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It's Time to Pull Our Heads Out of...the Sand

This piece is directed to the leadership of the American Fire Service. Therefore, it is directed to the Boards of leading fire service organizations. It is directed to those who oversee the most popular of fire service publications, websites, and more respectable blogs. It is directed to those leading the efforts at our most prominent and active research agencies to better improve our understanding of fire dynamics and our best practices to combat today’s fires. It is directed to fire service veterans, who have been around for more years than we care to admit, and have experienced the best and worst of times and events. It is directed to those just entering the fire service, who have more years ahead of them than they can imagine, and have the ability to impact the best and worst of times and events they have yet to experience. It is directed to anyone who is willing to take the time to read it. And, it is directed to myself, someone who has spent a life-time in the fire service, living to fight fires and train to do so; someone who truly (as Nick Brunacini best eluded to in his book B-Shifter) enjoyed an era when we reached self-actualization by riding around on fire trucks putting out house fires.

The piece is not intended to be confrontational, argumentative or antagonistic. It is intended to cause some self-reflection and introspection for all of us. It may simply result in my own education and enlightenment that I am a little (or a lot) off-base, out-of-line, irrational and ridiculous. But, in recent years, while my purpose and passion has remained focused on firefighting tactics, firefighter safety, and service delivery to my communities, my perspective on how best to passionately pursue this purpose has changed. And today, I simply decided to try to do something more about it. Allow me to explain what prompted this little editorial exercise.

A couple days ago, I came across an edition of FirefighterCloseCalls.com, posted on May 5th, regarding the heroic efforts by a Baldwinsville, NY Deputy Chief and his crews to try and rescue a two year-old girl from her burning home. Unfortunately, after being pulled from the house and transported to the hospital, the girl was pronounced dead. The piece did a great job appropriately praising the efforts of all those who responded, sympathizing with all involved, and personalizing the loss we all feel when faced with, as the article referred to, “THAT FIRE”. But, I immediately felt something was missing from the article.

I did not remember seeing anything about this fire, so I quickly googled it and was only able to bring up a few stories from the local media sources that reported on the fire that had occurred on May 3rd in Van Buren, NY. I encourage all to do the same, and because you can, I won’t go into much detail here. Also I can’t, as I am still trying to learn more details myself. I only know what I have read in the handful of media reports on-line. With that said, here are the general points of the incident:

-          A mother apparently left something cooking unattended on the stove while stepped was outside and got involved in doing something, as her two year-old daughter was napping upstairs in the home.

-          The mother and neighbors realized the house was on fire. They called 9-1-1 and began efforts to try to get in the house. In the process, they apparently and undoubtedly opened doors and broke some windows.

-          A deputy fire chief arrived within three minutes and also tried to “get in there”, but could not due to advanced fire conditions.

-          Crews arrived sometime after (time not specified in the materials I have seen to date), and apparently conducted an aggressive, coordinated fire attack and search. They removed the child, according to one account, within eight minutes of the fire department being dispatched.

-          The girl was transported to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

-          Friends and neighbors have started a fund to help the family.

To this point, there was not anything to this incident much different than many other incidents reported from around the country, so far just in May, let alone years past. But, photos from this incident caught my attention, and quite frankly, made me mad. THIS FIRE appeared to have occurred in a newer home in a newer subdivision. I do not yet know exactly when the house was built, but I can say it has been since the last Google Earth update, in possibly 2010?

Now, for a variety of reasons, I do not usually read the comments submitted by readers at the end of news articles. However, with curiosity, I began reading the 67 comments following what seemed to be the main news story posted the day after the fire. These comments were obviously made by a cross-section of the lay public and some, evidenced by screen names and/or content, by people familiar with fire service issues. Of the 67 comments, many expressed their sadness regarding the tragic event and expressed condolences to the mother, the family, the neighbors, and the firefighters. There were comments both berating and defending the mother; questioning how this fire could have “spread so fast” (including one obligatory elusion to a conspiracy theory); debating whether well-intentioned neighbors were to blame for breaking out windows; arguing the response times of volunteer versus career fire crews; wondering if smoke alarms were present and why no one outside couldn’t hear them; questioning the quality of the home’s construction, including several the delved into the thickness of the sheet rock used, and one suggesting cement board be required by code in kitchens; and, a few actually disputing the need for fund-raising efforts for a family who has insurance – really?!  I was reminded why I try not to read the comments.

Of the 67 comments, not one from either a lay person or fire service person questioned, suggested, mentioned or even hinted about home fire sprinklers. This fueled my frustration and led me to ask myself, “What are we doing wrong?”  How can “THIS FIRE” occur in 2015, and no one even think to ask about home fire sprinklers and the impact they could have and would have had on the outcome of this incident (please, keep reading, as my point will be different then you may be thinking at this moment).

