By Robert Tutterow
Warning-reading this column may be hazardous to your emotional state of mind.
Two recent events have provided information that takes many of us out of our comfort zone in the way we attack fires and protect ourselves while doing it. The first event was the “2013 Kill the Flashover” (KTF) project at the South Carolina Fire Academy. The second event, two weeks later, was the 2013 F.I.E.R.O. Biennial Fire PPE Symposium in Raleigh, North Carolina. In this month’s column, I will cover KTF and next month the PPE Symposium.
KTF, under the leadership of Chief Joe Starnes, looks at fire behavior in a different way. KTF does not claim that fire behavior has changed. Rather, it shows that through understanding air track management, the fire behavior can be managed in a way that makes for much more effective and safer fire attack. The results of KTF perfectly dovetail with the recent findings in a series of live fire burns by Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL).
Based on this scientific research, the traditional role of truck companies could change 180 degrees. Rather than “opening” a burning structure, the research is revealing it is more effective to “close” and compartmentalize the structure. This method is more effective for fire extinguishment. It is safer for the occupants. And, it is safer for firefighters. Future truck company work might include installing portable doors for confinement rather than creating openings. What are portable doors? Think of a spread bar with a flame retardant fabric attached to it. It operates on the same principle as a shower curtain, except the rod is expandable. Another huge benefit of understanding air track management is that extremely hot fires can be extinguished with very small amounts of water.
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini was in attendance at the recent KTF project. His initial comment was that the emerging information was like going to college “back in the day.” He was referring to a generation or so ago when the fire service and a college education were seldom used in the same sentence.
KTF 2013 was unique in that it went well beyond using thermal couplers for monitoring the fire environment. It also had 11 video cameras capturing a visual image of the fire behavior (air track management) and subsequent extinguishment.
Thermal imaging cameras (TICs) were a key tool in KTF. The fires were constantly monitored from both the interior and the exterior. It occurred to me that at least three TICs should be used from the “get-go” on every structural fire. The first arriving unit on the scene should use one while conducting the 360-degree fire size-up. A TIC should remain in use on the exterior until extinguishment. In fact, a TIC should always be used any time firefighters enter an immediate danger to life or health (IDLH) atmosphere. Of course, the interior crews should have a TIC. And, the rapid intervention team (RIT) team should be equipped and monitoring the scene with a TIC.
Air Track Management
The principles of KTF come from the research and teachings of John Taylor from the United Kingdom. However, the basis of his work stems from working with the Swedish Fire Service. He is the author of the book Smoke Burns, which every student of the fire service should read. Taylor has given presentations throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, and the United States. He attended the 2012 KTF as an advisor.
An understanding of air track management will keep firefighters out of dangerous environments, hence the name Kill the Flashover. It calls for aggressiveness but not foolish aggressiveness. It also advocates applying water as soon as possible, even if it requires the initial attack stream to be made through a window.
One observer, who attended KTF and the PPE Symposium, says the American method of fire attack is like a tiger hunt. The objective is to kill the tiger. The weapon of choice should be something like a scoped high-power/long-range gun that can take the beast down with one shot. However, the fire service chooses to dance with the tiger and then try to stab it to death.
Some have badmouthed KTF as a means to reduce staffing. I tend to disagree. I think the roles of firefighters might change as a result. For example, traditional vent crews might be assigned to installing portable doors. Personnel will also need to monitor TICs throughout the incident. A lot of sequentially compressed action-oriented tasks will remain.
I also think there is a possibility that KTF will help produce a more professional firefighter through a better understanding of fire behavior.
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.).