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Ventilation Factors You Cannot Control, Part 3 - Tactical Considerations

This multiple part blog has been focusing on the ventilation factors that are present on the fireground. The factors in which we cannot control but have a significant impact on the operations. Part 1 focused on door failure while Part 2 focused on window failure during testing. If you have not read those parts please go back as the information presented are necessary pieces of the puzzle.

Part #1 -

Part #2 -

As stated and written in a previous parts which was originally stated very eloquently by Dan Madrzykowski from National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). "Engineers can't predict the time to failure and neither can firefighters - hence the need to size-up, wear your PPE and SCBA when you are in a building that you think is on fire, cool the gases to take away the potential of a rapid transition to flashover if a window fails, and  then operate from a location so that you are upwind of the bulk of the exhaust gases if possible.  Bottom line expect that the window or door will open/fail when you least expect it." 

 The title indicates we are going to focus on tactical considerations. But first, we must ask; is it possible or necessary to consider factors we cannot control? Please let me answer that for you. It is absolutely necessary for officers, firefighters and incident commanders to predict what will and what may happen next. We must be two or three steps (at least) ahead of the incident. 

That statement highlights the necessity for all of us to spend greater time educating ourselves in fire behavior and building construction. If you can strengthen your ability to understand fire science and how the building construction impacts the fire you can then start making sound fireground decisions.

This blog will focus on this topic looking at case studies. I want to bring real world examples to you not just theory. Real world case studies where one of our brothers paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Front view of the fire structure that took Captain H. Johnson's Life (NIOSH Photo)

Captain Herbie Johnson from the Chicago fire department was killed in the line of duty on November 2, 2012. Capt. Johnson died saving his men. "He was trying to get us out but he couldn't get himself out," said firefighter-paramedic Mike Imparato -


Photo #2 Hallway in which Captain H Johnson was operating prior to incident. Note the space heater that the victim was near when he yelled for help and the metal door that had been attached to a doorway to the covered porch and was warped by the heat. (NIOSH photo)

Today we write and learn from this tragedy so we can become better firefighters and officers with the goal of not repeating history.

A National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) computer-modeling study of the 2012 Chicago house fire reveals the conditions that unleashed a surge of searing gases, leading to the death of a veteran firefighter.

NIST examined the fire dynamics of the incident at the request of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Chicago Fire Department. Simulations conducted with NIST’s Fire Dynamics Simulator examined the fire’s temperature and pressure at various locations and the resulting flow path. With the agency’s SmokeView visualization software, NIST researchers also developed a graphical representation of the fire’s behavior and the conditions that firefighters likely experienced during the course of their interior operations.

The simulation shows that fire in a covered back porch caused a closed steel-faced, wood-framed door to crumble, releasing pressure and causing hot gases to pour into the adjoining hallway where the victim and another firefighter were advancing a fire hose. The coincidental timing of the responders “interior attack” and the door’s failure proved to be deadly. In less than 5 seconds, the flow of gases caused the hallway temperature to soar, from about 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) to at least 260 degrees Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit), the study found.

The victim, a 54-year-old captain, was overwhelmed by the rush of fire gases. He was removed to the exterior, revived by paramedics, and transported to a hospital, where he died.

NIST computer-modeling report -

NIOSH Line of Duty Death (LODD) Report 2012-28

Since 1999, NIOSH has issued reports on 15 fires in which changes in flow paths have resulted in 17 “line-of-duty” deaths of firefighters, in addition to civilian deaths and injuries to responders. Failure of a door or window, collapse of a ceiling, and uncoordinated ventilation during a firefighting operation are among the variety of factors that can rapidly alter a fire’s flow path.

Including the Chicago tragedy, NIST has used its Fire Dynamics Simulator to study six fires that have resulted in firefighter deaths. Insights into fire behavior and thermal conditions gleaned from these studies have helped to shape research aimed at improving the safety and effectiveness of firefighters.

NIST research, conducted with Underwriters Laboratories demonstrates that applying water from the exterior of a burning structure—before attacking the fire from the inside—can reduce the potential for high-speed flows of hot gases to develop and ignite.

While there is still more data that needs to be gathered it is clear that water reduces temperatures and takes the energy away. Some feel this takes the focus off of the victim and onto the fire. Some debate we must put the victim first. I couldn't agree more! The victim must always come first! Transitional attack has its place on the fire ground and as we saw in this video water cools the environment and saves lives even Firefighters lives.

Applying water will cool the environment, decreasing the chances for window and door failure, which in turn decreases the flow paths. It is clear that we must control the building. We must extinguish the fire. We must get water on the fire the quickest way possible. And to clarify my statements through the window is not for every fire or every situation.

However, it must be a tactical consideration to save lives, extinguish the fire and control the building.

