(October 2011)

Opt for the safest option; prepare for the what ifs

I commend Deputy Chief (Ret.) William F. Crapo on his very informative letter about Thornton’s Rule (Letters to the Editor, April 2011). I am always happy to read something that is going to help me understand the fire service better. I am sure there are many chiefs, officers, and firefighters who really don’t understand the whole chemistry involved in fire. I am fortunate that I have a daughter who is a chemical engineer major at The Cooper Union in New York City. I believe that firefighting is a science and that we are constantly striving to figure out how best to fight the Red Devil. Articles like this provide another piece of information I can use in figuring out why fires behave as they do.

My daughter Jillian was able to translate for me exactly what all the chemistry means. After she explained it to me in layman’s terms, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head. It was definitely an “aha” moment. Simply stated, methane is a natural element, and styrene is a polymer that is manmade and a very complex chain of molecules. This all makes sense to me now. It seems, according to Crapo, that fires are oxygen dependent and that the polymers, which require more oxygen to oxidize, would create more “dirty smoke” if complete combustion doesn’t occur. This smoke, I believe, is combustible; this is similar to how the oxidation catalyst, the second stage of the catalytic converter, works, where the smoke is recycled and burned again. This may explain a few things.

I am not sure where Crapo got the idea that I was advocating the increase of water flow to meet the increasing heat of combustion. I did mention that as a rule there are certain times when we will stretch a 2½-inch hoseline as opposed to a 1¾-inch hoseline—fires at which we operate in a purely defensive mode or where the size cannot be determined, for example, but not as a rule. I was actually targeting departments that use 1½-inch hose with fog nozzles. Anyway, I will stick to my original idea, but I am willing also to offer a compromise. I do believe fires are getting hotter and that we should be equipped with the best tools we have to combat these fires.

When I came to the Fire Department of New York, I was taught that structural fires are oxygen regulated and outside fires are fuel regulated. My first experience with a fire that was out of the ordinary was a very simple routine trash can fire. The housing development to which we responded used 55-gallon plastic containers for outside refuse. We arrived on the scene of a burning can, nothing out of the ordinary, just some rubbish burning. I was sitting in the front seat of the cab and witnessed in the mirror a tremendous fireball erupt. I jumped out of the cab to see what had happened. Thankfully, the firefighters were not injured; one of the firefighters was holding a 2½-gallon extinguisher in his hand. He told me that when he put the nozzle with his finger over it on the fire, the can erupted into a huge fireball. I thought that maybe some chemical was in the can. What I learned after a lot of experimenting is that the air generated when the nozzle was opened hit the burning fuel, which was plastic, and caused the explosion. I have seen this now numerous times. The last time was at a fire at which I was the operations chief on the fire floor. Lt. Mike Ciampo, Ladder 45, was the officer of the first-due truck; he was explaining to me how the room had erupted into a fireball when the can firefighter used the can.

The above two examples seem to fall in line with Thornton’s Rule. I will now try to explain why although I wholeheartedly agree with the precepts described in Thorton’s Rule, I think there is even more reason to bring the proper hose to every fire. The only time I have ever been in a fire where we pretty much can control the environment is in the flashover can. There, we can regulate the amount of fuel, the air flow, and water flows. It is a great tool for learning fire behavior. I remember working the can many times; we would use regular plywood. The fires were always the same, very predictable. I then remember showing up at the academy one morning and seeing a pile of oriented strand board (OSB). We loaded the can the way we always did, and after the first burn, I was amazed. Normally, I would be able to kneel up close and use the 2½-gallon extinguisher to control the fire. When we used the OSB, it was much hotter, and I had a tough time using the extinguisher to knock down the fire.

Let me use an example from my experience as to why we should be striving to use the proper hose and maybe even offer a compromise. Most of what I write about is firsthand knowledge, usually an event I was at. Sometimes, I will use a story that is secondhand, from a trusted colleague, about a fire I was not at but of a type with which I had a similar experience. When I joined FDNY in 1986, the South Bronx had just undergone a major fire storm. We were still going to a lot of fires, and I learned from the best firefighters who had ever put on a fire helmet.

Let us take, for example, a typical five-story multiple dwelling in the South Bronx. In the years prior to the early 1970s, it was normal for the engine company firefighters to stretch a 2½-inch hose. The firefighters then did not use self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA); many didn’t even wear gloves or proper personal protective equipment. The windows were single pane; the furnishings were cellulous-based natural fibers. The firefighters would stretch the hose to the fire and use the reach of the stream to knock down as much fire as possible and take as much smoke as they could take and then pass off the nozzle to the next guy.

