Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Enemy Environment

Spend just the minimum of hours teaching building construction to a classroom of new firefighter recruits and you'll most likely state the words: The building is your enemy; know your enemy. The late Francis L. Brannigan, coined the phrase in his 1971 book “Building Construction for the Fire Service” and a devote following of fire instructors have echoed it for decades.

Near the start of the next class you instruct on structural fire attack ask your students; “How many of you are hunters?” With luck, most of the hands will go up. Bless your lucky stars as delivering your message just got easier. While the building is still the enemy, the modern firefight takes this enemy territory one step further. The modern firefight is about the prey and the predator. The prey is you and your firefighters, the predator is the fire.

Survival of the prey depends on the ability of the prey to expertly respond to changes in its environment. The keener the prey the sooner it learns and responds to the changes. Ideally, the prey learns to adapt before the predator takes advantage of the changes to help confuse, trap, and kill, the prey.

Fight and flight are survival skills inherited by the best of prey. Fight the fire at its source, but know when its time for flight. Flight is a valuable life saving skill practiced by the most skilled of prey. Flight is never quitting or giving up. It’s a viable conclusion based on a split second summary of knowledge, training, and experience. It is an instinctive reaction that launches a survival based action. Reacting with instinctive flight avoids major injury or death; ignore the warning and fall prey to the expert predator.

Nature does not reason or rationalize, nor can it apply research. The ability to take research and apply reason and rational decision making to its conclusions is an ability unique to humans. As firefighters, company officers, administrators, and instructors, we need to take today's research and apply it not only in the classroom, but to our fire ground command, tactics, and strategies as well.

Study and learn to instantly recognize and react to the signs and signals of the modern fire environment. Beat the predator at the game by making inspection holes above and below immediately upon entry to any building that could harbor lightweight construction (LWC). Look at more than just the surface temperatures noted on your thermal imaging camera; learn to recognize the thermal signatures and clues of LWC and probable compromise of structural materials that will lead to global collapse of the structure.

And most importantly, know your lead out time complete with a command 360 of the building. Make it the first due engines immediate priority to get sufficient suppression water between any possible victims and the fire. Suffice to say “get water on the fire”. Beat the predator in the new enemy environment, and live to fight another day.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Science to the Streets and a Message to Moms

Science to the Streets and a Message for Moms

Fire prevention week has come and gone. We've changed our clocks back for daylight savings time, and we all completed our fire safe duty and changed the batteries in our smoke detectors. Before long we'll be baking holiday goodies, burning yuletide candles, and decorating with mistletoe and fir boughs. Every night we'll snuggle in with little concern of how or if our home may burn.

As a mother it may be hard to realize that your home, especially if it was built within the last decade and is filled with modern furnishing, is built to burn. Your home is not only built to burn, it is built to burn extremely fast, and extremely hot, and in a ferocious manner that within minutes can consume everything within it; you, your family, your belongings.

Another fact to realize, is that no matter how hard we try, firefighters can not keep you safe; especially from a fire in a home built with modern materials. Safe is the total elimination of risk. Firefighters and other first responders can only work to keep you safer. We need your help, especially in rural areas or areas where fire response services have been eliminated or sharply curtailed. I ask that you take a few minutes to read what follows, take the information seriously, help spread the word, and please follow the recommendations to help keep your home and neighborhood as fire safe as possible.

As a volunteer firefighter in a small town in Western Maine, and a Fire Services Instructor for the Maine Community College System, one of my favorite classes to teach is fire behavior, and particularly fire behavior in modern construction. Modern building materials and construction methods have removed the heavier wood and other sturdier mechanisms that comprised homes built decades ago. In addition, modern insulation and furnishings, made primarily from plastic and petroleum based materials, burn with a significantly higher heat release rate. When these two facts of the modern home meet fire, the result is an immediate and violent growth of fire. This type of fire results in a consuming and complete loss of the home and everything within it. 
In many ways, the threat of fire and its consuming consequences for modern homes has been a tough one for the fire service to deal with. It has only been in the last few years that research, sponsored in part by funding from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, has scientifically and visually proven what firefighters have suspected for years: fires in homes built with modern lightweight construction and filled with modern furnishing made of plastics and foams, burn with a significantly higher heat release rate than homes built and furnished with legacy materials such as heavier wood, ceramics, glass, wools, and cottons.

Research that shows firefighters the extreme rate at which fire burns in modern homes is often termed “bringing science to the streets”. The fire service is taking this research to our firefighters through conferences, workshops, and trainings. We are learning to adjust our tactics and strategies to fight fire in modern homes with greater safety and efficiency. Our goal is not only to keep ourselves and our fellow firefighters safer but to help keep our towns and families more safe as well. This is the reason for the message to moms. We need your help from inside the home. As a mother and homeowner there are several actions you can take to make your home and family more safe from fire related death and injury. 
Choose products and home furnishings that are made with natural fibers such as wool, linen, or cotton. Consider heavier wood furnishings and non-combustible materials over plastic or polyester whenever possible.

Design and establish a fire safe plan for your home. Along with sprinklers, install smoke alarms and CO detectors. Design fire drills with your family and practice them three to four times a year to fully establish them as emergency exit pathways.

Close the bedroom and other doors in your home. Research has shown highly improved survivability rates for occupants in rooms when doors are closed. Firefighters also use a tactic known as Vent Enter Search (VES) that compliments search and rescue efforts when bedroom doors are closed.

