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Modern Fire Science - What's in the Name?

From the start, I’ve been a huge supporter of the Underwriter Laboratories Firefighter Safety Research Institute (UL-FSRI) and the many fire science studies UL and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are producing on behalf of the fire service. Never before has the opportunity for firefighters to learn and understand the topics of modern fire dynamics and modern firefighting tactics been greater than today. Modern Fire Science is the culmination of these studies that is providing an in depth understanding of these topics, and in many cases, clarifying what we as firefighters thought we knew.

I read comments all the time indicating the information coming from today’s science is nothing new, that we’ve known this information for years, learned it in recruit school. New terms, acronyms, and concepts are just reinventing the wheel and allowing people to make a name for themselves by writing and selling books or through other opportunities.  While entrepreneurial opportunities exist every day, I’m clear the driving force behind the efforts of those at UL, NIST, and others spreading this education are first and foremost driven by their passion for their work and their dedication to serve the fire service (firefighters), as many of them are firefighters themselves. Their work is saving the lives of firefighters and civilians alike. Their message is one of knowledge, based in scientific fact, and educating firefighters to help them be smarter and more effective, or smart aggressive firefighters. This not only improves firefighter and civilian safety, but also aids in property conservation.

Advances in technology are allowing scientists to study fire behavior in ways they could not before. The additional data captured provides a broader picture of what is really occurring during fire events. While much of this information may resemble what we’ve known from our own experiences, past research, and training, in many cases it confirms, debunks, and clarifies so we can truly know and understand what is occurring.

Speaking for myself, my earlier fire behavior education didn’t come close in comparison to what science has been teaching me over the last several years. In fact, the 4-hour fire behavior course I received in recruit school was really all the discussion of fire dynamics I received until the latter end of my career, when science brought the topic back to life. There were no continuing education classes required for fire behavior, no refreshers, nothing. I only wish my early learning foundation was built with today’s science based information.

For those who believe recent study findings are causing firefighters to become soft or to neglect their sworn duties, I absolutely disagree. Study findings, if actually read and understood in their entirety, not selectively picked apart to argue points for or against, equip firefighters with knowledge and understanding that better prepares them to attack fires from both a physical and intellectual side. Today’s firefighters cannot simply be courageous and physical, they must be thinking firefighters. That’s not to say firefighters don’t think, but today we know more about fire dynamics and can take a few seconds to think through what we see on arrival, what options are available to us to mitigate the situation, and more importantly, what options will be best for the fire we’re on.

My earlier fire education lessons provided basic explanations, nothing like today’s UL-FSRI detailed findings and replicated examples. In other cases it was simply, “This is how we do it and how it’s been done for years.”  The latter model lived on for years and still exists, because for many years what was taught and done seemed to work, and firefighter confidence in those lessons was reaffirmed. This has become clear to me given the ongoing debate regarding legacy tactics and modern tactics. Even in times of catastrophic events, firefighters tend to stick to what they know, even if their very own actions aid in creating the trigger events that create the catastrophe, like bringing a small line to a big fire or ventilating before fire is controlled, or just not thinking through your actions before taking action.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports often list similar contributing factors, so even though our education regarding modern fire dynamics and tactics is changing for the better, key contributing factors often remain the same. Firefighters are creatures of habit, and once they put all their eggs in one nest, it’s difficult to get them to believe anything other than what they believe they know. With today’s knowledge and objectivity, we can dissect yesterday’s and today’s fire events to know and understand exactly what happened and how we could have prevented such an event had we taken different actions. Today’s options afford the opportunity to take different and often better actions, but it comes down to the firefighters to actually know these options, to practice these options, and to feel confident they will achieve success, even though it may look and feel very different from what they’ve come to know as their norms.

If you watch enough fire footage, one common theme seems prevalent.   Fires tend to get worse before they get better, after the fire department arrives on scene. Why is this? Well, for many of us, our early education taught us that we had to be aggressive and fight fires from the inside whenever we were operating in an offensive mode. We were told to provide ventilation, which would release hot gases and cool the interior environment, improving visibility for interior crews and trapped occupants. We were told never to place a hose stream in a window during an offensive mode because we would push fire and heat on firefighters, trapped occupants, and throughout the structure. We were told to ensure we had effective communication and coordination between the attack crew and the ventilation crew, but many times this doesn’t happen. As we worked, we were creating and influencing air flow paths rather than keeping structures closed until water was controlling the fire.

