NIST Officials Work to Spread the Word to the Fire Service

GAITHERSBURG, Md. -- Understanding fire behavior and dynamics are essential for firefighter safety.

However, the vital subjects aren't included in the majority of firefighting courses.

That's why officials involved in the fire research division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) say they're willing to do whatever it takes to get the word out.

NIST researchers are often on the agenda at major fire conferences. On Wednesday, they hosted nearly 400 firefighters, inspectors, training academy instructors and fire marshals at their facility.

"We've been asked to come to give presentations at various fire departments," said Daniel Madrzykowski, fire protection engineer. "We have a lot of work to do here. We don't have time to go out."

When word spread that Madrzykowski and Steve Kerber would be sharing valuable fire research, the one day conference started growing.

"I think it's so important that firefighters have a level of understanding about fire dynamics," he said.

Dr. James M. Turner, NIST deputy director, assured the group that the fire research division is more committed than ever to reconstruct events to determine what happened.

He applauded the various fire departments for their involvement in the projects. The partnerships show just how committed both are to enhancing firefighter safety.

Madrzykowski said research has changed over the years. In the '70s, the scientists studied fire behavior to help save or protect buildings. Now, that focus has shifted to saving people.

Kerber said although the fire environment has changed, the fire service "is not or is doing so very slowly."

He added: "There is a difference between tactics and theory."

Participants watched videos of simulated burns as the engineers explained theory and dynamics. They learned what conditions to watch for that signal a flashover is possible.

Smoke is often the tell tale sign, they said. Graphs depicting time and temperature showed why the fire spread as it had.

Kerber explained his study of positive pressure ventilation, a technique many departments aren't aware of. Videos shot during simulations in high rise buildings showed how properly placed fans can clear a hallway of smoke and prevent fire from leaving a room.

He said it takes a coordinated effort to carry out PPV. For safety, firefighters are encouraged to delay their attack for about 60 seconds after the ventilation to determine how the fire is going to react to the oxygen.

"No two houses are the same. They have different windows, layout and furnishings."

Information about the PPV study is available from NIST.

Cincinnati Fire Department Capt. Michael Washington said he was impressed with the conference. "It was outstanding, very informative. It was interesting to see the science behind it."

Several participants said the seminar could easily been a two day event.

Steve Kambarn, a fire inspector from Salisbury, Md., said he enjoyed learning about fire behavior. "It was very interesting."

Madrzykowski also reviewed several probes conducted following fires that involved firefighter deaths and multiple casualties.

Kerber said he hopes those who attended will share what they learned. "All the information is available. We hope they'll use it."