Grading the Fireground On a "Curve"

Mark Emery discusses the dangers on the fireground and the need to observe fire growth accurately.


A Benign-Looking Fireground Can Be a Deadly Fireground Two National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) fatality investigation reports, 98-FO7 and F2004-14, involve firefighters advancing into obscured-visibility, low-heat conditions. In both cases, as they began their advance...


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A Benign-Looking Fireground Can Be a Deadly Fireground

Two National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) fatality investigation reports, 98-FO7 and F2004-14, involve firefighters advancing into obscured-visibility, low-heat conditions. In both cases, as they began their advance, firefighters noted "near-zero" or "very-limited" visibility and tolerable heat conditions; in both cases, offensive entry was not coordinated with ventilation that was complete and effective; in both cases, firefighters did not know the location of the fire; in both cases, firefighters advanced deeper into the building searching for the fire; in both cases, conditions quickly deteriorated; and in both cases a hasty withdrawal ensued and bagpipes honored those who didn't make it out.

The result was the death of a fire captain (98-F07) and the death of a firefighter (F2004-14). Although the unselfish actions of these brave men were heroic, when they died, they were the most valuable "thing" in each building. Unless something changes, this sequence of events will happen again. It could be happening today, right now. Unless you know which side of the fire-growth curve you are entering, advancing into zero-visibility conditions is a really bad idea.

Background

Firefighters entering and advancing into limited or zero visibility has been a proud fire service tradition for a long time. However, there is a hidden danger that should not be ignored or dismissed. During size-up, a master craftsman fire officer must determine which side of the fire-growth curve he or she is looking at; entering and advancing on the wrong side of the curve has killed and injured many fine people.

There is a point on both sides of the fire-growth curve that look the same and "feel" the same yet one side could be considered "go" and the opposite side of the curve should be considered "no-go." An excellent example of this phenomenon is the "Structural Collapse Fire Test" conducted in 2001 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) at a warehouse in Phoenix, AZ. After viewing the video several times, and factoring accompanying time and temperature data, I came to a sobering conclusion: a benign-looking fireground can be a deadly fireground. To make this situation more disturbing, a thermal imaging camera will not reduce your risk.

It is impossible to experience an intelligent and safe fireground operation if you don't know what the problems are -- in particular, the most significant problem. The purpose of the NIST fire test in Phoenix was to "develop data for evaluation of a methodology for predicting structural collapse." The purpose of this article is to provide valuable nuggets that you can use immediately to ensure that a "routine" building fire does not lure you into a trap from which escape is unlikely.

It is my hope that this article will convince you and your fire department that problem identification during fireground size-up is the most important responsibility of a fire officer. A focused, systematic, master-craftsman size-up will ensure that problems are identified and that conditions are factored strategically -- including determining which side of the fire-growth curve you are thinking of entering. It also is my hope that this article will convince you that the so-called "fast-attack" mode has no place on the contemporary fireground, especially when the only verified life-safety problem is the fire department. The term "fast attack" must be exterminated and buried deep, where nobody can find it. It is impossible to complete a meaningful size-up, develop an initial action plan, establish a water supply, coordinate entry with ventilation that is complete, ensure there is a two-out standby team and be "fast." There is nothing fast about an intelligent and safe fireground operation.

The Test

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