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MFA #12: Research vs. Real World - How do laboratory results translate to the fireground?

The principles of modern fire attack (MFA) arose from the findings of the equally modern fire dynamics research.  Many have rightly asked why we should abandon tactics developed over many decades, built upon the experiences of thousands of firefighters at hundreds of thousands of structure fires, practiced by many to perfection, and embedded in fire service training, literature, and even culture, just because of contrary information gathered from maybe a hundred fires set in laboratories?  After all, none of us have, or will be, called to fight a fire where there are heat and gas detectors placed throughout the structure, the layout is known, the fuel loads are pre-determined, and even some control measures are pre-set.  The researchers would likely explain that that's exactly why their findings trump many of the beliefs that we developed on-the-job and then passed down from teacher to instructor, veteran to rookie, generation to generation. 

In "the real world", firefighters' perceptions, and therefore conclusions, are limited.  For one thing, we have only our senses, well-honed as they may be, with which to make assessments.  Further, we are biased by our training and expectations.  We observed flames come out of the h*** we cut in a roof and logically surmised we were releasing heat, but the heat detectors in the experimental building informed us that we were actually creating even more energy from combustion than could exit.  We went to great lengths to avoid spraying water into building openings from which flames and smoke were showing, instead often entering compartments that were charged with heated fuel approaching flashover temperatures, all in order to avoid pushing products of combustion deeper into the structure, while the research demonstrated that this was slower, harder, and no more effective.  And, probably most significantly, we did our thing, and the fire went out, pretty much no matter which tactics we used, or how well we performed them, thereby receiving unwarranted reinforcement of our chosen actions.  

This last aspect of the limitations of our collective experience brings me to a key side point: the fire dynamics research that has spawned so much controversy and change was inspired to a great extent by the investigation of fireground LODDs.  The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) repeatedly reached out to the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) to investigate and create models to explain particularly complex firefighter fatality scenarios.  It was through these focused research projects that such enlightenments as the danger of flow paths was illustrated, the importance of 360 degree size-ups was reinforced, and the necessity of pre-empting flashovers with early water application was introduced.  Since LODDs as the direct result of structure fires are a rarity, relative to the number of such incidents to which we respond, we can be lulled into a false sense of effectiveness and safety despite oft-repeated behaviors that do not merit such credit.  Things usually go our way, regardless of our mistakes, apparent or not.  That early research focused our attention on the lifesaving lessons that fireground tragedies offer for those of us left behind, and deserves our gratitude and respect even if only for that intent.

While we do our work in an uncontrolled environment, with an infinite variety of conditions and circumstances, many unseen and uncontrolled, at play, the live fire experiments were carefully constructed in an effort to create realistic and repeatable scenarios, instrumented for detailed data collection and observations, allowing the manipulation of one or more features, or variables, and thereby providing for the measurement and confirmation of different effects.  This is a point of contention of many advocates of traditional fire suppression tactics, but I would instead list it as a strength.  The fire dynamics test burns are so valuable because of their ability to accurately and consistently demonstrate basic fire behavior principles that are at play at all fires in structures.  Ventilation increases burning.  Water reduces burning.  While the specific magnitude of these opposite effects are unpredictable, both in the laboratory and in the real world, affected by such factors as contents, building openings, layout, access, water flow, timing, and an almost infinite number of others, the direction that the fire and temperature are moved by these interventions is always the same.  At a given fire, we will never be able to state how high and fast the temperature will rise when we open this size h*** in this location above this fire in this house filled with these contents, but we can now be certain it will rise.

In our quest to understand, and thereby better defeat, our enemy, firefighters developed, taught, and held strong beliefs regarding fire behavior and its control.  But, if these theories were valid, would not the experiments have readily demonstrated their existence?  Staged fire or not, we were sure that opening a h*** above would lift the smoke and decrease the temperature, or that spraying water into a compartment would worsen the conditions in the rest of the structure.  None of that happened.  We all might have more to argue about if there was at least a hint in the results that confirmed our former convictions.  If conditions sometimes went they way we had believed they should, there would have been an incentive to adjust the experimental settings to account for additional variables, and thereby determine the specific circumstances that might support our expectations.  No such evidence was uncovered.  

Basic truths should be both reproducible and consistent, yet the ones that met those standards in the fire dynamics research were often not the ones we had expected.  (This is nothing to be ashamed of.  In the medical profession, promising, and even longstanding, therapies are often found to have no benefit, and even harm, when subjected to unbiased research.  At least we are all driven by the desire to do what's best for our citizens, while medical therapies, especially pharmaceuticals, have the potentially conflicting lure of monetary gain for their proponents.)  Yes, all fires are different, but the response of fires to the introduction of air or water remains constant and predictable, even though different from our previous convictions and predictions.  Who knew?  Well, we all should now.  

The motivation for the research that lead to the MFA concepts was the prevention of LODDs, and has resulted in an approach (SLICE-RS) that is at least as effective for fire control and victim rescue as traditional tactics.  What, then, is the motivation for opposing these changes? 


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Comment by Michael Cory Strange on October 3, 2015 at 8:18pm

Excellent article! One of the best justifications to support MFA initiatives I have read yet.

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