I then went back through the popular fire service websites and blogs, specifically searching for more information about this fire, from those who would care about such events. I found nothing. I may have missed something; and, if I did, someone please point it out to me. But, I find no coverage of this particular fire to date within the fire service other than the FirefighterCloseCalls.com piece that originally caught my attention. And, that piece, as I immediately noticed, made no mention of the lack of fire sprinklers in this new home.

Now, let’s be honest with ourselves, which is a requirement for self-reflection and introspection. There has always been, and remains, a definite split within the fire service between us big, brave, American Super-hero “line firefighters” or “suppression guys”, and those often maligned fire prevention, code enforcement, and/or public education “geeks”. I readily admit that, back in the day, I once stood in the kitchen of the fire station and verbally questioned the manhood of a brother firefighter who had announced he was leaving the crew to take an opening in the fire prevention bureau. My comments were met with loud laughter from the other brothers in the kitchen, who then chimed in on the action. Looking back now, I realize how asinine I acted. But, the reality is, fire suppression has always and will always take precedence over fire prevention, and there are valid reasons why. While it may be “ideal” to prevent all fires, and while we have seen great success from pro-active fire prevention and public education activities, our reality in this Country is that fires are accepted as unfortunate accidents that always happen to someone else; and therefore, we will always need to be prepared to respond and suppress fires and save lives and property when they do occur.

With that said, let me be clear on my perspective, and the whole point of this piece: Home Fire Sprinklers are NOT primarily just a fire prevention, code enforcement, or public education issue. Home fire sprinklers are primarily a fire suppression issue, a firefighter safety issue, a service delivery issue, and therefore need to be a firefighter training issue. And we, as leaders in the American Fire Service, need to start embracing and advocating that fact if we are ever truly going to change and impact the future – the future for our own firefighters and the future for the citizens we are sworn to protect.

For decades, we have sought, implemented, debated, changed, and redefined our best practices related to firefighting tactics and incident command. We have always asserted our motivation is finding more effective and efficient fire suppression methods, improving firefighter safety, and exemplifying customer service. We debate cultural change in the fire service, as these three priorities at times seem to contradict one another. We seek and stress scientific data to support our efforts to affect meaningful change. We have tried so many different ways to improve over the decades, we find ourselves re-inventing equipment and tactics once disregarded, and disregarding that once believed irrefutable best practice. The whole time, we have all but ignored the impact home fire sprinklers can have on our core purpose. The home fire sprinkler cause has been left to the often-forgotten minority of fire prevention and public education specialists among us. It is time we pull our heads out of the sand and recognize, elevate, and advocate the role fire sprinklers, especially home fire sprinklers play in fire suppression, firefighter safety, and customer service.

Fire suppression tactics: We can and should continue to discuss fire dynamics, the impact of ventilation on fire development and fireground tactics, the method and direction of fire attack, and the variety of ways we can apply water to the fire. We should continue to fund and conduct scientific research to support our efforts. But, no offense to our researchers, the natural basic principles behind the science of firefighting has remained the same since the discovery of fire:

  1. Fire releases heat
  2. Water absorbs heat
  3. All else being equal, the bigger the fire, the more heat is released
  4. The more heat that is released, the more water  required to absorb that heat

Based on these principles, we have spent decades evolving our tools and techniques to put big water on big fires in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Why don’t we start considering an improved fire suppression process in which we most quickly apply a little bit of water on the fire when it is still only releasing a little bit of heat?

            Here’s a newsflash: Fire burns the same way it always has. This is a matter of science and physics and forces of nature predating all of us. However, thanks to centuries of ongoing research, our understanding of how fire burns has certainly changed and improved, and needs to continue to do so. More to the point, we have all come to understanding that changes in the built environment, including the make-up of fuel loads, the increased volume of available oxygen within a space, and the increased use of light-weight, low-mass structural materials, has significantly changed the fire dynamics we now face within the new built environment. Therefore, I agree we must significantly change the fire suppression process we have been using. But, if changes in the built environment are changing the fire problem, why don’t we focus changing our suppression efforts to be included into that built environment?

Again if we are going to be honest with ourselves, no matter how well planned, thought-out, coordinated, and executed the fire suppression efforts of the responding fire department are, it is difficult, if not impossible, to match the effectiveness and efficiency of a fire suppression process that deploys one or two sprinkler heads within moments of the fire’s ignition. If this occurs, concerns, debates, and anxieties about flow paths, ventilation, fuel loads, fire gases, flashover, nozzle selection, direction of attack, method of attack, CAFS, coordinated attacks, VEIS, and what acronyms we use could all be lessened and minimized.

