More Mything Links

More Mything Links



FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN began his fire service career as a naval firefighting officer in World War II. He is best known now for his seminars and publications in the field of firefighter safety and for his book BUILDING CONSTRUCTION FOR THE FIRE SERVICE, second edition, published by the National Fire Protection Association.

John F. Kennedy once said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

We continue the discussion of myths (see “The Mything Link in Fire Protection,” June 1986, for the first article). Myths are believed by the public, the fire forces, or both. They defeat sound fire protection.


The United States General Services Administration recently announced that it would no longer rent unsprinklered buildings that are over five stories high. This perpetuates the myth that the life hazard in a building is directly related to its height.

This myth originated after the famous “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire” that occurred in a New York City high-rise sweatshop in 1911. This fire lead to the deaths of 146 girls. The hue and cry was raised that “they were beyond the reach of ladders.”

A law was then passed that stated: “Factories more than six stories in height (beyond the reach of ladders) must be sprinklered.” Forty-seven years later, in the same area of New York City, 24 workers died in a five-story factory building. The law was then changed to cover all factories.

Large life losses have also occurred in low-rise buildings. The Coconut Grove Night Club, the Circus fire at Hartford, and the Beverly Hills Supper Club are just a few that quickly come to mind.

The key factor in life safety is not the height of the building, but “time to safety” — how long it takes a person to get beyond the grasp of the products of combustion. Human beings are fragile, and this time is very short—much shorter than most people think.

We would not have long, deadend corridors in hotels if code writers had been compelled to make their way down a hallway that is filled with super-heated, black, choking smoke. Few code writers have ever seen a fire from the inside.

Many high-rise buildings are literally deathtraps, but do not be lulled into reversing this statement. Do not believe that low-rise buildings are therefore inherently safer. Experience proves otherwise.


Flashover generally means the point at which everything in the room is burning. The generally accepted concept that 15 minutes elapses between ignition and flashover may have been true many years ago when fuels were not that potent, but it no longer applies today.

A correlary of this myth is that there is plenty of time for people to play games with a fire. There isn’t. We must teach them to get out and stay out. The graphic television films of the fire in the soccer stadium in Bradford, England, showed that the fans were almost totally unaware of the terrible danger of the fire they were watching casually, until it was too late.

In 1980, the National Bureau of Standards published a report called “Fires in Residential Basement Recreation Rooms.” Researchers like their reports to have precise titles, but in this case the title caused the report to go unnoticed. The rooms that the researchers used were not just basement recreation rooms, but could well have been living rooms, or office reception areas, or hotel rooms. A newspaper was spread on a couch and the fire was started with a match. The accompanying picture in the report shows the fire out the door in 3 minutes and 55 seconds in a typical test in the series.

[Incidentally, the tests showed that the standard time temperature curve that is used in rating fire resistiveness of assemblies is much too low. A new, more realistic time temperature curve—more reflective to the fire load found in today’s buildings—would be extremely costly to industries that make generous political contributions. Not too long after publication of these tests, the move to abolish the fire research function at the National Bureau of Standards started. Every fire department should request a copy of NBSIR 80-2120 before it is too late. Write: Fire Research, National Bureau of Standards, Washington, DC 20410.]

In 1984, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) made the movie and videotape “Fire, Countdown to Disaster.” In this film, a fire is started in a chair in a typical bedroom. The test room flashes over in 2 minutes. A few seconds later a violent backdraft, which must be seen to be believed, occurs.

In 1986, the NFPA made the movie and videotape “Firepower.” A cigarette in a wastebasket ignites a couch in a typical living room. Flashover occurs in 3 minutes and 41 seconds. These two 17-minute films are among the “best-ever” audio-visual aids for both public education and training firefighters.

We must use these films to let the public know that there is no time to play firefighter, or to save the family jewels or cat, but only to GET OUT and STAY OUT. The film “Countdown to Disaster” opens with a favorite argument of mine. This is that the public is “mytheducated” by movies and television programs that show the hero or heroine doing the impossible in smoke-free, gas-fed, Hollywood fires.

These NFPA films should also be shown in arson training courses. Investigators developing arson cases should be wary of making a casual connection between rapid growth of the fire and arson, without other substantiating facts.


The high-rise hose packs of most fire departments contain 1′ 2-inch or 1’4-inch hose. This size is adequate most of the time, and, in today’s manpower situation, it’ is about all that the typical engine company can handle. However, there are fires where we must use heavier streams and long stretches. It is necessary to use master stream appliances on the fire floor in some high-rise office fires.

Every unit should have one or more bundled lengths of 2′ :-inch hose on the apparatus to be instantly available when the situation warrants it. One fire department found it needed larger hose on a high-rise hotel fire. The men had to pull hose from the apparatus hose bed and roll it—an unnecessary delay.

In another case, people were trapped by fire fed by the wood paneling of a typical high-class restaurant found on an upper floor of a high-rise office building. Using only small lines, the fire department could not beat back the fire and reach the victims. Finally, they jumped to their death.


In early days, fire departments assumed responsibility for discovering fires. They maintained watchmen in towers to spot fires and give the alarm. Today, we assume that citizens will discover fires and give the alarm. There are many reasons why this is often a fallacy (see “Delaved Alarms,” FIRE ENGINEERING, October 1984).

The most inexpensive action a fire department can take to reduce the fire loss is to conduct a steady campaign to convince the public to report all SUSPECTED and actual fires immediately. Too many people are afraid that they will be accused of sending a false alarm. We must destroy that myth by positive action.

Too many people assume that someone else has transmitted the alarm. Too many people believe that someone in authority must send the alarm. Too many people have never been convinced that they should “send the alarm first, then use extinguishers.” Only a few people actually discover a fire, so a wide net must be cast to catch a few fish.

It is a difficult, but occasionally rewarding, task. At one serious fire, an extremely attractive female apartment manager planted a flying kiss on a fire inspector when he arrived on the scene. Only a week earlier, after a previous fire on the premises, he had lectured her sternly about the policy of “investigating before reporting.” In this case she reported immediately. Had she delayed, a disaster would have resulted.

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