Workshop: Home Fires the Most Dangerous Firefight You Will Face

Fires in modern residential homes have become the most dangerous fires to fight, according to research presented last week at Firehouse World in San Diego.

The workshop was presented by Battalion Chief Peter VanDorpe and Firefighter/EMT James Dalton, both of the Chicago Fire Department and partners of Underwriters Laboratories.

VanDorpe began by asking the audience whether they buy into the program’s claim, given that it’s usually commercial structure fires that take multiple lives at a time and get the most attention. He reminded the group that most lives are lost in small numbers at small incidents. “This is where we die and where the citizens die – the vast majority of them.”

Fires are trending down but deaths and injuries are not, which means fires are getting relatively more dangerous, VanDorpe concluded. “We can’t let the fact that it’s ones and twos in most cases delude us into thinking it’s not a big problem.”

He explained the premise of the research: that firefighting was learned decades ago on certain kinds of home construction and contents. “The problem is that’s all changed,” he said, and modern fire education and tactics need to change to keep up.

VanDorpe noted that for many fire service veterans it’s been 30-plus years since they had training in fire behavior or building construction, and new firefighters aren’t required much depth of knowledge. “We’re giving them a couple hours and thinking they’re going to understand their work environment. We’re nuts,” he said. “The fire service has to do a better job.”

Flashover Study

A highlight of the presentation was a video created at UL showing the burn rates of two identical rooms, one containing modern, synthetic furnishings and one containing older “legacy” furnishings. When the audience was asked what they thought would be the difference in the amount of time it would take each room to flashover, members answered a few minutes.

The actual result: the clock showed flashover at about three and a half minutes for the modern room, and nearly 30 minutes for the legacy room -  a difference of nearly 10 times. VanDorpe said the difference is the heat release rate, not the actual temperature. “That’s the big change,” he said.

“You used to have 17 minutes to get out of a house, now it’s four before smoke conditions alone are overwhelming,” Dalton added.

Codes and Construction

In addition to construction materials and their related challenges, the presenters discussed the impact of modern floor plans, with features such as open layouts, two-story ceilings and massive square-footage.

 “In some cases, what are we fighting?” Dalton asked, “A residential or a commercial building?” Homeowners can have a 9,000 sq. ft. house, he noted, without meeting any of the codes that would be required for an identical commercial structure.

The presenters proposed that the fire service needs to support building code changes to require fire resistance in residential homes.

In the Meantime

For now, the fire service needs to recognize that these houses are out there, and aren’t going to go away even if the code changes, VanDorpe said. For his advice, he quoted the late fire service educator Frank Brannigan: “The building is your enemy – know your enemy.”

Additional advice included the following:

  • Look at your SOPs for deficiencies.
  • Visit construction sites.
  • Assume every structure is lightweight construction unless you know otherwise.
  • Treat each house as inherently dangerous.
  • When a house is commercial size, treat it accordingly. “If you pull up on a starter castle,” VanDorpe said, “you’d better come to work prepared.”
  • Learn to recognize when older buildings have been altered or rehabbed, or are actually new and designed to look old.
  • Open void spaces upon entry.
  • Be more aggressive than ever before, for a very short period of time.
  • When faced with multiple immediate tasks of rescue and fire control, choose fire control to buy yourself time for the rescue.