Fire Science: Pay Attention

By Richard Marinucci

Many colleges offer fire science degrees. Having obtained one such degree, I sometimes wonder which of the specific courses regarding fire was actually science-related. There were the general education courses, such as physics and chemistry that were based on scientific principles, and one could argue that the hydraulics class was, for the most part, based on physical and chemical properties. But some of the others, such as tactics and strategy, fire behavior, and fire prevention principles, appeared then, and maybe moreso now, as information based on anecdotes and instructor experiences.

The last few years have seen an increase in scientific fire research, much attributed to the efforts of the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) and Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL). Various projects have used sound scientific principles to evaluate fire suppression tactics to determine their effectiveness. Basically, they look at accepted fire service practices and try to prove whether or not they are indeed true or merely myths perpetrated by repetition over the years.

One such experiment was to test the difference between fires involving legacy furniture or contents vs. modern furnishings that include much more plastic and other manmade materials. For quite some time, firefighters have known that modern fires behave differently than those of a previous generation. They were correct in their assumptions, relying on experience and instinct to let them know how different the job has become. Even still, many organizations continue to attack fires the exact same way even though their senses tell them things are different.

The various studies have confirmed what firefighters have come to believe, and this is good news. And as even more of a benefit, science has quantified what is actually occurring in a fire and has used various measurements to provide valuable information. Simplified, the facts indicate that the fires do indeed burn faster and hotter and produce flashover conditions considerably faster than legacy fires. This information should produce a tactics reevaluation to determine if the old way of attacking fire is the best way to go after a modern fire.

The studies produce valuable information that all fire departments and firefighters must consider. They confirm some basic principles, such as getting water on a fire being a good thing, and dispel other long-held beliefs, such as water application being able to push fire. Many fire departments have adjusted, taking such approaches as “hitting it hard from the yard” and then transitioning to an interior attack once the structure has been cooled a bit, minimizing the threat of flashover.

I realize that this is a very large country and the fire service is very diverse. As such, I am not in a position to recommend any specific changes for an individual department. What I am proposing is that everyone in the fire service pay attention to the emerging science and read as much of the material as possible. There are also videos and other learning mediums that can help firefighters gain such information.

Although not a groundswell of opposition, I have heard discussions from various firefighters who imply that they don’t really believe the emerging scientific findings. They point to their experiences and anecdotal events to attempt to dispel the findings. It is as if they think that they can change the laws of physics just because of their perceptions or that maybe a vote, even in contrast to the scientific results, will somehow dispel what they are being told. In some ways, I think some people don’t want to change their belief systems and like the way they approach fire. They may think they have the best system and don’t feel a need to change. Maybe they don’t, but they should at least look at the information and consider all their options.

Over the years I have come to realize that some of the lessons passed on to me from previous generations weren’t exactly correct. Sometimes I learned the hard way. We are in some very exciting times in the fire service in that we have more resources available to help us learn the scientific principles of fire behavior. We also have more ways to gain that information through the Internet. It is not always easy to accept changes to previously held beliefs. There are some that say that the fire service is stuck in tradition. I don’t believe that to be the case, although there are exceptions to the rules. I think most firefighters interested in advancing the fire service will study their chosen profession and act according to the information available. Sometimes it takes a little longer to come to the realization that previously provided information is not exactly true. But, an open mind is necessary to help take full advantage of the science available today.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

No posts to display