By Robert Tutterow
In last month’s column I discussed the 2013 Kill the Flashover (KTF) project conducted at the South Carolina Fire Academy. KTF, led by Chief Joe Starnes, looks at fire behavior through air track management. If we understand air track management, we can influence fire behavior in ways that make for much more effective and safer fire attack. The results of KTF go hand in glove with recent findings in a series of live fire burns by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in Spartanburg, South Carolina. To highlight the findings, a well-respected fire chief asked one of the UL researchers if there is ever a situation when firefighters should go on a roof and open it for vertical ventilation. After a long pause, the answer was no. KTF confirmed this answer through its air track management study.
This month, I will review how the 2013 F.I.E.R.O. Biennial Fire Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Symposium complemented the findings of KTF. After observing KTF, Alan Bruancini, retired chief of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, said these recent findings will be difficult for the United States fire service to accept. His comment about the fire service’s predictable reluctance to embrace a deeper understanding of fire behavior was underscored at the PPE Symposium on several fronts.
First, fire service attorney Jim Juneau gave an eye-opening presentation about how firefighters, company officers, and chief officers can be held accountable for their actions. Our actions are often grounded on indefensible traditions. Let me get your attention again: Juneau told the audience that leather helmets are not the best head protection. In fact, the European-style helmet is the optimal design available today. Many in the audience were quick to point out that leather helmets are National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) compliant. Juneau replied, “I can jump over that chair. An Olympic high jumper can also jump over that chair. Does that make us equal?”
The crusty old leather helmet, with its totally useless flip-down Bourke eye-shields, is symbolic of our defiance to scientific conclusions. Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone, but the earth ain’t flat. If the National Football League can take huge steps to improve the safety of its players, the fire service had better take heed. If we don’t, someone else will do it for us.
The PPE Symposium was also the venue that Rich Duffy, retired assistant to the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and veteran PPE expert, used to show photos of a new thermal imaging camera (TIC). The mini imager mounts on the SCBA face lens and reportedly produces an image quality so vivid that firefighters can identify the position of hose couplings on an attack line to lead them out of a structure if necessary. Speaking of the TIC, it is clearly the most underused tool in the fire service tool chest. TICs are absolutely critical in understanding air track management. Think of them as diagnostic tools.
Future Fire Service?
Imagine an American fire service learning from the European fire service. For decades, we’ve always dismissed the Europeans’ approach by saying their building construction is different-and it is. However, fire behavior is the same across the planet. Imagine a fire service that rarely performs vertical ventilation; uses smaller hoselines; uses less water; uses foam or a wetting agent on every attack; “closes up” rather than “opens up” burning structures; equips every firefighter with a TIC mounted on his face mask or helmet; wears European- style helmets; often uses positive-pressure attack; and ensures every firefighter has a scientific baseline of knowledge about fire behavior-i.e. air track management. The idea could transform our training, our PPE, and our apparatus and change the makeup of our firefighting toolbox.
These are interesting times in the fire service. In some ways, we must repurpose our service. We must look at more effective and safer ways to fight the occasional fire and be trained, equipped, and prepared to do what we really do-respond to all hazards. There is no downside to mixing brains with brawn.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).