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MFA #5: Keeping Up to Date - Where to look when the textbooks are wrong

New information regarding both fire behavior and making fire behave (AKA firefighting) is coming out faster than it can be delivered to the end user: firefighters.  This is due to both the tremendous volume of data and interpretations thereof, as well as the limitations on the ability to effectively process, catalog, and communicate - that is, teach - the new concepts and approaches resulting from the research.  Sorting through the reams of findings already published on the subject of fire dynamics requires a significant investment of time and effort, even as more material continues to be be produced.  That said, as professionals, it is our obligation to become familiar with this information (see MFA #3: Check for Yourself; Please!).

This inability to disseminate this new knowledge quickly and accurately is not merely an academic issue: with over 1300 structure fires in the United States daily, each with the potential for injury or death to civilians and firefighters, the need for determining and utilizing the best tactics is profoundly practical; even critical.  Furthermore, the fire control recommendations that have resulted from the research go beyond merely “tweaking” our various theories and tactics, including a strong push for immediate water application, and an equally strong push, but in the opposite direction (that is, a reversal of prior practices) as regards ventilation (See MFA #4: The New Rules).  We need to understand these changes, modify our firefighting practices accordingly, and perform them flawlessly in order to provide our customers (occupants and owners) and ourselves the best protection.

Relying on others to summarize and interpret this information, while efficient, carries its own risks.  Like every other subject, not everything written about fire dynamics is accurate.  In researching this blog, for instance, I reviewed articles from the past few years, from several fire service magazines, many written by respected authors in our profession, that offered widely divergent impressions of research findings.  Some of the early interpretations were eventually disproven, usually because they were efforts to make the experimental data fit a long-held belief or support a favored approach.  I am constantly reading articles that reference now-proven facts and apply them hesitatingly or partially, if at all, as in “if you decide to put water on the fire from the outside, be aware of the potential effects on the victims that may be trapped inside”.  Of course, we know what those effects are: conditions improve.

Time was we could refer to firefighting textbooks as the definitive source for guidance in providing direction or settling disagreements.  They remain relevant for most topics, specifically task-level and strategic issues, but have significant shortfalls in the area of fire dynamics and structural fire suppression techniques.  Given that it takes years to write, edit, and publish a training text, while the seminal UL ventilation studies were just published, and the Governors Island experiments performed, in 2012, there are currently no textbooks to which one can turn to settle an argument about fire control tactics in buildings, at least not accurately.  Even fire service periodicals have a significant lag.  For instance, I submitted an article for publication in Fire Engineering this past June, received prompt acceptance after some needed editing, and should see it in the December edition - a 6-month gestation, not counting the months of research and writing I already invested.  Though the internet offers the promise of shorter laboratory-to-publication times, one which this writer is currently taking full advantage of, with speed comes hazards - the potential for poorly researched, biased, or frankly false material.

Fortunately, Jones & Bartlett Learning, LLC, publisher of training manuals on a wide variety of subjects for the fire service, has provided a ready solution to our need for current and accurate information on fire dynamics.  “Evidence-Based Practices for Strategic Based Firefighting” is a supplement to their “Fundamentals of Fire Skills, Third Edition”, available in electronic format, and easily accessed on the internet.   Created in collaboration with the NFPA and IAFC just this year, in it can be found summaries of the latest fire dynamics research, and the recommended practice modifications that resulted. 

Now, when you are engaged with your fellow firefighters in a debate over which tactic is better, or which blogger is relating accurate information, you have a reference with which to settle the dispute, at least some of the time.  Take the time to read it, and then we can all have a more informed conversation.


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