Why I Teach: Joseph Polenzani

In this series, Fire Engineering Senior Editor Mary Jane Dittmar looks at the things that motivated and inspired instructors to present on their topics at FDIC International 2016. Segments will be posted on a regular basis up to and through the conference, April 18-23.

Joseph Polenzani

By Captain Joseph Polenzani

Franklin (TN) Fire Department

“Mobile Homes: Small House, Big Challenge”

Wednesday, April 20, 3:30 p.m.-5:15 p.m.

My primary motivation is to raise the awareness of the specific hazards involved in fighting mobile home fires and to encourage firefighters to approach these fires with a better understanding of the tactics that should be employed.

As a volunteer firefighter in a rural area and a career firefighter in the suburbs, mobile homes have been a presence throughout my career. However, when discussing these homes with other firefighters, I often hear comments like, “surround and drown,”  “built to burn,” or “unsavable.” The idea seemed to be that these residences were lost causes from the get-go and that they could essentially be treated like extra-large vehicles, where the primary fire control strategy is exposure protection. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Despite all the fire service has learned about building construction and fire behavior, firefighters are still dying in single-family residences, and mobile homes are no exception. Regardless of what a firefighter may tell you at the kitchen table, when encountering a fire in a mobile home, we tend to use the same tactics as for any other house fire. The problem is that mobile homes are different from site-built houses. Ultra-lightweight building materials cause the structure to behave differently when exposed to fire.

Mobile homes are frequently modified by their owners, creating unusual and unexpected floor plans that can disorient firefighters. And, the small interior space of most mobile homes means the effects of any rapid changes in fire conditions can be concentrated in the area in which fire personnel are working. These factors contributed to the deaths of a Pennsylvania firefighter in 2001 and two firefighters in West Virginia in 2009; all were operating in a heavily modified mobile home. On New Year’s Eve, 2015, two firefighters were injured fighting a mobile home fire in Portage, Michigan, and an Indianapolis firefighter was injured at a mobile home fire on January 10, 2016.

Students tell me they are leaving the class with a new appreciation for the complexity of fighting fires in these seemingly simple structures and that they will take the message back to their departments with the goal of improving firefighter safety.

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