Lead instructor Jim Grove, and Editor of Fire and Rescue Ann-Marie Knegt.

Lead instructor Jim Grove, and Editor of Fire and Rescue Ann-Marie Knegt.

Preview of Fire & Rescue Q4: Pioneers at West Midlands Fire Service Academy

Published:  08 November, 2013

West Midlands Fire Academy is leading in the study of the effects of wind-driven fires. Ann-Marie Knegt visited the facility and donned fire kit to experience the behaviour of compartment fires.

At West Midlands Fire Service Academy (Birmingham, UK), Carl Batchelor, Dave Payton, Mark Russon and Jim Grove all work as lead instructors on breathing apparatus, fire behaviour and positive pressure ventilation. This particular unit within the training academy has done a lot of research, testing and development on high-rise fires and especially on wind-driven fires.

The West Midlands Fire Service covers an area that includes the second most populous city in the UK, Birmingham, and which encompasses a large number of built-up areas with a diverse range of building types.

Dave Payton kicked off the conversation by explaining that West Midlands Fire Service utilises offensive interior firefighting tactics following their introduction by the Swedish Fire Service around 12-14 years ago. Since that time the fire behaviour team has been constantly testing and reviewing its offensive interior strategies with the help of tactical ventilation and thermal imaging technology, and has even introduced new equipment in the UK designed especially for the response to high-rise fires.

Floor Below Nozzle

Dave Payton explained that some of the team members visited a conference organised by the FDNY (Fire Department New York) where they witnessed a presentation from Battalion Chief George Healy, who revealed the results of tests the FDNY had carried out on fighting wind-driven fires on Governors Island. During these tests the FDNY utilised an extended branch pipe with a 60 degree bend, called the Floor Below Nozzle.

The fire behaviour team was both intrigued by this method and impressed by the success that the FDNY had experienced with the nozzle, so the team went to see if they could acquire one from the US. As this wasn’t possible they requested the specifications from the FDNY and commissioned UK-based Delta Fire to create a Floor Below Nozzle. The new device was recently launched at the Emergency Services Show in Birmingham, and Payton explained how it works. ‘The branch pipe is three metres long with a bend in the middle. It has a 22ml smoothbore nozzle at the end. The device is connected to the normal riser stream, fitted in high-rise buildings, but positioned on the floor below the affected compartment. It works by delivering a large volume of water into the compartment of origin. It is delivered in a straight stream and the water hits the ceiling of the affected compartment radiating the water in large quantities within the compartment. The effectiveness of this solution lies in the volume of water. We tried it with smaller sprays and water mist, but when you consider the effect of the wind this had very little effect.’

By deploying the Floor Below Nozzle the temperature in the corridor adjacent to the fire compartment can drop from 500-600oC to around 150oC in as little as 17 seconds.

Whilst not a fully scientific test, it is clear that the branch has a dramatic affect on the fire, and that its effect in high-rise firefighting should not be underestimated.

The branch has several advantages, for instance a firefighting team that has been caught on the fire floor with injured crews or residents now has the opportunity to retreat. Emergency teams can enter the fire floor and help evacuate injured crews and residents.

Jim Grove added that this also provides the responding team the breathing space to attack the fire. ‘As long as the wind is blowing and there is fuel in the fire compartment, the fire team will struggle to approach it, especially when faced with such extreme temperatures, making a direct fire attack almost impossible.’

The Floor Below Nozzle enables the team on the floor below to attack the fire from the outside. When the temperature has come down sufficiently for safe approach the branch is then turned off. The team on the fire floor can then strategically suppress and extinguish the fire in the compartment.

Another aspect that has been extensively researched by the fire behaviour team is ventilation during high-rise fires, as its correct application can help firefighters immensely during a response.

It is widely accepted that many ageing high-rise buildings do not comply with modern safety standards. ‘In many cases fire protection measures have been compromised due to varying factors such as poor contractor work when installing new cable systems, fire doors that have been vandalised, and other reasons,' said Jim Grove.

Dave Payton added that another problematic factor that causes many issues is modern-day fire loading. ‘The fuel loading package in today’s dwellings is completely different from what was in there 20 years ago. When thinking about the furniture present within compartments, much of it will have a high-glue content, or contains plastics, and then you have DVDs etc. Basically, the volume of hydrocarbons and chemicals is much larger than ever before. So even though we tend to get fewer fires, they have the potential to be faster in growth and further on the development scale than 10 years ago – and also more dramatic.’

Carl Batchelor highlighted this with the example of a burning piece of furniture made of solid wood – the type that used to be manufactured 30 years ago. ‘The energy required to burn a solid piece of timber is huge, whereas compressed and glued furniture will start decomposing at a much lower temperature, producing a lot more combustion gases. This obviously affects firefighters, because the energy that is being released in modern day fires is huge, maybe three to four times more than even 10 years ago.’

