Let Us Use the Knowledge Wisely

Like many of you, I spent yesterday afternoon downloading and reviewing the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report on the fatal fire in Charleston, SC, back in 2007. The two-part treatise on the fire and their investigation of it was...

This major report lays it on the line. The computer modeling tells the story. Quite simply, the fire would have been held in place by the activation of installed fire protection. By the strength of its argument it equally proves the case for the major devastation through the mechanism of computer modeling. I have long been a fan of the work performed by NIST. I am heartened by their strong recommendations on the issue of ventilation and the role improper ventilation played in this incident. Let me assure you that I would expect such things from a fire department which placed little value in the need to properly staff and respond with the correct number of truck companies.

The computer modeling allows us to see the difference between what happened with the introduction of ventilation into the operational scheme at this fire. One need only look at the graph, which shows the fire growth caused by the ventilation used in this case, to see that we in the fire service need to devote more time and research to the use of fireground ventilation as a part of our standard operations.

Many years ago I called for the development of a research project which had at its core a study of what we do in our firefighting operations. At the time I asked whether we are still performing tasks on the fireground which were more suited to an earlier era in our nation's history. I was hooted down and assailed with a fury which I felt to be misplaced.

This particular argument took place at a Fire Department Instructor's Conference which predated the Charleston fire by at least three years. I cannot help but feel that a lack of effort by people charged with firefighter safety has left us adrift in a sea of skills and tasks better suited to a pre-World War II world. Should we always ventilate? Should we always stretch a line in and attack? The findings of this report suggest that the ventilation which was undertaken allowed the fire to race out of control.

Let me ask you again. Are we training our 21st Century Fire Service in operational methods which are no longer appropriate? Quite frankly my friends, I just do not know. Let me now apply a statement I have long used on the world of hazardous materials response: "If you don't know, you don't go."

There is another descriptive phrase which I use to impress the students in my firefighting courses about the dangers of interior structural firefighting. I tell my students that if they look at the burning building they are being called upon to enter and attack the fire, and they get a feeling in their guts that it would surely be stupid to enter the structure to fight the fire I say to them quite simply, "…go with your gut."

Let me suggest that I am no longer the young buck seeking to make my mark in the world of firefighting. As a man who has been to a fire or two during my 44-year career, I think that it is high time to develop a research project which will begin to assess the operational and environmental changes which have had an impact on the fire service.

This report from NIST would serve as an excellent point of embarkation for this challenging project. Let me urge the powers that be in our fire service to adopt this project as a tribute to the men who died in Charleston. Let me charge you that your next fire might be your last. We owe it to the people who broke us in, and to the people to whom we will hand over the fire service, to get this done.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at drharrycarter@optonline.net.