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When our interior size-up team made entry, they were not initially confronted with high heat. It was only after the fire was fed with the oxygen that came in through the front door we opened that the heat inside rose dramatically. This too is consistent with the UL study’s findings. In Section 9.1, “Stages of Fire Development,” the UL report notes that in the “modern fire environment where there is usually not enough oxygen available,” then following ignition there is a “growth stage, decay stage, ventilation (either by the fire service or by an opening created by the fire, like window failure), a second growth stage, flashover, fully developed stage and finally the decay stage.”
In this fire, our interior size-up crew entered in that pre-flashover “decay stage” that occurs when the initial growth stage becomes ventilation-limited. When we opened the front door to do our interior size-up, we allowed oxygen into the fire area, which created a second growth stage that led to the flashover. While the interior crew was just beginning to retreat out of the building, a large sliding-glass door at the rear of the house disintegrated. A rush of fresh air entered through that large opening and fed all the super-heated combustible gases in the smoke layer throughout the entirely open first floor. Everything flamed up at once, and Paul was burned by the radiated heat from the large layer of flame at the ceiling level of the first floor.
A huge pool of combustible pyrolytic gases suspended inside the super-heated smoke layer just needed enough oxygen to flame up. With the front door open, and then when the large sliding-glass door disintegrated, a huge flashover occurred throughout the first floor, sending flames out the front door, out the back door and high into the sky. Since experiencing a flashover like this that happened so quickly after our interior team first made entry, I am convinced that a safer approach is needed. I am especially interested in the approach known as “3D firefighting” as explained in a video from the Dublin Fire Brigade: http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1214149085?bctid=76446744001.
To be more effective in our approach to “pre-flashover decay-stage fires,” we must know what to look for so we can add water to the atmosphere of the fire without adding oxygen to it. In such cases, we also must be prepared with additional hoselines in case the building suddenly ventilates itself by the failure of a window or door.
I hope this column will facilitate discussion at every department regarding warning signs of the pre-flashover decay stage fire and what tactics to use in fighting such fires. I thank you for taking to time to read what our department went through.
The following comments by Chief Goldfeder are based on discussion with the writers, those involved with this fire and others:
When I learned of this fire, my initial thought was how lucky Firefighter Nees and the UHFD were – this could have been much worse. So much of this close call reminds me of so many other fire departments that are struggling with staffing.
One needs to only look back to 1999, when three firefighters were killed in the line of duty in Keokuk, IA. That department had similar limited staffing and encountered similar fire conditions. While firefighters were inside searching for children, the duplex flashed over and killed three firefighters and three little kids. The University Heights firefighters arrived with a working fire and people trapped, but luckily they got out. Luckily.
Whatever the type of department, the common denominator is that it takes firefighters to perform the necessary tasks. Fewer firefighters means fewer tasks accomplished. While the statement “there is just no more money” may be valid in many communities, let’s accept it as a fact. The solution is generally in four parts:
1. Elected officials adjust funding or raise taxes in order to provide the professionally and accurately estimated resource needs for the specific community.
2. We do what we can with the understanding our service will not be what the community imagines it to be. We must be very clear. This has nothing to do with heroism, bravery or desire; the simple fact is that without enough firefighters, the fire will almost always win.
3. We reassess the mission of the service-delivery model and determine what tasks or services could/may be changed, reduced or eliminated to become more focused on more critical priorities.
4. We reach out to neighboring fire departments and develop genuine collaborative efforts from automatic mutual aid first-alarm assignments to merging departments and anything in between.