As Furniture Burns Quicker, Firefighters Reconsider Tactics
Vacant houses with modern furniture will be burned in an experiment on Governors Island.
Librado Romero/The New York Times
One of the first tasks for firefighters arriving at a blazing home has long been to ventilate the structure make holes in it so that hot gases and smoke can escape. It has been this way for generations: a so-called roof man from a ladder company opens a hatch or saws through the ceiling, while other firefighters break windows as they search inside, often before the first drop of water has hit the fire.
But house fires have changed. Now, spurred on by at least one grievous injury to a firefighter last year, the New York Fire Department is rethinking its tactics for residential fires, while trying to hold onto its culture of “aggressive interior firefighting” charging inside burning buildings as fast as possible.
As it is the largest municipal department in the country, its new course may well affect the tactics of other fire departments.
“We’re an organization steeped in tradition and we’ve been fighting fires for many years in certain ways and they worked,” the fire commissioner, Salvatore J. Cassano, said in a phone interview.
“But we owe it to everybody who works for us and the people we serve to look at the way we fight fires.”
Plastic fillings in sofas and mattresses burn much faster than older fillings like cotton, helping to transform the behavior of house fires in the last few decades, firefighters and engineers say.
With more plastic in homes, residential fires are now likely to use up all the oxygen in a room before they consume all flammable materials. The resulting smoky, oxygen-deprived fires appear to be going out. But they are actually waiting for an inrush of fresh air, which can come as firefighters cut through roofs and break windows.
Scientists and the Fire Department will conduct an ambitious experiment beginning Monday on Governors Island in New York Harbor: they will burn down 20 vacant row houses stuffed with modern furniture, to gauge which techniques work best in fighting the blazes.
“Years ago you could break a window and it took the fire several minutes to develop — or tens of minutes,” a fire battalion chief in Queens, George K. Healy, said. “Now we’re learning when you vent that window or the door, the fire is developing in, say, a minute with the available oxygen.”
Plastics, like the polyurethane foam used as filling in furniture, have drastically reduced the time it takes for a fire to heat a room above 1,100 degrees, the point at which it is likely to burst into flames, firefighters and scientists say.
And last year, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Firefighter Robert Wiedmann was burned over nearly half his body in a brownstone fire that officials said fed quickly on home furnishings and an inrush of air through opened windows.
The fire appeared to be confined to a rear bedroom, and firefighters expected it to be routine. But a front room in which Firefighter Wiedmann was searching burst into flames within seconds. A video posted on YouTube recorded the inferno, and a colleague’s desperate bid to save Firefighter Wiedmann’s life by slapping with gloves at his burning back.
Ventilation is not the only basic firefighting tactic coming under scrutiny.
For instance, it has long been considered a cardinal sin for firefighters to spray water on a room full of smoke with no flames. Water drives the smoke from the ceiling toward the floor, eliminating the low foot or two of visibility and oxygen along the floor that firefighters relied on to navigate an unfamiliar house and that survivors needed to breathe.
Some chiefs within the Fire Department have come to believe, however, that quickly dousing a smoky room to cool the gases near the ceiling might be more important than preserving any smoke-free corridor along the floor.
For weeks, department officials and scientists have stocked the 20 abandoned row houses on Governors Island, which for years had been used as Coast Guard housing, with red, purple and beige sofas and chairs, along with coffee tables and armoires all bought from hotel liquidators.
On Monday, the scientists will start burning the houses down, while studying how the slightest change in ventilation — an opened door or a broken window — affects the heat and pressure indoors.
“This is a huge experiment for us,” Mr. Cassano said in an interview, adding that it could lead to a number of tactical changes.
In one set of controlled burns, the Fire Department will study the efficacy of its standard approach to fighting basement fires — entering the house and descending the stairs to the basement.
Entering on the first floor, directly above the fire, puts firefighters in a dangerous spot but is considered necessary to protect other occupants of the building, by placing firefighters between them and the fire.
The experiments will test whether another approach, sticking a nozzle through a basement window, is more effective. The Fire Department has long been inclined to fight fires from inside residences, rather than through open windows, based on a belief that the outside method will drive the fire toward other areas of the house, where occupants might be.
“Everyone assumed that when you ventilate, things cool off, that venting equals cooling,” said Stephen Kerber, a research engineer with Underwriters Laboratories who is helping run the experiments. “We’re proving time and time again that venting doesn’t cool and allows for things to get much hotter.”
The lessons from the experiments will take time to discern, but Mr. Kerber and others involved said they believed that there was need for greater coordination between the roof man and the engine company. Mr. Kerber said venting was sometimes happening too early, before the engine company had a hose in place. He also suggested that the firefighter responsible for breaking open the front door should be trained to shut the door most of the way immediately after managing to break it open, and wait with the door nearly closed until the hose line was ready to go inside.
Mr. Cassano, the fire commissioner, acknowledged that “ventilation may be hurting people in the fire if we don’t ventilate properly.”
The results of the tests may, at some level, underscore how putting out fires quickly can sometimes be at odds with the Fire Department’s priority, which is to locate and rescue people.
“In years past the focus has been on search and rescue, and getting water on the fire is secondary, but with how rapidly fires are developing today, the focus needs to be on getting water on the fire first and then search and rescue,” Mr. Kerber said.
All of this has led to an intense debate within the department. But several fire officials insisted that no matter what, firefighters will still go in quickly if they think there might be lives to be saved.
“Aggressive interior tactics, that’s the best chance for saving life and saving property,” said a battalion chief, James C. Kane, who has been involved in setting up the experiments.
“I don’t believe this is going to change our tactics drastically to the point where we will change our aggressive interior tactics; we’re just looking at changing ventilation.”
By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN / nytimes.com
Here is some video from today's 07/03/2012 start of the UL/NIST/FDNY tactical evaluation burns taking place on Governor's Island.
FDNY, NIST Test Fire Behavior
Latest live burn tests look at basement fires.
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