Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Extreme Weather Firefighting

When the goin' gets tough -- the tough get goin' !
by: Lou Angeli
As weather experts debate the effects of El Nino on North American weather patterns, the "B" shift members of St. Louis Squad-2 don't really give a damn. Winter is on them, and the simple fact of the matter is it's getting cold.

Cold weather makes America's most dangerous occupation even more hazardous. Statistics show that most serious fires occur during the Winter months, when homes and businesses are sealed tight, and supplemental sources of heat are being used.

Granted, a few areas of North America are "temperate" and experience consistent weather patterns throughout the year. But unless you're a firefighter in Key West, McAllen (TX) or Phoenix, chances are you've already noticed that hot, muggy days have been replaced by cold, windy nights. And fighting fires in below freezing weather isn't fun.

This year, Winter came early, and with vengeance to the Prarie Midwest. So much so that President Bush has designated areas hit by early Winter Storms as disaster areas. With temperatures hitting the single digits, and wind chills exceeding minus 40 below, serious fires have caused millions in damage, and claimed a number of lives.

Fighting fires in cold weather is part of everyday life for firefighters in the upper Midwest. This constant exposure to Mother Nature's brutal side has made on thing clear. The cold takes it toll - on personnel and equipment.

During the next few weeks, the Arctic cold will dip well into the continental US. And even though we know it's likely to happen, Old Man Winter takes those of us in the lower-48 bysurprise every time.
But It's A Dry Cold, Chief

Try telling that to firefighters in Indianapolis, who are accustomed to relatively stable Winter weather. Last year by mid-December, they were operating in the coldest air to hit the area since 1887. Just South of Indy, in Bargersville, Indiana, the town experienced 12 consecutive days of sub-zero weather. Years of training and experience hadn't preparedthese Johnson County volunteers for this type of firefighting.

This season, fire departments throughout the central Midwest, are preparing for the same cold, with one major difference. Many have developed a contingency plan - one that stresses "firefighter safety". Generally speaking, North of the Mason-Dixon line, departments are better prepared for the hardships of cold weather. But when the alarm sounds, and the thermometer is stuck at zero, neither a firefighter's training or protective gear can block out the effects of the biting cold.

Using Common Sense

Once on the fireground, firefighter safety becomes a primary consideration for command.While Engine Company members concern themselves with fighting the fire inside the structure, Support Company members are busy fighting the elements, working on icy surfaces and ladders.

Firefighting in cold weather still requires getting water to handlines and master streams. It'sone of the most difficult tasks in Winter firefighting. In icy temperatures, leading offfrom a frozen hydrant or pond may waste valuable minutes. That's why it's important to pre-plan wintertime water supply operations.

In Porter County, Indiana, members of Center Fire & Rescue rely on large diameter supply lines and tanker shuttles to provide adequate water. Planning officers know that it's difficult enough to secure water under ideal situations. But when the weather turns cold, the job becomes much more difficult. So they're preplanned for the worse case scenaio, matching mutual aid companies with their own resources to get the job done. Mutual Aid alsoplays a vital role during "working" assignments, especially when one factors in firefighter rehab.

Important Cold Weather Tips

Fighting fires in cold weather isn't only uncomfortable for front line personnel, it's damaging to equipment as well. Here are some tips from departments around the country, that may prove useful during cold weather incidents in your area:

  • Avoid coming up DRY, by initiating a hydrant "Pump-Out" plan
  • Apparatus maintenance is crucial! Make sure that tire chains or other traction devices are available for all first-in units
  • Develop a "contingency plan" with the authority or agency responsible for road maintenance and service
  • Develop SOP's regarding "dry-pump" vs. "wet-pump" operations. Things to consider are response time, pump design and normal ambient temperature in the station.
  • Carry a supply of salt, sand or oil-dry to enhance footing and reduce the possibility of falls
  • During heavy snowfalls, apparatus may be forced to operate "away" from the fire building. Extra lengths of attack line should be added to preconnects to compensate for the additional stretch
  • Following knockdown, when handlines are in standby, partially opened control valves will allow water to flow and prevent freezing.
  • Make sure that all waterways for monitors or deck pipes are dry, to avoid any freezing or clogging effects resulting from ice or slush
  • Follow the manufacturer's recommendations regarding the cold weather use of SCBA. Don't allow water to seep into regulators or emmission valves
  • And finally, ensure that extra turnout gear is available, especially gloves. It's recommended that personnel wear layered clothing, rather than bulky articles.

