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Science on the Fireground for a Better Firefight

Many years ago, a young firefighter was chastised by his officer-me-for attacking an interior fire from an exterior position, based on the belief that the hose stream would push the fire throughout the structure and create an environment that was untenable for any potential victims. Personal experience and observation had led to this conclusion that a handline directed on a fire could, in fact, help to advance that fire to yet uninvolved portions of the building.

Today, some scientific members of our community who have been unable to replicate this phenomenon and widespread belief are challenging this assumption/observation. The position of fire researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Underwriters Laboratories is that it is not possible that the young firefighter would have pushed the fire but rather that his efforts may have assisted the extinguishment of the fire. Sometimes what we see or believe we are seeing might not be accurate, like the old line that says, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

Researchers find themselves in an interesting position in the fire service; we tend to believe "our lying eyes" until the science folks can convince us otherwise. The reason may lie in the fact that some science has to do with a lot of opinion or faith, and that's where it gets sticky. We need to separate the science that is obtained in controlled environments, and we can replicate and observe in real life from the science that is theory.

Take, for example, the case of Alfred Wegener. He was the scientist who first championed the Continental Drift Theory. In the early part of the 20th century, he attended several conferences where he proposed that the earth was at one time a solid land mass and that through tidal or gravitational forces it was pulled apart. He would display the current globe and show how, like a jigsaw puzzle, you can put all of the pieces together as one.

His theory was not met with a lot of positive feedback; he was isolated, ridiculed, and diminished. Today, with all of our advanced scientific equipment and measurement capabilities as well as satellite photography, he's being vindicated. His theory is now less theory and more measurable science.

If we could have some firefighting type of satellite photography and someone to analyze it on the fireground, our observations of fire behavior during fires would be far more reliable. Unfortunately, we often must contend with so many fireground issues all competing for our attention that it is difficult to focus on any one issue in depth. Given our limitations of perspective and understanding of the entire context of the fireground, our interpretations can be flawed. We are now blessed to have science replicating our work and analyzing our tactics, helping to explain to us what was going on that we could not see, such as flow paths. It is even more significant that we are participating in and having the opportunity to help interpret data into proposed tactics.

The good folks doing this research will be the first to remind us, however, that every fire is different and our tactics change in timing, location, and many other factors at every fire. With this in mind, they are very clear that the new knowledge and findings are supplements to good experience, good support, and good training.

In his essay "On Liberty," John Stuart Mill wrote, "The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and the livelier the impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

John Stuart Mill was a smart guy; he held the belief that opinions which have been held for a long time meant that they must have some truth in them and that the folks who hold these long-held beliefs should not be seen negatively but as people who just continue to recognize that truth or opinion. He recognized that new information or data might render the older opinions limited but nonetheless that truth, limited though it may be, must still be acknowledged and never isolated, ridiculed, and diminished.

Today we are learning more about the dynamics of firefighting and the effectiveness of tactics at a faster pace than ever before, thanks in no small part to the inter-web. This learning is good, but the learning that went on for generations before us is good also. Many of those lessons learned were learned at a dear price. We are finding many new truths and questioning some old ones, and this is a good thing.

We should find ways to understand the old tactics as they were understood in the context of the day and build on those hard-learned lessons. We should embrace those who still see those truths, as limited as we may feel they are, in no small part for the effort it took to learn them and the courage it took to embrace them when they were new ideas. We should honor the work of our friends in the scientific community, and we should learn and adapt the findings of science to where we do our work. Fireground experiences will improve when credible, experienced firefighters evaluate the findings from scientifically measured replicated fires and thinking firefighters share that knowledge and put it to good use.

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Comment by Rob Fisher on January 9, 2014 at 3:06pm


Well said sir !!

There has to be some middle ground between a firefighter's intuition built from experience and science. These two will intersect at some point for our profession. It's been a long time coming. I hope it happens before the end of my career.

You, Fire Engineering and many others are creating a good movement between the ol' salty firefighter and the student less experienced firefighter. I really wish we still had Tommy Brennan here. It would be real interesting to hear his perspective on the recent studies. I struggle with some of the science, but I'm trying to re-learn as much as possible. Some things make sense, while others just don't compute.

Keep up the great work !!

And, I'm glad we're not discussing CAFs.

Comment by Joseph Pronesti on January 9, 2014 at 2:42pm
Great article, Chief, you and Fire Engineering are so important to my career! I hope UL comes up with a "train the trainer" type of class and then send those that want to spread the word out to the firefighter world!
Comment by Mark Cummins on January 8, 2014 at 6:56pm

CHIEF Halton, I wish to personally thank you for being a positive inspiration in my fire fighting career and thank you for your dedication to the fire fighters all over the world.

Comment by Bobby Halton on January 8, 2014 at 4:20pm


First thank you for being so kind in your comments about fire engineering, and I hope that firefighters in our community, the fire engineering training community never get hammered for their opinion or for how they say it. I hope that in this forum everyone is respected and treated with dignity and kindness.

And see I didn't say anything about CAFS absorbing toxic smoke in reducing cancer exposure either. I love you and your passion. I hope that you continue to express your opinion about the wonderful benefits that you see from our use of cafs and I hope that everyone, no we must insist that everyone treats your opinion and everyone else's opinion with respect. I will try to move some of our NIST, UL and Southern Labs folks into investigating what happens to the toxicity of smoke during the application of compressed air foam you have my word.

Comment by Mark Cummins on January 8, 2014 at 4:10pm

How can we encourage more of the credible, experienced fire fighters to share their evaluations of the scientifically measured fires?  This publication is an excellent place for us to express our opinions and I am very grateful for being allowed to write the way I do , but often when some of us front line fire fighters write our views we get hammered for how we say it rather than what is the meaning or subject of the information we are trying to share. The scientific information that UL has shared is the best that I have seen in my 50 years of fighting fires. I hope there will much more to come, because I am sure there will many fire fighter and citizen lives saved from this effort. And see,,,, I didn't say anything about CAFS absorbing toxic smoke and reducing cancer exposure.

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