Today’s science has debunked much of what was being taught yesterday and in some cases, still today. Our tactical playbook and understanding of fire behavior remained the same instead of changing for the times, even though construction and the use of synthetics has changed significantly. Today’s fires have a higher rate of heat release, mainly due to the abundance of synthetic contents. The construction industry is building with light weight composite materials (less wood, more synthetics) and designs that contribute to rapid fire spread and early structural instability. Today’s fires produce significant smoke and become vent limited, often relying on the fire department to provide the needed air to rapidly trigger.

Aggressive interior attacks are no longer limited to the interior, as fire does not recognize where the water stream is coming from. This offers more options like attacking and controlling exterior fire before moving interior, or getting quick effective (fast) water on fire showing from a reachable window or door to gain an initial knock, immediately improving interior conditions. The latter is usually completed before crews are prepared to go interior, and can significantly reduce tank water delays, and improves interior conditions for firefighters and savable trapped occupants.

Uncoordinated ventilation, before the fire is being attacked, does not equal cooling. It will rapidly intensify fire not being effectively controlled by water. Uncoordinated or improper ventilation can lead to trigger events like flashover, backdraft, and smoke explosions. Science has added to our knowledge base regarding fire dynamics and has introduced more options for our toolbox. What firefighters believe as tried and true attack methods, are usually the same methods involved in catastrophic events, when they occur, because it’s all we’ve known. Despite this, they can be addictive habits, even when better options exist.

Knock the science if you choose, but firefighters have never been smarter than we are today regarding modern fire dynamics and tactics. It may take decades for all firefighters to be on the same page and learning from the most updated curriculum. Maybe in time national standards will be created to help ensure all firefighters are operating from a foundation based in science, for better and safer operations. I know we are getting there, slowly, but surely. It’s a breath of fresh air when I come across the few fire ground footage recordings that show crews using modern tactics and making fire conditions better as soon as they arrive, as they are in control, not the fire. Lives are still saved, property conservation is improved, and their work time and effort is significantly reduced by working smarter, not harder. More importantly, the negative effects firefighters think are occurring when modern methods are used have been debunked by science, which indicates all interior conditions improve whether effective water is attacking from inside or outside the structure, with proper stream, pattern, and technique. When the fire dictates, and it’s best to begin with a transitional attack, frequently faster effective water can be applied upon arrival and consistently creates improved interior conditions, while cutting down opportunities for trigger events had we waited to apply water or vented before water was controlling the fire, which includes door control.

Science has also helped the subject of fire behavior become an ongoing topic of discussion, a frequent, yet informal, refresher instead of only 4 hours in recruit school. Fire dynamics change with the times as we’ve come to realize through science and our understanding and tactical options change as we learn more. This keeps us ahead.

I remember one important fact I learned in recruit school that holds true today. New technology is continually evolving and firefighters must stay ahead of technology in order to deal with technology. Fire education for many of us stopped once we learned what was taught to us many years ago in that 4-hour course in recruit school. Having no requirements for continuing education in fire behavior gave many of us a false sense of security in that it seemed we knew all there was to know about fire behavior. As technology evolved and changed fire dynamics and fire behavior, the fire service appeared to stop evolving in this topic. Maybe that will change, should change, in the near future. Perhaps our thinking would be different today if mandatory continuing education in fire behavior were required, like that required in emergency medical services. Maybe what science is uncovering and teaching us today wouldn’t be so hard to adjust to.

Science is providing the education, understanding, and tactical tools through real-time, real world examples to create the smartest, most effective and efficient firefighters, to control their fires and to do the most good for everyone involved. Your opportunity to fight fire better and smarter than ever before is only an open mind away. Departments of Fire Programs and other teaching entities need to update their curriculums more frequently to ensure the best information is being taught from science, not just experience.

Some people think Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) standards change each year to sell more books, but the science behind CPR suggests the changes are needed to improve the effectiveness of CPR in saving lives. This is exactly what science is doing for the fire service. Think about how great it would be to conduct annual modern fire dynamics and modern tactics refreshers. Maybe then some of the modern information will stick and replace dated understandings and tactics.

