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