Friday, July 28, 2017

UL and ISFSA research shaping the future of firefighting

I have been fortunate as a volunteer firefighter to watch the UL conduct live burns at the training center for research purposes and I recently reported on it for the local newspaper. 

The first time I saw it I was in fire school and by then we had watched a few videos of real building fires to learn about the various aspects of firefighting. Watching this live burn demonstration was a greater experience than watching the videos because we saw the dark smoke billow out of the building and we saw a backdraft up-close. I remember that part so well because even as the fire school instructors pointed out the changes in the smoke conditions and based on what we had learned, the timing and the reaction of the fire still surprised us when we saw it. Some of my classmates jumped at the noise.

“Read the smoke,” the instructors said to us. 

One day on our way to a house fire, one of the firefighters next to me made a comment about seeing white smoke from a distance, and added that it was good news because that meant the first-in crews were getting water on the fire. He simply described it to me as white smoke is good and black smoke is bad. Before I learned about that as a firefighter, I had learned as a journalist from one of my editors that when you went into the field to report on a house fire, you’ll know you’re close by when you see the smoke. Look for the smoke, or look for the fire apparatus, he told us, and head in that direction. The common factor that firefighters look for and reporters notice is when the smoke billows from the home. 

I recently saw another live burn at the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center to study basement fires, one of the most dangerous battles for firefighters. The International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) collaborated with Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Firefighter Safety Research Institute, to demonstrate the differences in firefighting tactics of venting a building versus venting a building with a coordinated fire suppression attack. Sometime after they vented the fire, we saw the fire flashover because the oxygen fed the fire. Then during the coordinated attack, the fire seemed to go out rather quickly. 

Photo by Ginger Rae Dunbar - Daily Local News
UL and ISFSA conducted a live burn for research purposes at the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center to study basement fires. 

UL engineers explained that one of their studies showed that when water was applied from outside a basement window onto the fire in the basement of a townhome that the temperature had lowered from 1,700 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Our protective firefighting gear can withstand heat up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit while the face piece of our SCBA starts to melt in an environment of 300 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Wilmington Fire Department Deputy Chief Jerry McCaffery told me during an interview that because of such research the department standard operating procedures for fighting basement fires have changed. He explained that it used to be standard to go in through the front door and “fight your way to the basement stairs” to attack the fire, but now they can enter through the backdoor if necessary. He added that another option is applying water from the outside of the building, as tested during the UL burn, which can make it safer for the firefighters by doing a coordinated attack.

My favorite part about interviewing McCaffery, who has served in Delaware for 34 years, was when he talked about how he learns something new every day at work even as a chief officer because firefighters are always learning something new and the science is developing.

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