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MFA #19: Hostile Fire Events - The reasons for the research

When considering the need to modify traditional tactics that many believe still work quite well, thank you very much, it’s important to think back on the reasons behind the new recommendations.  The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) became involved in our business at the request of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the process of the latter’s investigation of firefighter Line of Duty Deaths (LODDs).   When some fatal events could not be ascribed to one of the usual causes, such as lack of use of seat belts, poor or absent accountability, or uncoordinated actions (and too many LODDs still result from such basic lapses), the government engineers were called in to try explain what went wrong.  Their investigations lead to revelations, which provided inspiration, spawning innovations, and resulting in the consternation in which many in the fire service currently find themselves.

Let’s take a look at some of the steps of this new strategic framework (SLICE-RS) in the context of the types of tragedies that inspired them, and thereby illuminate the roots of our turmoil.

Size-Up - The fact that this is the first step in our new fire strategy acronym is likely seen as a no-brainer, given that every firefighting textbook lists it as fundamental to a successful operation.  What is equally important is to recall how often shortfalls in this process have lead to LODDs.  Failing to view all sides of the involved building, the “360-degree survey”, whether by the incident commander her/himself or as a team effort, has been cited as the root cause of more than a few fatal mishaps.  The fact that the fire showing from a second floor window on Side A may have started in a ground floor dumpster outside of side C, or similar “hidden” factors or hazards, is the type of information that can alter strategies, and results, immensely.  In addition, not acting on available data, such as reliable reports of non-occupancy, evidence of structural deterioration, and/or limitations in firefighting resources (poor water supply, less-than-minimal staffing, etc.) - especially if several are present simultaneously - and then initiating the department’s “standard” attack regardless, has lead to deadly consequences. 

Locate the Fire - Another “given”, and difficult to separate from the “Size-up” process, but a major contributor to many a fireground tragedy.  Entering a structure from a point above an uncontrolled fire, especially inadvertently, is a recipe for disaster.  This was once a standard practice when battling basement fires, with the quick descent of the cellar stairs being the accepted approach.  Even this calculated move, practiced by generations of firefighters, has been proven to be unnecessarily risky, with water flow through a window or walk-out door found to be much more effective.  Operating above a fire has also gone unrecognized in cases where the building was on a grade that provided for a different ground level entry level in the front and rear, or when the lower level point of origin was in a smoldering, partially-contained state, while the visible flame on the upper level, to which the hoseline crew was drawn, actually represented fire extension.  Regardless, locating the fire allows for more efficient control by identifying what should be the first nozzle’s primary target. 

Identify Flow Paths - The novel concept of deadly streams of heat and smoke that can move within a structure provided explanations for many previously perplexing LODD scenarios.  Prior to this revelation, it was the spreading of fire itself that was a main concern of firefighters, while the danger of mere products of combustion was not generally appreciated.  We had believed that if we kept flames from spreading, then we were relatively safe in performing searches in the remainder of the structure.  Many fatal incidents have involved firefighters who were acting on that premise when they were caught in products of combustion traveling from the fire to the outdoors, often through exhausts they themselves created as they entered and/or attempted to improve conditions.  Even with the wealth of information on this phenomenon provided by fire reconstruction models and live fire experiments, the notion that enough heat can be carried in smoke to quickly kill even fully-encapsulated firefighters is only slowly seeping into our collective awareness.  

Cool from a Safe Location - The burning of modern building contents produces sufficient heat to easily exceed the protective capabilities of our PPE.  Despite any self-image as an "aggressive" firefighter, if the heated gases within a structure ignite above or around you, as when a window is “taken” by the fire or firefighters, you will likely be killed.  The previous belief that ventilation provided cooling was first challenged by the analysis of training fires where "taking" the window lead instead to the unexpected and immediate flashover and death of interior firefighters.  Conversely, the repeated and consistent experimental finding that application of water into a burning compartment only cools, without leading to the spread of heat, steam, or fire, means that exterior attack is not only a viable option, but often the best (fastest, easiest, safest).

Extinguish, Rescue, Salvage - These steps, as yet generally unadulterated by we modernists, remain as a reminder and acknowledgment that controlling a fire involves a lot more than just finding, analyzing, and halting its growth.  In fact, firefighting remains a rich, diverse, and challenging endeavor, made only a little less so by the adoption of an acronym that helps in the recall of its best practices.  There also exists an extensive commonality in traditional and modern firefighting strategies that we tend to forget when arguing the relative merits of our particular beliefs.  We are all on the same mission, with the same objectives, and at times need to remind ourselves of our brotherhood in order to temper our tendency to confrontation.

MJC

The author can be reached at markjcotter@comcast.net

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