Published Saturday, April 28, 2012
| From the June 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Dear Nozzlehead: I am a veteran firefighter with10 years on this fire department. I have been to a lot of fires and I do not understand some of the “new” attitudes. Everyone seems to be afraid to get in there and dance with the red devil. WE TOOK AN OATH and are expected to do whatever it takes to faithfully serve the public when they have a fire. Recently, our chiefs have started talking about not allowing us to search a fire or even go in without a charged hoseline!
I run on either the truck company (tower ladder) or the heavy-rescue. How are we expected to do our jobs on those companies if we have to waste time dragging a hoseline with us—especially when time is so critical? If we have to wait for water every time, people could get killed, especially in our area, where most of the homes are new. I’m very frustrated and we are starting to lose confidence in our chiefs. Your opinion is sincerely appreciated.
—Dumbfounded in Delaware
Thanks for taking the time to write me; I hope you won't regret it. But odds are, you will. Let’s think about what you’re saying—and apply it to 2012.
First, I always get a kick out of firefighters who talk about being veterans. I could care less how long someone has on the job—volunteer or career. I remember an old-timer telling me (back when I wasn’t an old-timer!) to watch out for firefighters talking about how long they have on—because they may only have one year of training and experience over a 20-year period. That stuck in my mind, and always makes me question what someone has done with their time. Do they still attend conferences (and are they willing to pay for them even out of pocket)? What about regular training? How about additional specialty training?
So there’s the question: Have you attended any “outside your fire department” training to UNDERSTAND how your theories are flawed and why your CHIEFS are correct?
Ouch! Yeah, I know, it hurts.
Here’s the deal: You wanna dance? Get on that TV show and dance with some stars. Dance with the red devil? Are you serious? “Afraid” of getting in there? There’s a difference in being courageous and being stupid. Don’t confuse firefighting with wanting to go in and play. You remind me of a firefighter who recently told me he had experienced “many burns” in his career. When I asked him where he was burned, he told me his ears and his wrists. I asked if he had spent any time in a burn unit? Oh no—never. DO NOT tell me (or anyone else) you’ve experienced burns until you speak with someone who has survived serious burns—I mean painful burns causing disfiguring and disabling scarring or amputation. Burns that cause complications such as shock, infection, multiple organ dysfunction syndrome, electrolyte imbalance and respiratory issues. Burns that require removal of dead tissue (debridement), fluid resuscitation and skin grafting. No firefighter who has been truly burned ever wants to experience that again.
Don’t be stupid. We can be brave and are expected to be. Forget the stupid dancing crap.
Now, about the charged hoseline idea. A fire in any building today is not what it was even 10 years ago. Today’s single-family dwelling is loaded with plastic products. Look around: the carpet, the 150" flat-screen TV, the furniture, Elmo—all of it is brought to you through the courtesy of the petrochemical industry. The problem with plastics: When burned, they have a much higher heat release rate (they produce A LOT more energy) than wood and other natural fiber products.
Here’s how the fire science guys explain it: “A candle has a temperature of 1,500 degrees F. Three candles together still have a temperature of 1,500 degrees F; however, they produce three times the amount of energy. Let’s think about that in terms of couches. One couch in a room has enough energy to take a room to flashover (1,500 degrees F) and make fire come out of the doorway. Put three couches in the room and you now have enough energy to have fire come out of the door and several windows and the fire is still ventilation-limited.”
If you’re like me, though, you’re not a science guy; you require Advil when the fire science guys explain stuff. So let me make this even simpler.
Today’s fires, because of the petrochemical stuff burning inside, create a much, much higher VOLUME of fire—more horsepower behind those explosive gases and fire, more DANGEROUS ENERGY (think pre-flashover followed by the “energy” of a flashover). If you don’t control them quickly, these fires will, at the very least, kick your ass and at worst, kill you.
The human limit for survival is 212 degrees F. Non-emotional, realistic science—as studied by firefighters looking at and modeling today’s fires—demonstrates that flashover can occur in less than 5 minutes and reach a temperature of more than 1,100 degrees. In many situations, flashover can occur as the first companies are arriving on the scene, or when you’re crawling down a hallway without the protection of a hoseline. In such cases, the survivability of victims can be very limited, or nonexistent. Does that mean we DON’T search? No—it means we SIZE IT UP to determine the conditions, which then helps us make the decision about whether and when we go in.
“Go in and get it?” It depends on the conditions, and what we can do to change them. Coordinated venting in the right spots can help—but WATER on the fire is what really kicks its ass.
The danger of being trapped while searching is affected by the arrival conditions, the construction of the burning building and the stuff inside. In wood-frame single- or multi-family dwellings, fire often spreads vertically very quickly, trapping the members operating above the fire without the protection of a hoseline. Lightweight trusses that are exposed to fire may fail in less than 10 minutes; lightweight engineered wooden I-beams have been reported to fail in as little as 4½ minutes. And remember that time starts BEFORE the fire was reported, before you were dispatched and before you arrived.
So now: Pull up to a dwelling (two-story, 1,200 square feet, new construction, glue holding the wood together) with heavy fire in the basement, extending up. Mom tells you there are kids in there on the first or second floor. Are you taking a charged hoseline? If you want to have a shot at helping those kids and keeping the fire off of them (and you), grab the line.
Are you not as efficient when you have to drag a 1¾" hoseline? It’s time to drill. And drill. And then drill again. Training is once again a solution to a problem—or to correcting bad habits. Soaking wet, crying, coughing kids are a good thing.
I’m not saying there won’t be that rare occasion where you justifiably may not have any choice in not bringing a line, because everything we do in this business is based upon CONDITIONS and RESOURCES. But if your company drills so it can function WITH a charged 1¾" line all the time, you will be used to it, and you will do it—expertly. That line not only puts “bullets in your gun,” it also helps you find your way out of the building … with the kids.
Of course, another option is to always have an engine company protecting the truck company while they’re searching—but realistically, looking at your own fire department, can that always be done? Almost always? Not very often? If you want the best chance in making the rescue and holding that fire, you are almost always better off with a charged line stretched by a trained crew that can deploy it and flow water quickly—TO GET WATER ON THE FIRE. As a highly respected chief officer with decades of experience in the largest fire department in the United States (that has many, many engines to protect trucks and rescue companies) recently stated: “Water is our lifeblood. Once we have a line in place and operating, our problems go away.”
Have a little confidence in your chiefs—they might just be correct.
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