Applying the correct ventilation is paramount to both fire suppression and firefighter safety, so the WMFS Academy developed a PPV instructor’s course, to meet the needs of this critical training. The team conducted research into fire gas flow paths while also analysing European and American ventilation techniques. ‘The optimal ventilation strategy should lie somewhere in the middle of both ways of working. For years we didn’t ventilate at all here in Europe because we thought everything would blow up. In the US they thought the opposite. Slowly but surely we are all coming to the same point,’ said Dave Payton.

All members of the team emphasised that ventilation strategy cannot be viewed as a finite science, because too many factors are at play during an incident. The decision on how, if, or when to ventilate depends on factors such as fuel loading, water flows and pressure, fire flow paths, and weather.

Jim Grove commented that it is very easy to make a wrong decision, so therefore the Academy has carried out more extensive trials on flow paths and ventilation. ‘Fire brigades have to get their staff to understand what they are looking at from inside as well as outside the building. They have to be able to put two and two together and work out what ventilation tactics should be used – either to ventilate or to anti-ventilate.’

Smoothbore versus diffuser nozzle

Carl Batchelor explained that the choice of branches to use for a high-rise fire is an equally important consideration. There is an ongoing discussion on whether the only way to deal with a compartment fire is by using a smoothbore nozzle so the team is able to get more water in the compartment.

‘We questioned that,’ said Carl Batchelor. ‘There is no way in which you can safely progress through a building full of fire gases with a smoothbore branch. For this reason we set up some independent trials, for which we have the footage. We took a comprehensive selection of smoothbore, defused and combination branches from every manufacturer available. We set up the test environment in our carbonaceous fire house. We proved that smoothbore branches are great when you are directly outside the compartment and you can deliver a large quantity of water. However, in order to reach that compartment safely and in a controlled manner you need a diffuser nozzle.’

Carl Batchelor continued to explain ‘A thermal imaging camera will show that the fire gas is hot, because modern thermal imagers have a function that shows fire gas flow paths. The gas has to be cooled below ignition temperature so the diffuser should be applied ahead of the firefighter. It should be put on cone spray, and by using the thermal imaging camera you can check if the gas layer is cool enough to advance. The team should keep advancing through the corridor in this manner until they reach the doorway of the compartment.’

Upon arrival at the doorway for the room of origin, they have to check if the door is intact and useable to function as structural protection between the team and the flow path of the fire gases. The door needs to be closed to function as a shield. This has two effects; first it provides the team with some respite because the flow path has been shut down, and secondly it stops additional air being added to the compartment, so the development of the fire slows down. Once the team is ready, they open the door and spray water into the overpressure with the diffuser nozzle. By using this tactic an inert atmosphere is created in the compartment and the temperature in the room should cool down and the overpressure should decrease. Then it is time to adjust the branch into the smoothbore setting. This penetrates into the fire compartment and brings the heat down.

So according to the team’s tests a combination branch provides the best safety and the most effective extinguishment for a compartment fire.

‘The problem we encountered in our training courses was that we had to work in a metal box, which is completely alien to a realistic situation. The properties of a metal container are completely different from a normal building, and this is why we moved our fire behaviour training into a carbonaceous fire house. ‘We increased the fire loading to recreate the type of fuel loadings normally found in dwellings these days. We also increased our risk assessments, so during our training crews learn how to progress towards the room of origin in the most realistic manner,’ said Dave Payton.

Based on this extensive knowledge West Mids then developed its B-TEC accredited tactical ventilation course for instructors.

Jim Grove added: ‘For too long we have treated BA, PPV and fire behaviour as separate subjects in training. For this reason we have integrated all these subjects in one and have aligned them for a more strategic and tactical approach.

‘Information about new techniques and approaches is more readily available now, and that information should be shared, so we can learn from each other all over the world. We have to evolve constantly as a fire service.’

With this philosophy in mind, the academy has now installed thermal imaging cameras in the fire training house, which record what is happening in the building when students train, and which is also used for the many tests and trials that the brigade carries out. All footage is recorded and fed directly to the video screen in the recovery room outside the fire house. Mark Russon explained: ‘The TICS have been hardwired and there are four cameras in different rooms. We are currently using Bullard T3Max cameras. It offers us the benefit of being able to evaluate a training session with the students, while people that are not in the fire house can see how the others perform. So instead of standing there and talking to each other, they are engaged and thinking about the processes required.’

A similar system will be installed in the six-storey high-rise training building that is due to be completed at the end of 2013 at Oldbury fire station. This type of training building is the UK’s first and it is currently being constructed by Haagen in The Netherlands.

Dave Payton explained that this is a modular container construction. ‘It will be the only carbonaceous high-rise training tower in the UK. It will feature a full size twin emergency stair case, and we will burn real wood in there. I suspect that we will attract a lot of attention internationally, because we will be able to simulate wind-driven fires on the sixth floor for instance.’

The ground works have already been dug at Oldbury station, and when the building is delivered and constructed at the end of the year the fire behaviour team will start testing the fire loading.

Jim Grove concluded: ‘Our main objective is to keep our own crews safe and up to speed with the latest standards in training. This knowledge can then be transferred to other brigades while earning income that can be invested back into our organisation.’

  • Operation Florian

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