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Do you teach your firefighters how to read heat? If so, how?

Back in the 'old days' (before my time) firefighters without hoods would be able to tell if they were too far in. Now, in no way am I advocating not using hoods. However, those salty firemen were able to read heat conditions and knew when to get down and when to get out!

So I put this question to the mob. How do you read heat and smoke conditions? Do you teach probationary firefighters? Or, is this skill mainly for fire officers?

Thank you in advance for your responses.

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Modern turnout gear as good as it is can be very dangerous. A huge problem is that is does not release sufficient body heat causing unhealthy body core temps. We know this can produce stress related heart attacks in perfectly healthy firefighters. A good part of this problem is caused by our ability to stay inside the fire building longer and get closer to the fire. I have witnessed, both in training and on the job, firefighters go into a room that was experiencing a very hostile fire environment. Unless you are performing a quick grab of a fire victim there is no other reason to enter a room under these conditions. With modern nozzles producing high quality and high flow solid or straight fire streams the fire can be attacked from a safe distance from the hallway or adjacent room. I have read some studies that suggest that fire departments that were still utilizing long coats and pull up boots had significantly lower burn rates than those utilizing modern bunker gear. Why? Because those guys wearing that couldn't get close enough to the fire until they had knocked it down from a safe distance. Am I suggesting that we return to that ensemble. No, just merely making the point that our gear protects us so well that we do not realize we are in trouble until it is too late.

Personally, I do not use ear flaps on my helmet. Using them in conjunction with a hood insulates that area of our neck and head very well. Often firefighters then only know they are in too deep when their breathing air starts to get hot. Without the earflaps it gives me a high point on my body that can "sense" higher temperatures without having my skin exposed. I feel the a good hood by itself protects me adequately but allows a thinner area of protection for heat detection. I also believe experience play a huge part. I do not teach this to students during their intial training. I do though discuss it during some advance classes. It is really a personal choice that everyone has to make for themselves.
We teach our guys after making their door checks and waiting for a few seconds to watch the lift of the smoke, to lay on their sides. With the bottom hand they can use their flashlight to look for the 4 L's. Life, Lift, Location (of fire) and Layout (of room). With their other hand we have them expose a little bit of skin on their wrist or back part of their hand. Long before modern ovens, Bakers used to check oven temperatures with the back of their hands. A person will reflexively pull their hand away at 400 degrees of dry heat. By having them check the heat at this level, their outstreched hand will be roughly at the height where they crawl in at. If they can't hold their hand up approximately 3-4 feet from the floor then that means the temp at that level is roughly 400 deg. If its 400 deg at 3 ft then it is 1000 degrees at the ceiling and there is fire over their heads. All of this takes less than 10 seconds to do. We then teach them to constantly monitor the heat level as they advance to the seat of the fire.

While this may or may not be advanced, I think that students should be given these tools so that they can keep situational awareness.

A reply from Europe. Turnout gear complying to the European standards (CE...) require less thermal protection than the US (NFPA) requirements, thusly, European firefighters can note overly hot environments earlier than you guys.
However, the "fashion" for the last 15 odd years over here in head protection has been tha GALLET style "integral" helmet which is quite similar to a cross between an fighter pilot's helmet and a LA county highway patrol helmet. It can incorporate SCBA mask by a multiclip.on system, also a radio com set with a craneal receiver and throat mike and mounting for different models of flashlights. It has two face shields (one transparent the other gold lame coated heat reflectant), a reflective flap for neck protection and, fantastic ear protection due to the low side and back structure. They come in assorted colors from black to white, even chrome-like finishes. Put a hood on under this helmet and you've really got sensational head protection.
It does have a couple of "minor" drawbacks, though.
1. As it is fairly tightly closed around the neck, it retains a hell a of a lot of heart, for a very long period of time.
2. One of our means for "reading" a burning structure are our ears, right? With this helmet, forget your accute hearing
capacity (adding the hood reduces it even more).
3. Where do kids and old ladies hide from those life threatening flames? Under beds, inside closets, in bathtubs, and
similar hard to find locations. With a USA style helmet plus hood you quite probably CAN hear those weakend crys for
help, but inside the Gallet, it's not so easy.
5. With your helmet featuring flaired sides and back, when debris or excess water starts falling on your head, where does
it tend to go?
Normally it slides off and away from your shoulders and back. The reflective shrowd had to be added to the Gallet
after several burnt necks.
So, give me a NFPA compliant bunker chacket with lost of rellective tape, one of these silver plated integral helmets and a Harley Davidson chopper, and buddy, I'll make any gal in town. However, my respect for my body (above all my balding head) inhibits me from usimng this helmet in a working fire environment. Anything else?
George Potter
Madrid, Spain
I leave my ear flaps rolled up. If I need them when I locate a fire, I can roll them down. But with them up, I can sense sudden heat changes much quicker. As a department we don't advocate this, but many guys on the line do this for this reason and pass it on to new guys as well.
As one from the old school at one time and sizzled the ears, I always wear a hood but not the flaps down on the helmet to feel the change of temperture. But I also over the years have learned to read smoke and how it reflects rapid temperture changes and pass this on to all my crew members. As conditions change rapidly so does smoke and the way it looks,it travels and the speed it banks down in the high temperture environment that indicates a roll over/ flash over situation. Reading smoke tells you long before entry the tempertures you will encounter and the need to reconsider your operational considerations. As firefighters this is a skill we should all know for the safety of ourselves and our crew.
I teach our firefighters to read the smoke once on scene or inside the structure. There is a great program on firefighter close calls that you can download. By watching smoke you can get an idea of the heat. But I also get them to pull back their glove just enough to feel heat. Not enough to get burned but just enough to see what might be going on and only as a last resort. I stress to read the smoke.