Firefighter Safety: Since the 1970’s, we have made tremendous strides in firefighter safety. We can and should continue to improve. We know while the number of firefighter injuries and LODDs are at or near all-time lows, firefighter injuries and deaths per fire have leveled and/or are rising. There are calls to “change our fire service culture” from one of aggressiveness to one of safety. This ignites the debate on how such a change would impact service delivery, and the pro-aggressive zealots and the pro-safety zealots square off to spar one another. The latest scientific research is driving changes in fire attack methods in the name of firefighter safety, adding fodder to the debate.

Over the years, firefighter safety has evolved to firefighter health, safety and wellness. Efforts have gone beyond simply wearing improved turn-out gear and SCBA and standardizing command and control on the fire ground. We began addressing cardiac related issues and continue to improve upon physicals, fitness, nutrition, and life-choices. We’ve redesigned apparatus, from enclosing cabs and incorporating seat-belt interlock systems to keep our firefighters from falling off and being run over by fire trucks, to placing sirens and air horns low and providing intercom systems to ensure they can simply hear their grandkids laughing. Emphasis during training now routinely includes firefighter health and safety concepts such as risk management, accountability, crew resource management, air-management, and rehab. And, now we are increasing our focus on educating ourselves and taking actions to reduce the silent killer of too many our fire service family members – cancer. All of this has been great!

But once again, we have all but ignored fire sprinklers, especially home fire sprinklers, as a critical component of firefighter safety. I understand that the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives are NOT listed in any order of priority, but I have always found it interesting the 15th item on the list is Code Enforcement and Sprinklers. One, having this item near the bottom of the list and, two, again tying fire sprinklers to code enforcement instead of fire suppression, inadvertently diminishes the attention and importance of the sprinkler issue in the subconscious psyche of most fire service personnel. NIOSH has begun to include “lack of fire sprinklers” in their standard list of contributing factors in LODD reports. Kudos for that.

Statistics show the number of LODDs over the past 37 years that have occurred in structures with operable fire sprinklers is about twelve. Not per year - total. These include a few cardiac events. They also include fires involving non-sprinklered portions of these structures. Data supports that most firefighter injuries and LODDs that occur while engaged in firefighting activities, occur fighting home fires. Question: Is this because, due to shear numbers, most fires occur in homes; or, is this because one and two family homes, by occupancy type, have the lowest presence of fire sprinklers?

No one can argue (at least I hope) that a fire sprinkler system controlling a fire in its incipient stage will dramatically reduce the likelihood of firefighters being seriously injured or killed while engaged in concluding fire suppression efforts at such incidents. We know in the fire service to “never say never”, but come on, firefighters being injured or killed by rapid fire development, becoming lost or trapped, or being crushed or struck by objects in a structural collapse, just doesn’t happen very often when the fire has been basically controlled by a few sprinkler heads before the firefighters have arrived. But, can it not be successfully argued that fire sprinklers reduce the relative physical exertion required by firefighters operating at an incident, and reduce the stress and anxiety of the situation, thus reducing the likelihood of inducing a sudden cardiac event? Can fire sprinklers not reduce the pressure placed on firefighters surrounding response times, which inevitably contributes to apparatus “accidents”? Can fire sprinklers not reduce the amount of carcinogens produced by the fire and impregnated into our turnout gear while engaged in prolonged fire suppression efforts, in turn, reducing the cancer rates of future firefighters? Am I a crazy nut, making irrational comparisons and invalid connections?

Fire sprinklers positively impact firefighter health and safety concepts such as risk management, accountability, crew resource management, air-management, and rehab. Why don’t we stress to our line firefighters that fire sprinklers are a vital component to their safety and health? Fire sprinklers should not be feared as a threat to future staffing levels. They should be embraced as relief to the safety and health issues that have increased as our staffing has already been ravaged over the years – career and volunteer.

If we truly want to “change our culture”, let’s begin changing the perception of fire sprinklers, and home fire sprinklers, from a prevention issue, to a suppression, safety, service delivery issue. If we want to tout the mantra, “Everybody Goes Home”, let’s start touting home fire sprinklers as the best way to ensure that that happens.

Service Delivery: High-quality service delivery to our communities and our customers is our primary purpose in the American fire service, and in many ways, is what we often do best. And, since those services involve the protection of life and property, our purpose is a most noble one. We strive to deliver (not simply provide) the most effective, efficient, professional services to our end-use customers with the often limited resources available to us. One of the most common comparable measures we use to evaluate our service delivery is response time. We have nationally recognized standards and best practices that are based on the time involved in various aspects of the service delivery process. Arguably, our core service is fire suppression and the service delivered to a customer experiencing a fire in their home is putting water on their fire at a sufficient rate to absorb the amount of heat being released. We constantly strive to research, study, practice, standardize, promote and advocate for ways to improve how we deliver this core service. We constantly compete and fight at the local, state, and national level for more and better resources to help us do so.