Ours is a unique profession. We're called upon to perform a number of important tasks, in a wide range of weather conditions. So whether we're working in desert heat - or arctic cold, our mission is always the same. . .to save the folks inside, and perhaps save their home.

By the way, wasn't the 4th of July picnic just a few weeks ago?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Firefighting: Inside The Fire by Lou Angeli

Once your face is inside of the mask, you enter an alien world. That’s when you need to focus. You need to give your full attention to the job at hand. The fact that there are twenty other firefighters is meaningless. In just a few seconds, you’ll be face to face with the firebitch!

You’ve got to be in good physical shape, but you MUST be mentally fit too. You’re faced with all kinds of emotions

This fire has had one hell of a head start It’s been feeding off of Oxygen and combustibles, like the furniture and drapes, and it’s now feeling its way into other rooms. At this moment you realize that what your up against is not an inanimate thing – it is a living breathing animal that feeds on everything in its path. Including you.

The one thing that’s difficult to convey through these images is the energy sapping heat. Temp-eratures exceed 1200 degrees at the ceiling, -- 350 degrees at the floor – and that’s hot enough to bake a potato in your turnout coat in just a few minutes.

As we extinguish the blaze, heat, smoke and gases need to be released. While the hoseteam works inside the support team is topside making ventilation holes and breaking out windows. Without these vents, the hoseteam would be boiled alive by their own perspiration.

Lou Angeli

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Last One Standing

The Volunteer Dilemma
An Ailing System
by Lou Angeli

Unless you live in a large urban area, or highly populated suburban community, chances are that you, your family and possessions are protected by volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel. In fact, current statistics show that of this nation’s 1,200,000 firefighters and EMT’s*, fully 80% serve in a volunteer capacity, protecting just over 20% of the total US population.

America’s volunteer Firefighters and EMT’s are extraordinary people…period. Why? That’s simple -- they work at this nation’s most dangerous profession FOR FREE! And you will likely never meet a group of individuals more consumed by an avocation, because theirs is a mission of supreme importance -- to save lives and limit damage to property. They are dedicated to the core and prove it day in and day out by placing their own lives on the line to protect those of others.

Until recently, the volunteer fire-rescue system in this country was virtually self-regulated, with very few government-imposed restrictions. With no clearly defined guidelines, the system was free to adapt to the specific needs of a particular community. And it was the community’s level of involvement and support that determined the local department’s success.

And that was the beauty of the volunteer system -- its simplicity. Neighbors helping neighbors during the worst of times. Note the keyword: "worst". Why? Because the volunteer system was designed to respond to a handful of alarms each month - not dozens each day!

But even the best of intentions sometimes go awry, and the once revered
volunteer fire-rescue system, founded by Ben Franklin himself, is
quickly faltering and is in desperate need of a major overhaul.

Today, citizens expect to receive the same level of emergency service, no matter where they reside in this great nation. When it’s their turn to dial 9-1-1, they assume that well-trained, adequately equipped emergency responders are on the way.

But during the past decade, Fire-Rescue and EMS, both career and volunteer, have been asked to provide more diversified services to the communities that they protect, and that translates to increased training and more qualified personnel. Although it’s a Godsend for the career sector, it’s a real hardship for many volunteer administrators, who are forced to make yet another demand on their dwindling ranks.

There are a number of problems facing administrators of volunteer Fire and EMS agencies, including adequate 24-hour coverage, effective training and sufficient funding. But the two biggest kinks in the system are the recruitment of new members, and the ability to retain existing, trained personnel. Some say that if the current rate of attrition continues, the volunteer system will collapse in twenty years, possibly sooner.

Cause and Effect

How did America’s Bravest get themselves into this nasty jam? Fire-Safety experts immediately point to two culprits: Our rapidly changing lifestyle -- and politics.

“The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker no longer live around the town square", one firefighter advocate recently noted.* “Many people commute great distances to their jobs and they no longer have the time to devote to such noble pursuits." He adds, “There are just too many other demands placed upon them."

As the population shifted from crowded urban areas to more open and pleasant rural communities, volunteer fire administrators hoped to tap into the new-wave suburban melting pot. But the general public showed little interest in a program that asked them to risk their lives for people they didn’t know for free. So, as the population swelled and the infrastructure taxed, the vollies found themselves responding to more alarms and providing much higher levels of service with existing resources and personnel.

