Breaking Down NIST's "Fire Dynamics"

The author breaks downs some of the common and repetitive themes that were brought to his attention at the "Fire Dynamics for the Fire Service" seminar.The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) "Fire Dynamics for the Fire Service...

The author breaks downs some of the common and repetitive themes that were brought to his attention at the "Fire Dynamics for the Fire Service" seminar.

The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) "Fire Dynamics for the Fire Service" presentation provokes a new era of thought in fireground tactics. The information provided is based upon repeated tests related to events, some tragic, in the fire service.


The data that NIST provides is repeatedly tested, absent of outside influence, such as manufacturers or labor organizations, and is openly welcoming of fire department scrutiny. Perhaps what is most encouraging is the purpose NIST seeks to make the fireground safer through knowledge of fire behavior.

Every attendee came away with 10 discs specific to each test in the presentation. NIST presenters Steve Kerber and Dan Madrzykowski specifically stated that the information presented is to be shared, distributed and taught; to think of it as a train-the-trainer concept.

Below are some key, repeated and thought provoking points from their presentation. As you read this don't fall into the common mindset that this is another effort by the safety police to take us out of the interior attack. Nor is it an approach of "slide rule" firefighting, book smart and little experience. Their objectives are clear: develop a better understanding of fire dynamics and how it impacts your personal safety and, make you think more and ask why.

Ask Why
Very few know the specific origins of today's fireground tactics. What was developed approximately 50 years ago and currently in use may not be working in some situations, or may be improperly utilized. There is a huge difference between tactics and theory. What is learned here (presentation) needs to be put to the test in the field.

Firefighters know very little about fire behavior. According to Kerber and Madrzykowski, Firefighter I (102 hours) has three hours of fire behavior. Firefighter II (60 hours) has none. Fire Officer I and II (108 hours) also have no hours specifically devoted to fire behavior. One percent of your initial training is about fire behavior. How much do you remember? What is needed to fill the gap?

Building Construction and Fire Behavior
The average private dwelling has changed considerably in composition and fuel load. While the fire environment changes, the fire service changes slower, if it changes at all. When looking at possible causes, the fire service tends to look for specific single faults in construction and instead, should be looking at the whole of the structure.

The traditional fire curve, or development stages, we learn from our early fire department training has changed. We are now faced with "under ventilated" fires and members being burned or killed in post-flashover fires. Statements of "we only had a small bit of smoke showing" from fireground investigations indicate that we are arriving and making entry at a time when the fire has begun to die or the atmosphere is too rich for flashover. What appears to be a minor or "routine" fire turns severe when entry is made and the room then flashes over. This should lead us to reevaluate our process of size-up and initial report as well as taking the time (seconds) to make sure our initial attack is setup according to what is being seen. Perhaps this is a new use of the old saying "stay low and let it blow."

Heat, Temperature, Smoke and Thermal Imagers
The key about temperature is not necessarily how hot it is but to understand where the energy comes from and the transfer (heat flux) of this energy. As materials begin to burn they add to the fuel load above us (ceiling area). Regardless of whether they are burning or not, they are fuel; smoke is fuel.

In research recreating specific fireground conditions, thermal imaging cameras (TIC) recorded the high temperatures without showing the contrast of actual encroaching flame spread, or rollover. Just like the smoke showing quote, this coincides with statements about how hot it was inside but the fire was not to be seen.

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