For many departments and fire service leaders, the fire service has a saying “100+ years of tradition unimpeded by progress”. For others, this same saying is “100+ years of progress unimpeded by tradition”. This issue may certainly take root in the debate over a drinking glass, and which way you look at it. Is the glass half empty, or is it half full? The perspective issue at hand is our own fire service’s strategy and integration of technology in fire suppression. We have come to learn terms such as RECEOVS or SLICERS. RECEOVS stands for Rescue, Exposures, Contain, Extinguish, Overhaul, Ventilation, Salvage. SLICERS stands for Size-up, Locate the fire, Identify flow path, Cool the space, Extinguish, Rescue, Salvage. Isn’t the first priority of all incidents life safety? Why would we start changing our tactics? Some of this change can be focused on the fact that the materials which are burning in today’s structure fires greatly differs from those of the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and into the 90’s. Those days of firefighting saw most of the combustibles being made up of wood, cotton, paper and a few plastics or oil based products. Today’s fires are burning much hotter due to the majority of combustibles being of plastic and oil based products. Today’s lightweight construction has not helped; this construction makes surface areas easier to burn and causes a failure of the structure much more rapidly.
These changes have led to some possibly make drastic changes in the strategy and tactics. One major decision factor which needs to be utilized is what we use to put fires out. Since the start of the early fire service, we have relied on water to put out fires. For many departments, we continue to put out fires with water and only water. Water takes out only one area of the fire tetrahedron, it cools the surface. The new combustibles which are in everyday residences, commercial buildings and industrial facilities are multi-faceted and require eliminating multiple sides of the fire tetrahedron for successful rapid extinguishment.
We are faced with the exponentially growing use of oil and plastic based products in those burning materials. Some of members have changed their strategy and tactics rather than consider changing what is used to put out the fire. Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This certainly applies to our current fire service. We continue to put out fires with water and only water when our environment, the composition of the burning material, is rapidly changing around us each and every day. This is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.
One such area for our fire service should look at is using alternative agents for extinguishing fires. These alternative extinguishing agents include foam concentrate, dry chemical powder, clean agents and water misting. These systems and their fire suppression products are becoming more widely used across the private sector for industrial and commercial fire suppression applications. The possibility may be there for a transition of use in some aspects of suppression in municipal firefighting. For most of us in the fire service, we think of using foam on liquid fuels or stubborn industrial fires. Most don’t see us using it in private dwelling fires or main street America type occupancies. When we think about it, how many of us still have a majority of items in our homes or businesses from the 1940’s through the 1990’s? Not many. Yet we still use the same tactic of only using water.
In 2014, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) provided an analysis of changing residential fire dynamics. Areas of the report cited that larger homes, open home geometries, increased fuel loads and new construction materials have led to faster fire propagation, shorter times to flashover, rapid changes in fire dynamics and shorter times to collapse. Experiments that were done by UL showed that flashovers are occurring at 5 minute time frame when it used to be 30 minutes or more to reach flashover conditions. Another area of the report showed that temperatures of fires in modern or legacy construction are much hotter than that of the tradition construction. The National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) has also conducted studies as well in analyzing the changes we are facing in the fire service. Their study revealed that little has been done in the way of researching the effectiveness of manual hose lines. As more research is done we can begin to see how the big picture relating to fire suppression strategy and tactics is going to unfold and how best we can improvise, adapt and overcome challenges in this ever changing landscape.
The truth in the matter is that, the fire we see today is made up of these highly combustible products. Rather than just adopting new tactics in how we fight fire and suppress fire, maybe we need to consider options of learning from the private sector fire protection companies and teaming up with manufacturers to come up with new technological solutions to growing problems. Our fire service is ever changing, fires burning hotter, lightweight construction collapsing quicker, response times increasing, staffing decreasing but we continue to stay the course while our environment continues to change. Are we, as a fire service still willing to be “100+ years of tradition unimpeded by progress” or “100 years of progress unimpeded by tradition” the glass is yours, is it half full or half empty?
About the Author
NICHOLAS WITCZAK is the lieutenant of Brookside Engine Co. 1 and volunteer EMT for the Mendham Township First Aid Squad. Additionally he serves as the Mendham Borough OEM Coordinator. Nick has served in a multitude of departments and positions over the last 8 years including Past Captain of Morristown Ambulance Squad, volunteer firefighter/EMT in combination fire departments including the Wallingford and Allingtown Connecticut fire departments. He has wealth of experience working and volunteering in emergency medical services including municipal, commercial, fire based EMS and 911 fire dispatching. He currently holds a B.S. in Fire Administration from the University of New Haven. Nick works full time in the fire protection industry specializing in safety, sales and project management. He works part time as the NJ Client Development Coordinator for Emergency Resource Management.