21st Century Firefighting

"Blinded by science" is an old expression that means "to deliberately confuse someone with highly complex knowledge". For too many firefighters, the same can be said when it comes to firefighting and the phenomenon of fire. For too many firefighters...


"Blinded by science" is an old expression that means "to deliberately confuse someone with highly complex knowledge". For too many firefighters, the same can be said when it comes to firefighting and the phenomenon of fire. For too many firefighters, the act of "putting the wet stuff on the red...


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"Blinded by science" is an old expression that means "to deliberately confuse someone with highly complex knowledge". For too many firefighters, the same can be said when it comes to firefighting and the phenomenon of fire. For too many firefighters, the act of "putting the wet stuff on the red stuff" is all that is needed to know and the rest is just "blah-blah."

This article is about the science of fire and why we as firefighters must be able to recognize how it develops, most importantly within a structure, and then react to the signs of an impending hostile fire event. This article is also about how lessons from within a flashover simulator, affectionately called "The Box," can greatly assist in knowledge of fire and fire development recognition skills.

From a perspective of fire service culture, current fire education focus, and important fire incident data, ominous trends concerning firefighter deaths and injuries have developed:

  1. Fire service culture — It cannot be denied that our business has focused on speed toward extinguishing (or killing) a reported fire to the extent it is killing us! Aside from the numerous firefighter deaths involving vehicle accidents, we are in such a "fast attack" mode that we are missing the important information that a structure fire provides us upon our arrival. A slower, more deliberate response would allow a 360-degree look at the structure, a better analysis of the smoke and possibly a better idea of the location of the seat of the fire. We are in such a hurry while rushing into a structure that we are missing the "signs of life" that would allow us to keep our safety intact. One of the signs of life is what the fire is telling us. This article will address that important clue.
  2. Current fire education focus — In most firefighter basic education curriculums, there is a minimal amount of time dedicated to fire behavior. While knowledge of fire behavior is important, and is a cited competency in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications, 2008 edition, only approximately three hours is devoted to it in many firefighter educational programs. As far back as the 6th century B.C., the Chinese General Sun Tzu wrote that in warfare it is important to "know the enemy." In the 20th century, the great Francis Brannigan wrote that in firefighting it is important to know "the building is the enemy". But, with apologies to Brannigan, shouldn't the modern firefighter know and understand fire as the true enemy?
  3. Fire incident data — The NFPA reports that while structure fires have steadily declined since 1977, firefighter death and injury rates have stayed steady. In fact, 2007 data show that the rates of deaths and injuries have significantly increased. NFPA data also show that the firefighter injuries and deaths inside structure fires have been increasing. Possible reasons for this increase include the trend toward lightweight construction, the effects of fire on lightweight building components, and also the changes in the fire load and flame propagation curves over the years. In other words, times have changed and the modern firefighter must recognize the changes.

The Quest to Know Fire

Fire, first and foremost, is a chemical event. We know that it is rapid oxidation and evolves heat, light, smoke and fire gases. Being a product of chemistry, fire can also be easily reproduced and therefore observed and documented. Most of us have enjoyed campfires over the years and those experiences have led to a certain comfort level with fire.

What changes the dynamics of fire is when it is placed inside a structure. Now, the chemical phenomenon of fire affects the compartment and contents because of the physics of the event. Confined heat communicates into objects in the space and causes them to be heated and consequently off-gas. This process of pyrolysis breaks down solid compounds within the affected fuels to form more volatile gases, which in turn burn more readily because of the presence of fire.

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