Support building codes that encourage sprinklers and fire safe homes. Educated yourself on such things as passive and active fire protection systems.

Support local leaders and political activities that support and endorse sprinklers, fire safe homes, and fire wise neighborhoods.

When shopping for a home, ask your realtor for listings that have sprinklers. Fire sprinklers are the next best thing to having on-duty firefighter at your home at all times. In addition, shop and dine at small businesses that have sprinklers installed.
Residential home fires are the leading cause of fire related death and injury in the United States. An estimated 374,900 residential building fires are reported to U.S. fire departments each year. These fires cause approximately 2,630 deaths, along with 13,075 injuries and 7.6 billion in property loss. Firefighters fully agree and support the position of the United State Fire Administration in that the most effective fire prevention and reduction activity a homeowner can take is the installation and maintenance of fire sprinklers. Fire sprinklers offer the highest level of fire safety because they control the fire immediately and help prevent deadly flashover. Home sprinklers react automatically to a fire and often extinguish the fire before the fire department arrives.

For more information and to help others understand the danger of fires in homes constructed with modern materials and furnishing please take time to watch the following video from Underwriter Laboratory.

UL’s three-minute video (www.ul.com/global/eng/pages/offerings/industries/buildingmaterials/fire/fireservice/ventilation/) . This video shows what happens to a modern room and a “legacy” room, when a lit candle is placed on each sofa. The fire in the legacy room takes 29 minutes, 25 seconds to reach flashover; the fire in the modern room takes just 3 minutes and 40 seconds. This is the message firefighters are adapting their tactics and strategies when it comes to fighting fire in modern construction.

References and Additional Readings:

Residential Building Fires (2007–2009)
United States Fire Administration

Residential Fire Statistics
Urban Fire Protection

Fire Death & Injuries
Center for Disease Control

Vicki Schmidt
Hebron ME
November 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Considerations for Fire Prevention Week

Since 1922 Fire Prevention Week has been observed to honor the victims and survivors of the Great Peshitgo and Chicago Fires. While Maine's fire history is only a shadow of the Great historic fires of this week, here in Maine fire departments all across the state work to keep the public informed about the importance of fire prevention and safety. 

Just over 140 years ago, two Great fires, The Peshitgo Fire and the Chicago Fire both started on the evening of October 8th, 1871. The Great Peshitgo Fire consumed 2,400 square miles (1.5 million acres), killed over a thousand people, and continued to burn until it reached the waters of Green Bay and it met the fall rains. The Great Chicago Fire burned for two days; destroying over 3 square miles of the city, leaving over 100,000 homeless, and killing hundreds more. 
Closer to home in Maine, and sixty five years ago this week, a few small woods fires were reported to the Maine Fire Service. By the middle of the month over 20 large fires were burning all across Maine. The fires consumed 175,000 acres of timberland and destroyed over a thousand homes. Sixteen citizens were killed and over 10,000 citizens were injured by the fires. Finally, cooler fall weather assisted with bringing the fires under control. 
Fires happen every day and whether they consume thousands of acres of forestland, a major business, or a single family home, the greatest tragedy is when they take a life. Residential home fires are still the leading cause of fire related death and injury in the United States. Annually, fire departments respond to nearly 365,000 residential fires. These fires cause over 7 billion in direct losses, and sadly, kill more than 2600 family members. Our annual residential fire deaths are equal to the number that would die if 7 jumbo jets crashed ever year in the United States: killing all on board.

Please take some time this week to consider what a fire in your home would do to your family and your life. If possible, visit the National Fire Protection Association's Fire Prevention Week home page. Spend some time reviewing ways you and your family can prevent, and survive, a fire in your home. Note that two-thirds of reported home fire deaths occur in homes with no working fire alarm, and that something as simple as a working alarm cuts your risk of dying in a home fire in half.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Badge in Your Pocket

Imagine for a moment that one day in casual passing, the firefighter, Chief, or your favorite instructor: the fire service someone you most admire, tucked a little note into your hand. Wrapped in the note was a fire department badge. The badge they’d worn for decades, and the best part of their career.

Now imagine for a moment, you are the one giving the badge.

There’s considerable talk these days about the photos in your wallet. The visual icons of the spouses, kids, significant others, and even pets, to which we vow to stay safe for and always come home to. Consider in this same fashion, not just the badge you currently wear, but the one you thought about above as it was given to you. Consider too, the badge you'd give someone; and what is it about that person that moves you to give them your most treasured badge?

As we go through our careers we make choices and are chosen. Those we choose to admire, respect, and glean knowledge from will not only mold us into the firefighters we become, they mature us into our fire service career. At the start few of us realize, between the giving and the getting, is an enormous amount of mentoring, leadership, and a variety of roll models.

Mentors give us direction and help us learn and refine valuable skills.

Leaders keep us on track and within boundaries that progress our careers

Roll models possess the complete set of core values, on and off the fire ground, that we aspire to.

The majority of firefighters most likely go through their career never identifying or considering those who influenced the establishment or growth of their career. The mentors, leaders, and roll models who impact us are dynamic. Whether we recognize them or not, they exist. Some grow and stay with us from the start, others come and go.

The challenge we most face is knowing who to watch and learn from, who to follow when and how, and most of all, knowing and honoring when we ourselves are being watched and followed. The answers come a little easier when you know who's badge you'd carry in your pocket, and who you'd be most honored to have carrying yours.