Shane Eaton
Dennis and Shane,

Thank you. I always felt that it was dangerous for guys to rush into buildings with smoke pumping out without monitoring their conditions. I've seen firefighters look at a building upon arrival then in the course of their tasks, i.e. stretching the line, tool selection, ect. not look at it again until they're at the front door and bleeding their line. Then to add insult to injury once they throw the door open they rush into the smoke. So my next question or an add on to the first is: How do you teach your firefighters about fire location, room layout or any other information gathering process once you force the front door?
Dennis, Shane & Jay,

Just as we have to read, feel and hear the building under destruction, reading the smoke coming out of it wiil indeed give you a great amount of information before entry. If not enough info can be obtained from exterior observations, then you'll have to get it from the inside. Often, just opening a door a couple of inches may let enough somke out to complement the needed info. There is a saying attributed to Napoleon, "dress me slowly, I'm in a hurry". Another says, "fools rush in where angels fear to tread". Both should be applied when entering a burning building, which as I said above, is a building under destruction. Enough personnel with full personal protection (incl. SCBA) charged hose lines with adequate flow at the nozzle and a reasonable knowledge of the affected building, which is obtained from knowing in "general terms" typical residential / commercial / other layouts (two story residential, living areas normally ground floor, sleeping on first floor, generally), and the IC's pre intervention evaluation of the situation; ABCD sides, Nº floors, type of construction, etc.

The glove trick is good, I've done it a couple of times, without getting blisters, but it does serve as a reliable thermometer.

Dennis, if you keep your flaps up, I sincerely hope you use a hood. If you get into a flashover situation without that protection, you will suffer 2nd degree and quite probably 3rd degree burns to both ears, the back of your neck and your face around your mask seal.

Yake care out there,

George Potter
Great advise, just remember to tell them the difference between "wet" heat and "dry" heat. If it is wet heat, they will pull back at about 212 degrees (hand over a boiling pot of water).
'The Art of Reading Smoke' by Dave Dodson is an excellent resource. I used information from this dvd to make my own presentation on Reading Smoke and I have since presented it to all of our 90 members. Excellent information that all FIrefighters should have.
As an instructor in both the industrial fire venue (power industry fire brigades) and the civil service venue (retired carreer and and now volunteer), I would have to say yes you have to teach it to new people. In our industry The fuels we use create huge amounts of smoke in some cases while other fuels (hydrogen) burn with no visible flame or smoke in some cases. OUr fire fighters have to slow down and feel for the heat and sometimes the pressure increases associated sith this. We show them these techniques during live burn training. In the civil side I teach the smae way but we have a better time with reading smoke because they respond from the outside while an industrial firefighter may respond from within the structure. Also there are fewer fires going on for new people to see and learn from experience.
One thing i didn't see mentioned, was the use of Thermal Imagers to read heat changes. They are a great tool when used appropriately and if you are scanning doorways, stairways, and other channels you will see the heat movement and pick up changes before they trap you. Also a crew member with a thermal imager can scan back the way the crew came looking for sudden changes that may trap them.
Your comments on thermal imagers is right on, and indeed this should have been exposed some messages back. With this tool in your "options pack", you can visualize what conditions are in front, above, around and, BEHIND you as you penetrate into a burning structure. If properly used, the TI can help to save ears and the backs of many hands.

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