Firefighting today: brains or brawn?
on 03 October, 2013

Mike Wielgat, Chicago Firefighter and inventor of the HeroPipe, a system designed for high-rise firefighting operations, reflects on how modern fire brigades should continually enhance their knowledge of changing fire dynamics, and how courage alone is not enough to fight fires. The emphasis should lie on intelligent approaches.

The first recorded document of firefighting was the Roman fire brigade around 100 BC. The naturally selected mechanisms of success and survival were strength and speed. Strength: the state of being strong or muscular power, and speed: the act or state of moving rapidly.

As centuries passed, knowledge and understanding influenced the fire service to evolve into a modern and innovative industry. Imagination and apparatuses replaced buckets with hoses and bucket brigades with water pumps. The fire service family has created some of the most creative tactics and original apparatuses from within this unique family.

The fire service continues to evolve. After centuries of documented fires and research, fire science has combined with technology to transform how we fight fires today. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) have conducted detailed research on fire dynamics. The results of these studies are changing the fire service. Increased growth rates, higher temperatures, fuel and oxygen are creating significant changes on how we approach structural fires, sending the fire service into yet another even how we approach structural fire solution.

This new fire science is teaching us that the forces and motion of fire dynamics are fundamentally different. Construction materials and consumer products are primarily produced from petroleum based bi-products. Nearly 89% of every barrel of oil is used to create gasoline and other fuels. The remaining 11% is used to create nearly every household product in our home today. This change has resulted in an alteration of fire dynamics. The growth rates of fire have increased 10 times compared to fires of yesterday. The right mixture of heat, fuel and oxygen are resulting in the bi-products combustion (smoke) burning very similar to gasoline.

An average 12’ x 12” (3.7m x 3.7m) room with ordinary combustibles of yesterday could take nearly 30 minutes to flash. Today that same room with petroleum based household bi-products burns nearly ten times as fast which could bring that same size room to a flashover state of 1,100°- 1,300°F ( 593°-704°C) in as little as 2-3 minutes. The heat release rate (HRR) of an ordinary legacy fire of yesterday reaching temperatures of 1850°F (1100°C) have been recorded at reaching record temperatures up to and exceeding 3,500°F (1,927°C). It has never been more important to educate ourselves on the understanding of how fires progress, where they progress to, what feeds them and how we can manage these dynamics effectively.

Today’s fire service must be more reliant on education and training. Intellect and fortitude are now becoming the mechanisms of success. Intellect: the ability to come to correct conclusions about what is true or real, and fortitude: strength of the mind to encounter danger, adversity with courage. Conditioning and endurance also play key roles, but we must be intelligent in our approach on how we contain and control a fire.

A better understanding of fire dynamics will increase our chances of success. The rapid stages of fire growth, smoldering or decay stage, heat release rates, high and low pressure flow paths are some of the new challenges we face.

When discussing containment and control the initial focus should be on the door. Initial efforts should be made close to the fire area door to maintain control and to disrupt the fire dynamics by cutting off the oxygen and eliminating a high-pressure, low-pressure fire path. This is coordinated with the fire attack. The proper hose selection and tip size are imperative. There is little time for error. Modern day petroleum based consumer products are capable of releasing nearly three times the British Thermal Units (BTUs) per pound. It is important that the volume of extinguishing agent (water) is sufficient to disrupt the progression of fire and rise in temperatures. It is recommended that 1/3 the volume of water is required to cool the area of fire. For example, a 900ft² (274m²) apartment or condo would require at least 300 GPM (1,136 LPM) to effectively disrupt the fire dynamics. A commercial, open floor plan fire of several thousand ft² (m²) would require several hand-lines.

There is a critical timeline. Once entry has been made to the fire area you have 60 to 90 seconds to disrupt the dynamics of the fire. The old expression of “don’t spray the wet stuff until you see the red stuff” is a tactic of the past. It’s vital to immediately start cooling the flammable smoke and disrupt the dynamics of fire behavior. This must be combined with ventilation to eliminate the flow path of least resistance. One firefighter should be assigned to door control once the fire attack team has determined that the smoke cooling efforts are successful and the attack team can initiate entry. Once entry is made the door is closed to maintain the disruption of fire dynamics, and the cooling process is continued to the seat of the fire. Success of these tactical considerations will reduce the chances of self-ventilation and increase the chances of success.

Finally, no matter how well we educate and train ourselves we must be prepared for failure of a system component. Whether it’s tactical or mechanical, the failure of one component often leads to the failure of multiple components. New innovative, cost effective solutions must be created to combat progressive fire dynamics and the intense stages of fire behavior.

  • Operation Florian

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