Roundtable: Ventilation Science and Firefighting

By John “Skip” Coleman

New things come and go in the fire service. Some new devices prove themselves and remain in use while others are tried and discarded. Technology faces a daunting challenge with regard to the “that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it” fire service mentality.

I remember going to the drill school in the late 1970s and early 1980s to watch a demonstrations of positive pressure fans. I watched as strings of toilet paper were taped to windows and doorways to “scientifically” show the benefits of using of positive pressure ventilation (PPV). Those fans sure could make that toilet paper wave in the wind! For years, such demonstrations, along with trial and error, formed the foundation of PPV use.

Prior to retiring, I had the pleasure of working with members of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). They came to Toledo to conduct air movement tests in a vacant high-rise building and also to conduct large-area ventilation tests in a vacant high school.

As a new firefighter, I was taught that we went into immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmospheres and located (by feeling) victims, removing them to non-IDLH areas. My thought was that in large areas, such as a school gymnasium, wouldn’t PPV remove the IDLH atmosphere faster than a fire crew could remove victims, blindly searching?

On another occasion, I traveled to Chicago again to work with NIST along with members of the Chicago Fire Department and FDNY on wind-driven fires. More recently, NIST visited Oklahoma City and conducted tests with PPV in single-family dwellings.

NIST has shed new, scientifically tested light on PPV. Using the latest technology, NIST has debunked old “theories” and misconceptions and proven the pros and cons of PPV.

This month’s question is: Are you aware to the NIST studies concerning ventilation, and have those results altered or changed your current tactics as it relates to ventilation?

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Skip Coleman: Firefighting RoundtableJohn “Skip” Coleman retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008) and Searching Smarter (Fire Engineering 2011) and 2011 recipient of the FDIC Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement

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