and smoke control in high-rise buildings. The concept involved having a fire department deploy portable fans to pressurize stairwells in high-rise buildings to limit smoke contamination of the stairwells and upper floors. A question that lingered was whether the increased pressures from actual fires decrease the effectiveness of these portable fans. The Toledo tests showed the PPF to be effective. A series of live burns in a 17-story high-rise building in Chicago in Dec. 2006 validated the results of the Toledo NIST tests results.
The fire service now began to question the fire protection engineers about studying other tactics that could provide an additional level of safety for firefighters and make the operation more efficient. The FDNY had been experiencing negative effects in high-rise buildings when wind was a viable factor. It sought a better understanding of how wind affects fire dynamics in high-rise buildings. The FDNY was able to secure a high-rise on Governors Island in which to test alternate strategies to combat wind-driven fires. With the support of NIST and funding through the Department of Homeland Security and the Assistance to Firefighters grants, testing was conducted in Feb. 2008. New tools such as wind-control devices, high-rise nozzles, and PPV fans were tested for their usefulness and ability to control these fires. This testing yielded a wealth of knowledge, and the FDNY changed its tactics, trained and equipped line units, and is better prepared today to fight fires in high-rise buildings. In the past several years, the FDNY has used these tactics in at least 20 serious high-rise fires with very positive results and no serious firefighter injuries.
The fire service had gained a valuable ally in its efforts to increase firefighter safety. With this newly developed partnership, FDNY began to realize that there were many questions that needed to be answered; the statement, “The more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know” started to ring true. The ground swell of interest in this testing was quickly growing. Many of us became more focused on the testing and validation of our tactics. Many more members of the fire service got involved, which has only enhanced the work being undertaken. Also, with more members having first-hand involvement with the testing, the correct message regarding the testing is spreading through the fire service.
This history is just the tip of the iceberg. The testing continues today with NIST and Underwriters Laboratories’ Firefighter Safety Research Institute. The importance of the partnership between the fire service and the fire protection engineers cannot be overstated. The fire service today has knowledge of fire dynamics as never before. Testing allows the fire service to validate tactics and make changes to better ensure safety. Changes in the fire service today are not based purely on personal observation and judgment; they are based on the testing that proves and validates their effectiveness. Since the start of this partnership, the FDNY can show a reduction of traumatic injuries to its members from changing fire conditions. The fireground is constantly evolving with changes to building construction and fuels that fill our homes. The fire service will continue to benefit from the knowledge of how these changes influence the fire and the changes in tactics and resources needed to combat the modern fire.
The fire service community owes a debt of gratitude to the dedication and support of fire protection engineers like Madrzykowski and Kerber. The fire service continues to request information that will help us to better understand fire and the means to control it. In the future, additional testing will further enhance our safety and effectiveness.
George Healy, a 20-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), is assigned to Battalion 51 in the 13th Division. Previously, he served as a firefighter on Ladder 3 and Rescue 1, a lieutenant on Ladder 174, and a captain of Division 14 and Special Operations Command. He was operations section chief at the Governor’s Island burn testing of alternate strategies for combating wind-driven fires. He is a fire service instructor I, an instructor of the Battalion Chief Command course, and the Deputy Chief Development course for the FDNY Bureau of Training.