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Comment by Paul J De Bartolomeo on January 16, 2015 at 7:26pm

I've read the NIOSH report and watched the NIST simulation several times and there are a few things I don't agree with. The door in question did not fail or crumble from what I can see. It appears to have warped or buckled which obviously would cause conditions to change and create some degree of a flowpath. They make it seem as though the door was completely destroyed and providing zero protection, the picture seems to say otherwise. Based on the timeline and sequence of events I still think the exterior line had some negative effect on interior conditions. The NIOSH repot eluded to this somewhat with the following statement   "Since the E123 captain did not acknowledge the radio transmission, it is unclear if he received or understood it and may have moved into harms way" I interpret harms way to mean opposite the 2 1/2 operating in the rear. The NIST report goes on to discuss the transitional attack and sing its praise but they never take into consideration the effect E-123's line would of had if it were operated when conditions began to change. Realistically those conditions (500 degrees) are on the very low end of potential flashover and are pretty average at typical fires. I think the PPE issue may of caused what would've been a normal operation to become very chaotic.

Comment by P.J. Norwood on January 16, 2015 at 2:00pm
aron, please don't take any of this personal! I did not not and I am not questioning your experience or ability.

I will say my experiences combined with science data and education from incidents around the country tells me something different then your experience. This does not mean either of us is right or wrong it simply means we are just different. Some of the problems in the fire service is we have some who only use their experience to make their decisions and opinions. Then we have those who use only articles, blogs and science to make their decisions and opinions. Lastly, there are some who use a combination of all of it coupled together to make their decisions and opinions. Me, I am in the last group mentioned. Which does not make me any better or worse it just makes me different. I am not trying to force anything on you. I am only sharing my opinion which is is learned through my experience, training and education coupled with the science.

Please also go back to my last paragraph in the blog where I talk about transitional attack. Please closely read as you will see I do not say transitional is for every instance.

Also please understand I did Not question if you knew what a NIOSH report was. My NIOSH reference is indicating you should read the report not just my blog. If you did that you would see the word crumbled in reference to the door. I did not fabricate the wording.
Comment by P.J. Norwood on January 16, 2015 at 12:48pm
Good afternoon thank you for reading and offering your comments. First let me say I do not advocate for transitional attack for every situation. There is a time and a place for every tactic and tool. When to and when not to apply comes through education and training.

Aaron, I am not trying to get anywhere! I am sharing knowledge and information contained from within a report. Not a report I wrote. Not a fire I was on. Not a fire I was directly impacted by. I would urge you to go speak to the members who worked with and for Capt Johnson and ask them if they were proficient at stretching and flowing water. I would be willing to say they were and are very proficient. I would however caution you at telling them education and knowledge of "flow path stuff" is not important.

As far as the door; please take the time to read the reports study the data not just the summaries and blogs like this to make your determination of what is right and what is not right.

Paul, as far as cooling the environment; I am a advocate at cooling the environment the quickest way possible. Too may firefighters are taught to to stretch the line and not flow water until you reach the seat of the fire. Using the reach of the stream and cooling the environment as you go is what we need to train our members to do. This is not about strictly about transitional attack. This is about cooling the environment by any means you to prevent rapid fire development
Comment by Paul J De Bartolomeo on January 15, 2015 at 9:13pm

BTW if that's the door in question it doesn't look like it crumbled. It looks slightly warped to me.


Comment by Paul J De Bartolomeo on January 15, 2015 at 12:33pm

The NIOSH report states a 21/2 inch was operated from the rear into an attic window. This was never communicated and or acknowledged by the interior hose crew. It appears they were in harms way when this exterior line was put into operation without their knowledge. It seems that line may have caused conditions inside to intensify causing the door to fail and sending heat & fire towards the interior crew which is odd because I thought we couldn't push fire. In addition it cited a lack of full PPE (gloves & hood) may have caused the victim to retreat hastily when conditions changed dislodging his facepiece. In any event the conditions inside (140-500) were not that dramatic, in fact Id say they were average at best for a typical structural fire. Personally I feel applying water from the inside would have sufficiently cooled the environment as well. In addition, you mention in your conclusion that " applying water will cool the environment, decreasing the chances for window and door failure". I'm guessing you mean applying water from the outside? How do you do that without failing a window? 

Comment by P.J. Norwood on January 15, 2015 at 9:16am
Paul, thank you for reading and taking the time to ask additional questions. I will reach out to Dan M from NIST and have him address you questions.
Comment by Paul J De Bartolomeo on January 15, 2015 at 9:09am

I have 2 questions regarding the Chicago fire. Was the line charged at the time the door burned through & was it operating? Did NIST ever include the effects of a line flowing 180 gpm from the interior at the time this occurred into any of their simulations?  An increase in temperature from 140-500 degrees is not that dramatic. The article stated they were advancing a line in the adjoining hallway when the door failed. Was the line ever opened to try & cool the environment & extinguish the porch? What effects would flowing 180 gpm into this environment had on conditions? 

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