In the ’70s when the fire duty went through the roof, the firefighters switched to 1½-inch hose. The same building was now experiencing numerous fires. The nozzle firefighter and the backup firefighter would wear an SCBA. The building was the same: leaky, drafty, and with single-pane windows that would fail early. Eventually by the time I got to the firehouse, many of the buildings were just vacant with no windows and numerous holes in the roof and floors. We were all wearing SCBA, better coats, and ¾-length boots. The vacant building fires were incredible: We would pull up, and there would be two or three floors of fire. Since there were no windows, sometimes plywood coverings or cement block, there was plenty of air, which meant plenty of fire. The 1½-inch hose was now replaced by 1¾-inch hose with smooth bore nozzles. Firefighters were getting tremendous experience fighting these fires.

In the early ’90s, again there was a major change in the South Bronx. A lot of those buildings were now being renovated. I have seen many buildings go from occupied, to vacant, to renovated, to reoccupied. Also at this time, we were given bunker gear, hoods, positive-pressure SCBA, and hydraulic forcible entry tools. The buildings were now getting fully insulated, double-pane windows, and plenty of modern furnishings. Firefighters were now entering the apartments a lot faster, wearing bunker gear, and going deeper into the apartment, not feeling the surrounding atmosphere. With the plastics now in the apartment, the fires are burning hotter and flashing earlier.

I remember the first experience I had in one of these renovated buildings. We had a fire on the second floor of a five-story building. I recall getting to the front door and being forced to my stomach, with full bunker gear and hood on. There was an incredible amount of heat with no visible fire. The smoke overhead [made me feel as if] I were almost on fire. I called for the hoseline; we extinguished the three rooms of fire. Afterward, I noticed that the synthetic carpet was fused to my bunker pants. So here we have the same building through three different eras—prewar years, war years, and postwar years (today)—with totally different fire conditions and different tools to fight them. The fire service needs to constantly change to adapt to the current conditions.

Regarding the statement that 25 percent of the wall area needs to be opened for ventilation, what about factoring in the wind? The wind will and does create a bellows effect regardless of the size of the opening. I would argue that regardless of the size of the opening, within reason, an average window, for example, with a good wind will create the same effect. I understand Crapo’s concerns about overexerting the members, but at what cost? We basically have only a few choices—1½- or 1¾-inch attack line or the larger 2½-inch hose. Either we are using fog nozzles or smooth bore. My vote is for the safest option for the safety of the members. We need to always be prepared for the “what ifs.”

I have been to fires on the fourth floor of these same buildings with a strong wind blowing into the building and was barely able to get onto the hallway landing. I am not saying that we need to stretch a 2½-inch hose every time—I agree that that would be ludicrous. I will suggest a compromise: How about stretching a 2-inch hose with a one-inch nozzle that can flow about 220 gallons per minute? This may give us the best of both worlds—the speed and mobility that come with 1¾-inch hose and the firepower of a 2½-inch hose.

Daniel P. Sheridan
Battalion Chief
Fire Department of New York

This photo is of a car fire that occurred on July 30, 2011, in which an ax was used as a lever to provide enough access under the hood for the hose nozzle. Firefighters, including my husband Cameron, from the Community Volunteer Fire Department in Houston, Texas, responded. They quickly extinguished the flames, preventing any damage to the surrounding displays. My husband had read about the technique in “Car Fires: Rapid Access to Engine Compartment” by Tom Broderick (Training Notebook, Fire Engineering, June 2011) just a few days before the fire. Thank you.—Lauralee Veitch

“We are lucky” to be able to help

I enjoyed John King’s “Silent Trumpets: When Leadership Fails” (July 2011). The article is a must read for ALL firefighters regardless of rank, and I am giving copies to my fellow members. Regardless of whether we’re paid, on-call, or volunteers, we all strive to serve the public and help those in time of need. King reminds us that we are very lucky to be in the position to help those in a time of need and to be a part of a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. It also reminds me of a talk I had with Chief (Ret.) Lawrence “JR” Geers when I first joined the Zoar Volunteer Fire Department 16 years ago. He said, and I quote, “It is an honor to be the ones called to help people on some of the worst days of their lives, and we should respect their needs, show compassion and respect, and hopefully try to leave them better off than before our arrival.”

Thanks for reminding us of the responsibilities we have to each other, the public, and those who came before us.

David J. Schlosser
Public Information Officer/Firefighter
Zoar (OH) Volunteer Fire Department

Editor’s note: In “Wind-Driven Structure Fires: Adjusting Tactics and Strategies,” May 2011, page 90, the first sentence of the last paragraph should read: “Regarding battle or war, Donald Rumsfeld stated, ‘You go to war with the army you have.’ “

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