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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Students are briefed before they enter "The Box" on what to expect. They are allowed entry only with full personal protective equipment (PPE) and a complete check by an outside safety person. Additionally, instructors brief all students on what behavior is expected and the hoseline demonstrations that will be shown. All students are made aware that the flashover simulator is merely a steel box laboratory with an enclosed fire and real structure fires may not be the same experience.

Lesson 1 — Commonly, the first reaction to the flashover simulator experience is "Wow!" First-time students are simply amazed at what they see and feel and hear. The "wow" experience lasts for the first three experiences or so, then, around the fourth or fifth experience the lessons start to soak in. Students tend to be amazed about being around the smoke ignitions, but begin to see the patterns of how fire develops and grows in an enclosed space. They begin to observe the life cycle of fire and become more comfortable with the dynamics of fire.

The flashover experience helps to develop a strong respect for fire behavior. Indeed, a poorly developed sense of fear or understanding can and has killed firefighters. This lesson from "The Box" concentrates on the recognition of flashover conditions and how to react.

Much of the student's experience within "The Box" depends on the knowledge and skill of the instructor. Becoming an effective instructor is much more than merely experiencing several flashovers themselves. Effective instructors must be able to verbalize what students are seeing, but they also must be able to relate the experience to modern firefighting. Instructors also must have a firm understanding of the ventilation and nozzle techniques that can control the fire in the simulator. Critical is the ability of an instructor to tell students why the fire behaves as it does when control techniques are performed.

Lesson 2 — After several visits to "The Box," a person tends to experience far less apprehension because they know what to expect. While the experience within the box does not necessarily represent real-life fires it comes as close to reality as is safely possible with training fires that are compliant with NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions. Knowing where the simulator experience leads, students can start to pay more attention to what is going on and how to control the setting. Long after the "wow" factor has been digested, students tend to pick up the subtle nuances of the flashover experience and can better account for their awareness of the situation.

Lesson 3 — A final noteworthy lesson from "The Box" is the importance of ventilation on the life or death of a fire. A dying fire is one that lacks breath, suffocates and eventually succumbs because of a lack of oxygen. More smoke is produced because the burning process is incomplete and the fire eventually becomes concealed or out of view. This process of breathing and dying can be seen in the simulator when the back door and roof vent are manipulated effectively. Essentially, when the roof vent is opened both heat and smoke are allowed to vent outside of the simulator. If the displaced air is replaced by fresh air from an opened back door, a natural air current develops. This condition provides more visibility and the fire grows. When both the roof vent and the back door are shut, the cycle begins again and flashover conditions can be developed and observed. As students observe the fire dynamics, they should have a better idea of how fire grows and reacts in a closed environment. They should also have a better idea how ventilation can affect the fire's dynamics. And, they should better understand how to recognize the signs of a flashover and how to react to those signs.

While the flashover simulator experience is called "Phase I," students sit on the floor as smoke cloud ignitions pass over their heads. While the student is passive in the simulator during the first phase, Phase II involves an active student who reacts properly to impending hostile fire events with a hoseline and effective nozzle techniques. Phase II is where fire theory meets fire tactics. Finally, Phase III has students observe from a safe distance the phenomenon of a "backdraft." In totality, all three phases have the ability to show the fire service the changes in our structural firefighting environment. It is up to us to respond to those changes.