Modern knowledge does not discriminate. We can all be better if we choose. It does not take away from those who taught us in the past; it builds on their foundation to take us to the next level. It does not attack traditions, character, pride or ego. It teaches from a fact based foundation, and opportunities to learn keep us from becoming dangerously complacent.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) could not have created as much as they’ve done to achieve as much as they do if they stayed in a place of static rather than a place of dynamics. They too have suffered in their craft, but they explore, learn, and come back better than before.  Each close call and line of duty incident is a teaching moment to learn from and to do better. If we keep doing the same thing over and over we are destined to repeat the same tragedies. In fact, every incident has opportunities for learning and considering different options for better results, but to consider something different requires an open mind.

Science is allowing the fire service to explore, learn, and to be better than ever before. It keeps us moving forward, not back. It prepares us for what is to come, not what we’ve known or thought we knew. It is forward momentum, not static. It’s time to evolve people. This is not the fire service of the past; it needs to be the fire service of our future. Science is the compass that will navigate us there, and strong, educated, open minded leadership will lead us there.

Despite what is known today about modern fire dynamics and tactics, some firefighters are staunch believers in what they were taught and know from the past and from their experience. Humans are creatures of habit, so if the tactics you learned and experienced confirmed they work, you will likely make them go-to tactics. Some skeptics do not want to consider new options because they may be unfamiliar and unproven in their eyes, even though UL-FSRI has replicated their effectiveness in real world settings. As I think about the traditional options and modern options, in some cases there is little difference in the actions, but more difference in our understanding of the fire dynamics, the flow path influence, and the options we choose to mitigate fire. Let me offer another perspective that may make more sense to others as to why we should consider modern options over legacy.

It’s true that much of the time the legacy tactics many of us learned and have passed on over the years work. I’m not denying that. But, they only work as long as they work. No two fires are the same, but yet it’s not uncommon to have firefighters apply the same tactics to every fire. While the same tactic may work 50 times, it may fail miserably on the 51st time. Why, because some other dynamic changed. Today’s science helps us go back to understand what that change likely was, and why what we thought was a proven tactic did not work for a given fire. In the same respect, we can look ahead with modern information to assess conditions on arrival and to pick the best option to control the fire. Each fire is different. Each fire requires tactics specific for the fire you’re on. Each fire requires us to come with options, some of which will work better and faster than others. Nevertheless, we need to know the many options and be able to quickly assess conditions and determine the best options for the specific fire we’re on.

I think of modern tactics as proactive tactics. They may or may not begin on the interior, but regardless, they work to mitigate the incident in a manner that allows firefighters to control the fire from the start and to prevent it from burning longer than necessary or from gaining control to trigger or to work against us, if we failed to address it when opportunity existed. For instance, my fire incident may require a transitional attack to knock down exterior fire and to make an initial knock down on interior fire from a window. This action checks the exterior fire so it can no longer grow and develop to extend back into the interior through windows, walls, soffits, and the attic. It also helps to prevent exposure issues, but more importantly, it immediately improves interior conditions for crews and savable trapped occupants. This is the proactive part of modern tactics. It controls as we go, so we maintain complete control of the fire and remain efficient and effective.

If we fail to check fire where we can and as quickly as we can, regardless of where it is, we allow the fire an opportunity to maintain control, which can result in rapid fire spread or a trigger event. Fire gaining control over firefighters puts them in a reactive position rather than a proactive position. This is where your proven tactic fails on the theoretical 51st time, and you’ll be able to go back and connect the dots to figure out why. Modern tactics, in my opinion, significantly reduce the possibilities of triggers and reactive fire behavior, as they put firefighters in control from the start, operating in a proactive stance. This, to some, equals smart aggressive firefighting and significantly reduces the time it takes to mitigate the fire and complete primary duties.

However you come to know and understand today’s science regarding modern fire dynamics and modern tactics, it begins with each individual maintaining an open mind and trusting in what is factually known, not necessarily in what you believe. So long as UL-FSRI and NIST continue its work on behalf of the fire service, firefighters will remain on the cutting edge of modern fire behavior and modern tactics, as science continues to make discoveries.

Modern Fire Science, what’s in the name? It begins with an open mind.


NICK J. SALAMEH is a 36 year veteran of the fire service. He was a Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, with which he served 31 years. He is a former Chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee. Nick is a contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine and Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK),

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Comment by Nick J. Salameh on July 21, 2018 at 9:00pm

Mark, your comment is brief, but also speaks volumes.  Thanks for your input and for taking the time to read the article.  I'm hopeful it speaks to the choir and then some.  It's time to testify.

Comment by Mark J. Cotter on July 21, 2018 at 5:35pm


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