And, once again, we all but ignore fire sprinklers, especially home fire sprinklers, as the best practice to deliver fire suppression services to the end-use customer, the home owner that experiences a fire. I can assure you that my fire department is the best damned fire department in the nation, just like I bet you can assure me that your department is the best damned department in the nation. Or at least, we would all assert that our own departments are doing the very best we can with the resources we have available to nobly deliver fire suppression services to our communities. Are we really?  No fire department, no matter how well equipped, staffed, trained, and prepared, can deliver core fire suppression services (i.e. water on the seat of the fire) more effectively, more efficiently, more timely, or, did I mention more safely, than a fire sprinkler system. Sorry, to burst our prideful bubble. But, what are we doing to convince our own people of that fact, let alone the public and the policy-makers? And, speaking of policy-makers, they seem to come up with every conceivable suggestion to provide fire suppression services to a community, except home fire sprinklers. Why is that? What have we in the fire service been doing to change this?

Back to the May 3rd fire in Van Buren, NY. Had that newly built home been built with the appropriate home fire sprinkler system, I truly believe:

-          The fire that apparently started by the inevitable act of unattended cooking on the stove while a good-intention mother stepped outside and got involved in something else while her two year-old daughter was napping, would have likely been controlled by one or two sprinkler heads.

-          By the time the mother and neighbors would have realized there was a fire, they would have called 9-1-1 and most likely been able to get in the house and probably up the stairs. In the process, they probably would not have had to break any windows, and had they, the effects on the fire already controlled, would have been minimal.

-          By the time the deputy fire chief arrived within three minutes, he would have been able to “get in there”, and assist the mother or neighbors bring the girl out, as the fire conditions would not have been so advanced.

-          By the time crews arrived, however many minutes after, I am sure they would have conducted a coordinated fire attack to finish off the remaining fire and overhaul the area.

-          The girl would have probably been transported to the hospital to be checked out for the possibility of some smoke inhalation and probably released, maybe kept overnight.

-          A mother, a father, family members, neighbors, a deputy fire chief, and a number of fire fighters would not be strapped with guilt nor haunted by images of the day for the rest of their lives.

-          Friends and neighbors would not have had to start a fund to help the family.

-          None of us would have ever known of the fire, because it would never have made the news, or FirefighterCloseCalls.com.

Bold predictions?  I can’t make such statements because I don’t really know what would have happened?  Maybe. But, I stand by them. And, if we are honest with ourselves, I am confident most of you would agree. Hopefully, this fire will not go as unnoticed as it seems to have thus far. Hopefully, this fire will be thoroughly reviewed, and perhaps our research agencies can apply computer modeling to predict how a home fire sprinkler system would have likely changed the outcome of this fire. Perhaps some good may come from the death of this little two year-old girl.

Conclusion: So why aren’t we, as the leaders of the American fire service, leading the call to truly change, truly revolutionize, the future of fire suppression, firefighter safety, and service delivery, by making fire sprinklers, especially home fire sprinklers, a key focus moving forward. Why weren’t home fire sprinklers included in the IAFC’s top Five Wicked Problems we are facing? Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that everything we have been doing, and are currently doing, is not needed or not important. I fully realize that we must continue and improve our traditional fire suppression practices as we will be faced with responding to and fighting fires in the innumerable non-sprinklered structures in our nation, including one and two family homes for decades to come. I realize we cannot retrofit every building and every home with fire sprinklers, and I am not even hinting that we can. I know that NFPA 13D sprinklers are primarily designed to control the fire dynamics within the built environment long enough for the occupants (a.k.a. our citizens, our end-use customers) to escape. I am also aware fire sprinklers, even home fire sprinklers, can possibly fail to operate properly, although their reliability thus far has been excellent. My point is that it is time we fully recognize the opportunity that we have in front of us in home fire sprinklers.

We claim to be visionaries. We claim to be public servants. We claim to be concerned for the safety of our own. Imagine where we would be today had we perceived and promoted home fire sprinklers from this perspective beginning back in the 1980’s as passionately and as persistently as we pursued and promoted other aspects of fire suppression, firefighter safety, and service delivery. Imagine what the future will be thirty, forty, or fifty years from now if we start now. Imagine what it will be like if we don’t. Time to flashover has significantly been reduced, and the ol’ reliable smoke alarms, when present and functioning, may no longer offer enough advanced warning for escape. While we owe it to our current citizens and firefighters to continue to do what we’ve been doing, we owe it to future generations of the same to start the change now.

I have been blessed to have spent my life, to date, studying the science and art of firefighting; training, preparing, responding to and fighting fires; and, leading, instructing, and hopefully influencing others in doing the same.  I am ready, willing and able to devote time and effort moving forward to promoting, educating, and advocating this proposed change in perspective. Anybody with me? 

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Comment by John K. Murphy on May 19, 2015 at 2:08pm

Excellent article

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