*Aggressive Interior Attack
At every structure fire that is not declared a defensive situation, and after we get past the currently controversial intervention choices (vent, flow water, both, or neither), firefighters of all tactical persuasions will then need to enter the building in order to complete the tasks that remain (search, extinguishment, ventilation, overhaul, salvage). It is at that point that the traditional and modern fire attack (MFA) methods converge, though with potentially different conditions facing entry teams. For instance, if water had already been flowed from the exterior, the fire would likely have been reduced in size and intensity, while the opposite (worsening) change in conditions may be encountered if the building had been opened up (ventilated), despite what might be a deceptively reassuring discharge of smoke and/or flame from the exhaust site.
Still, regardless of prior actions or inactions, firefighters preparing for entry into a burning building face the same challenges (e.g., structural barriers, darkness, unknown room configurations) and hazards (e.g., heat, smoke), are required to perform the same work (e.g., forcible entry, hose movement, nozzle operation, search), and must operate in the most efficient and effective manner in order to have the best chance of accomplishing their mission of protecting life and property. Fire dynamics research has provided us with new insights into the conditions present inside a burning building and, even more importantly, the effects on those conditions that result from our interventions. Applying this new information to the fireground has naturally resulted in recommendations for new methods. Previous MFA postings have addressed how our better understanding of fire behavior has modified our approach to both ventilation and water application (http://community.fireengineering.com/profiles/blog/show?xg_source=a...), while this blog will look at how the new information comes together to guide our overall techniques for operating inside a structure on fire.
Now, at this juncture I’m going to deviate from my usual habit of describing an alternative firefighting approach and its benefits, and instead refer the reader to a better source of instruction. (In fact, I’m doing us both a favor - less writing for me, and a much more robust learning experience for you.) The Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD), an organization with almost 3,000 fire suppression personnel, staffing 117 stations, and spread out over 2,305 square miles, faces understandable challenges in providing timely and consistent training to its many members. Not surprising for a department that has Hollywood in its first due, they turned to video as an efficient mechanism for both extending and standardizing their training efforts. Thankfully, they have also made much of this material available to the fire service at large, a tremendous educational resource that any of us can access via the internet.
The training module I will refer the reader to is “Interior Fire Attack, Advancing 1 3/4” With Door Control” at https://vimeo.com/69350848. What you will see in just over seven minutes is the translation of fire dynamics research findings into real-world techniques that improve both effectiveness and firefighter safety. The role of each team member is described, and the video even specifies the tools necessary for the process (thermal imaging camera, pry bar, flashlight, charged hoseline, etc.). While designed for the LACoFD’s typical 4-member Engine companies, included too are methods to utilize with only a 3-firefighter crew, indicating these modern tactics are not merely for the over- or under-staffed department, as some critics have suggested. Our new understanding of smoke as fuel, as well as the effects of water application and ventilation, are all brought together in a way that improves our ability to save lives and property. As a bonus, accessible from the same page are many other training videos, some LACoFD-specific, but most with invaluable information applicable to any fire department, a veritable training trove.
Admittedly, and obviously, this is not the only method for operating within a burning building. For example, I have extinguished plenty of fires by throwing the door open while others broke windows, and sometimes after a h*** was cut in the roof above where the fire was thought to be; dragging the hoseline beneath the smoke layer; and, only once flames could be seen, flowing water. Other times, I was the one searching the structure or creating openings while others stretched the hoseline. I can assure you, I was never seriously injured while participating in these operations, and all of those fires were extinguished. Eventually. So, why won’t I follow the same approach again? Because now I know better, and so should you. The LACoFD video describes a smarter way to fight fire in a compartment: addressing the known hazards of unburned, aerosolized fuel (smoke) by repeated cooling of the overhead gases, even prior to reaching the seat of the fire; reducing the deadly potential for creating, and operating in, a flow path by limiting ventilation through door control; and combining these two actions to delay the onset of flashover, which would almost instantly kill everything inside, and thereby providing the greatest chance of success and survival.
The traditional approach, driven as it is by the desire to quickly gain entry to begin extinguishment, search, and, very occasionally, rescue, can actually hinder the accomplishment of any of those noble pursuits if water flow is performed only once the seat of the fire is reachable. Furthermore, its frequent reliance on increased ventilation as a method to improve conditions for entering firefighters and victims, which tactic is now known to instead worsen said conditions, works against its success. Those who retain the beliefs that opening a building prior to water application is good, or that flowing water into smoke is bad, will ignore this lesson, and instead fight fires the way they were trained, often blaming any failures on the fire being “too far advanced”. Sometimes they will be correct, though likely will never even know if they were not.
Yes, we can often muscle our way into a burning building and control the fire before it drives us back out, and even if that “aggressive” strategy is not successful, at least we are left with the feeling that we’ve “given our all” for the sake of the victims; or the building; or at least our own self-image. Still, should we base our choice of tactics on what has worked, how we were first trained, what “feels good” (comfortable, familiar, exciting)? Or, should we take a step back, look at the research, and determine how "what we have always done" might conflict with "what we now know", and make some adjustments?
Good news/bad news: we all get to choose for ourselves.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org