Families quickly became accustomed to their split level lifestyle, comfortable with the thought that, like their former home in the big city, local government would respond to their every need. Many assumed that fire-rescue protection would be provided by career staff standing constant vigil behind the closed bay doors of the concrete building across from the Amoco station. And in many cases, that’s what government wanted the citizens to believe. What the locals didn’t know was that the firehouse doors were closed, because there wasn’t anyone at home.

A Change In The Wind

Just twenty-five years ago, the volunteer system thrived on membership rosters bolstered with post WWII baby boomers. It was truly the nation's leading fraternity, with a million and a half members and 33,000 places to call home across the USA.

During the 70's and 80's, the quality of fire-rescue work in the volunteer sector was no longer hit or miss. Volunteer administrators went to great lengths to increase the level of service to the community by assuring that their members were trained to similar levels as their career counterparts. Training schools in Rockland County (NY), Nassau County (NY) and the Delaware State Fire School excelled in such programs, and their curriculum became the benchmark for volunteer training nationwide.

But something happened in the mid 1980's that few had anticipated. As older members (the World War II crowd) dropped away from active service, opting for a well deserved spot in the day room, the next generation of volunteers never fully materialized. The general population had become much more upwardly mobile, and much less interested in volunteer service - especially one with such inherent dangers. And those members who were successfully recruited were usually gone in a few years, rather than a few decades.

Jim Wick, who began his service as a volunteer firefighter on the East Coast 38 years ago says, "If the volunteer fire, rescue and EMS service is to survive and thrive in our dynamic and exciting future, it can not settle for the status quo or even incremental change."

**Today, Wick serves as Chair of the Oregon Governor's Fire Service Policy Council. He urges fellow volunteer administrators to "Honor...and build on the good from the past, but don't attempt to live there."

North Carolina's Ken Farmer, a chief fire officer and nationally recognized fire-rescue educator, feels that role of the volunteer is simply being redefined. "It can be said that people fall into one of two groups -- givers or takers." Farmer says, “There is no doubt that volunteers are clearly members of the givers group."

He adds that most citizens feel a desire to give back to the community, and that we simply need to direct them to the firehouse. n some ways, Farmer says it is like being saved or finding religion. “We find it most often, not because we are consciously looking for it, but because someone else takes the time and care to show it to us."

Change may also mean knowing "when to say when", and in Part 2 of this series, you'll learn about the crucial need for "Immediate Response", specifically how departments are dealing with the dilemma of providing adequate daytime response. In some cases this means introducing career members to the "volunteer" system, a proposal that has purists up at arms, and career proponents chomping at the bit.

Lou Angeli


October 2006 UPDATE: Volunteer Fire Departments in Bucks County, Pennsylvania urged to merge to hasten response times and provide better service. The Intelligencer
November 2005 Special Report: Long Island's volunteer departments provide a small-town service -- at big-city prices. Newsday
November 2005 Special Report: Number of volunteer firefighters is declining. USA Today

Friday, July 28, 2006

Firefighting As Entertainment

In the 2005 season finale of FX's "Rescue Me," Firefighter Tommy Gavin is pictured driving along in his pick up with Jesus Christ as a passenger. For Gavin, played by actor/writer Denis Leary, JC is just one of many visions that come to him from episode to episode. Certainly not a scene from the venerable series "Emergency," but an audience pleaser nonetheless. So much so, that FX has ordered up a 3rd season of the sometimes irreverent, always controversial, "Rescue Me."

Thanks to television and films, civilians can now travel behind the firelines into a World that is rarely experienced by anyone but the chosen few. It's this inside, personal look at life in the firehouse, and on the fireground, that makes fire-rescue work such compelling TV. In short, by inviting the viewer to become one of the bravest, the producers have stumbled across the keys to the kingdom of dramatic and reality TV.

Following the huge financial success of Ron Howard's "Backdraft" ($277 Million) and "Ladder 49" ($120 million), TV and motion picture producers began flocking to firehouses for more material. The most successful genre have been docu-dramas and documentaries, which utilize existing footage and re-enactments to illustrate interviews with key storytellers.

Least successful have been reality shows like "The Bravest" (2001) and NBC's short-lived "Firehouse" (2002). Both programs were well done and production values were extremely high. But the pair suffered greatly in the ratings. Why? Take note of the date, 2001. Bravest aired its first episode on September 15, 2001, just 4 days after the WTC disaster. A great many FDNY firefighters who appeared in the show, filmed during the summer of 2001, were either deceased or missing.

Even though NBC's "Firehouse" aired in one of the hottest slots on network television (replacing Dateline:NBC at 8pm Fridays) it too suffered from 9/11 backlash. Perhaps the programs were too distressing for the general public, evoking the memories and hurt of 9/11. But that was over four years ago, and time has apparently healed those wounds.


"Firehouse USA, " Discovery Channel's recent limited run weekly series, served as the band-aid. Filmed in Boston with the members of Engine 37 and Ladder 26, "Firehouse USA" is not the fire-rescue version of COPS. It is a show with substance, because the antagonist isn't another drug-dealing; wife-beating, drunk -- it's much bigger. It's Mother Nature at her worst. The format has been attempted before in 1993-94's "Firefighters," but those producers failed to accom-plish the three most important goals of any good documentary -- identify the antagonist, inform and entertain.

"Firehouse USA" does all three very well. How? The producers use members right off the fireline to serve as storytellers. Who better to describe what it's like to do combat face-to-face with "the beast." Discovery's series tells the story not just of the fiery antagonist, but of the soldiers who ride the rigs to do battle. This ain't no easy task 'cause us jakes aren't noted for our public speakin' prowess. But amazingly, the producers have somehow discovered a half dozen articulate on-the-job firefighters to communicate with the audience.

The visual appeal of this program is two-tiered, involving its down and dirty shooting style and the go for it attitude of the AVID editors. I've learned that when shooting the scene of any fire or disaster, the best material is often found when the camera has just begun to roll -- or the operator is moving from one position to another. Nothing goes to waste on "Firehouse USA" and the editors place these short and sweet gems to good use by helping embellish the longer, more conventional shots.

Filming real firefighters, as I have since 1981, is a walk in the park. There's plenty of action wherever you point the lens. But recreating the life of the firefighter isn't a simple task. And so, walking our walk and talking our talk has been a tough sell in Hollywood, as program producers attempt to combine solid acting and good production with technical accuracy.

In 1995, ABC was successful in its made-for-TV-Movie entitled "Philly Heat", based on PFD's famed Engine Co. 50. Veteran actor Peter Boyle gave a convincing performance as a Philly Battalion Chief, and the show would've been a great series and probably a huge success. But Heat was costly to produce -- twice that of a similar ER and Cop dramas, in which the production team has complete control of the environment.

Leary's Formula

So leave it to Denis Leary, firefighting's most visible public advocate, to develop the definitive fire-rescue series -- one that really works. In "Rescue Me" -- soon to enter its third season -- Leary's team has taken on the issue of cost by abandoning the traditional Hollywood grind of using a single motion picture film camera. Instead, the series DP uses several HDTV cameras, eliminating raw film costs, processing and and lengthy multi take setups. The crew rockets through each episode, making the turnaround in six shooting days, as compared to the 10 days grind of other weekly series.

Of all the firefighting dramas ever produced, Leary's is most like the real thing. He treats the firehouse for what it is -- a family! Kooky at times, emotionally distraught at others, but always there for one another when they step off the rig to do battle with the beast. Don't expect the pablum of "Ladder-49." Leary and his writing partner Peter Tolan treat the firefighting family with borderline irreverance, much like FX's "The Badge" or HBO's "The Wire." "Rescue Me" has humor, conflict and an identifiable antagonist, all of which are essential for making any successful drama. The' production team has discovered the secret formula for firefighting drama.

It's one thing to be brave -- another to be stupid. Without knowing it, Leary and his team, as well as the producers of "Firehouse USA," have paid firefighters the greatest tribute by reminding us that life and family are precious and can never be replaced. My hope is that others in our ranks will recognize this tip and take its message to heart.

Title image banner: (left to right) Denis Leary (Rescue Me), Kim Raver (Third Watch), Eddie Cibrian (Third Watch), Kevin Tighe and Randolph Mantooth (Emergency), Marjorie Monaghan (Rescue-77), Joaquin Phoenix (Ladder-49), John Travolta (Ladder 49).

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

15 Minutes of Flame


Rockland County, NY, just North of New York City. It's 0530 on a chilled Winter's morning, and although I've worked in the simulator three dozen times, this demonstration is very special. Instead of six students, I'll have a few million inside with me. A burn that will go "LIVE" to three million homes, thanks to the Fox network and their morning show, "Fox After Breakfast".

As local volunteers arrive aboard their rigs, Rockland County training personnel ready the simulator for this first-ever LIVE TV training burn. It's like Geraldo’s opening the pyramids, only with much more interesting results.

A TV techie installs a special EarMic that allows me to speak to and listen to the program hosts in New York. I'll be taking a Fox reporter, Phil Keoghan (now host of CBS' The Great Race) inside the fire to explain how the system works, and why it is beneficial to firefighters. A squirrly production assistant buzzes around, refilling our coffee cups every 5 minutes or so. I'm wired in more ways than one.

It's now 6:30am, and we're scheduled to go live in just a few minutes. Gerry Knapp, the Rockland commander, and a Swede instructor, signals the ignition team to light the combustibles in the "burn container", a chamber that sits 5 feet above the "classroom container" of the two level system. Using 1401 guidelines, they ignite two drums filled with wood and paper products -- no accelerants. The Swede System is no propane box, it's a true-to-life, hotter than Hell fire, that burns like the real thing. In a matter of minutes, smoke begins to bank down in layers.

A firefighter/cameraman huddles with us, then cues me to begin speaking. The fire is advancing to the free burning stage, and smoke begins stratifying closer and closer to the floor. I draw the reporter's attention to the "snakes" of flame that begin to appear in the cloud of smoke. Using fire-speak terms I say, "Right now the temperature at the ceiling is 1100 degrees (F), and as you can see, convection currents are becoming readily apparent." Through my ear piece I hear the "wows" of the staff and studio crew in New York.

The reporter next to me asks, "OK Lou, when will they put the fire out?" I answer, "They won't, at least not yet." I explain to Mr. Warrior that the system allows firefighters to study fire behavior, to look at the beast, how it moves and how it exists. They'll learn to extinguish the blaze some other time, in another place. "Right now, their job is to co-exist with the fire." The ceiling flashes, and the nozzleman delivers a series of short fog bursts to cool the ceiling gases. The fire quickly dies down.

These short bursts of H2O from a Swedish made nozzle, are the real secret to training inside the Swede system. According to the Swedes and the Americans who've studied under them, delivering a low flow fog stream to the ceiling, cools the super-heated gases long enough to make a viable escape from a potentially fatal situation. Now you know why Truckies in New York, Chicago and San Francisco carry those two and 1/2 gallon "cans".

View "Inside The Fire" (click here)

"This is New York, Lou" comes the voice in my other ear. It's Jerry Liddell, the studio producer on a secure circuit. "We're staying with you in Rockland...more flames, more flames." Damn, it's hot.

As the cameraman pans up to the ceiling, I draw attention to a special spring- loaded portal device that I operate from the floor. It allows me to vent the room of excess gases, giving the fire another chance to build. It's similar to portals that are installed in most Swedish structures, a smart-tool that allows firefighters to perform vertical ventilation in a split second, by simply pulling a chain next to the front door. "This portal permits me to generate up to seven flashover episodes during a typical 20 minute evolution.", I say.

Those of you who've studied in the Swede simulator, know what I mean when I say, it's hot! Most students are instructed to remove their helmet face shields, and it's not unusual for reflective striping to blister and burn. Nothing proves my point better than the reporter next to me.

For just a few moments, he turns his back to the blaze above our heads to address the camera. As he comments on the "feel of the room", I glance over to see that the shoulder of his new turnout coat is flaming. I make an attempt to snuff out the flames with my gloved hand, but no luck. Finally, on LIVE television, the FAST team intervenes, pulling the reporter to the safety of the outside.

I follow on my stomach, crawling toward the lens of the outside camera. Not my best angle, but the image makes its point. In the background, a hose team wets down the reporter with an inch and 3/4 line. "Great job guys" says the intercom. "We'll do it for the West Coast in another hour." (???)

I should note that the Swede Survival System is much more than a container, it's an entire training package. The curriculum begins in the classroom with 8 hours of instruction, then ends in the simulator itself. If you have the opportunity to train in it, by all means do so. It's an ideal way to teach younger firefighters, and veterans, how to identify flashover through the sense of sight. After all, our vision is the only function that manufacturers and government haven't covered. Pass the thermal imager, please.


Saving Firefighter Ryan


Flashover! Even though firefighters are beginning to understand it, this fatal phenomenon is still shrouded in a veil of mystery. Experts in the fire training arena have differing opinions and descriptions of Flashover, but they all seem to agree on one thing. It's a nasty thing!

Simply put, room and contents begin to burn at a very rapid rate during the growth stage of the blaze. Heat is radiated from burning combustibles, then reradiated by the walls and other structural elements. This "thermal feedback" causes an even greater acceleration of heat. Finally, the entire room and its contents ignite with violent and explosive force.

Our culture and its technology have served as a major contributor to the problem of flashover. Up until the 1960's, the average residence contained natural products made up of woods, cottons and other fabrics. Back then it often took a blaze from 8 to 10 minutes to grow from inception to the fully-involved stage. But in our present day world of synthetics, plastics and hydrocarbons, the same room takes only 2 to 3 minutes to reach the peak of fire growth. This accelerated rate of burn has become a major concern for firefighting teams and the officers who command them.

Oddly enough, it was a prevention tool designed to save lives that first brought Flashover to our attention - the home smoke detector. In days gone by, fires were typically unreported until they vented from a window, sending the fastest civilian running for the Gamewell Box. Today, because of the effectiveness of early warning systems, departments are now notified of fires much, much earlier.

Companies now arrive on the scene during the growth stage, entering the structure at the worst possible time, just prior to flashover. Combine this with the standing practice of aggressive interior attack, and one can quickly understand why firefighters have become more aware, and much more concerned, of the phenomenon. The simple fact is - we're seeing it much more often.

See Flashover Photos

Low Tech System with High Tech Results

In Europe, where line of duty deaths, and interior attack, are quite rare, the multi-national fire community was shocked, when in 1987, two Swedish firefighters lost their lives to a flashover incident. In response, training officers in Stockholm saw the need to create an awareness program for the brigade's firefighters. They developed a rudimentary simulator that allows attack teams to identify potentially dangerous environments during the early stages of the firefight. Their primary goal: to demonstrate to suppression teams how to escape a flashover and exit safely.

On the fire training grounds near Stockholm, I prepare to videotape the special fire training simulator designed by the Swedes. I was expecting a high-tech block structure, with thermal sensors, gas jets, and emergency sprinklers. Instead, I'm led to a series of overseas shipping containers, that have been laid out in random fashion to represent various firefighting scenarios.

According to Roland Lindquist, Director of the Raddnings Verket, (The Swedish Fire Rescue Services Board) the system was adopted by all departments in Sweden by 1990. Instructors there further refined both classroom and hands-on curriculum, and today every Swedish firefighter is required to take this special training course. It's dubbed the Swede Survival System, and it's taken Europe, and this nation, by storm.

View firefighting images on Flickr

6,000 miles away from Stockholm, in America's heartland, Indianapolis firefighters carry on a tradition that's been passed down from generation to generation -- mounting an aggressive interior attack. Like so many departments nationwide, Indy fire administration have armed all front-line personnel with the very best in protective equipment. A secure envelope, that guards firefighters from intense heat and vicious flames.
But some say that this very same envelope denies firefighters the use of an important God-given safety regulator – the sense of feel. In short, present day protective gear is so damned good, it's difficult to determine when to bail out.

A 3-alarm blaze in Indy's downtown section, found three firefighters deep inside the bowels of the beast. A huge structure, the Athletic Club blaze was stubborn, and difficult to ventilate. According to other interior personnel, the trio entered a smoky room in search of the seat of the fire, but within moments the room erupted in an explosion of flame, instantly snuffing out their lives.

IFD was determined to prevent similar horrible accidents from ever happening again. They imported the Swede Survival System, and since its installation, EVERY IFD firefighter and officer has received extensive flashover training. Many, more than once.

In other departments throughout the USA, training officers have adapted the system to meet the needs of America's aggressive firefighters. Their goal, to show an uncontrolled blaze in a SAFE, controlled atmosphere. And to date, nearly fifty departments and agencies have answered the call.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Why America Still Burns


Organized chaos. That's how the fire scene is often described. The adrenaline charged atmosphere feels like a battleground. But in this war zone there's no time to develop a battle plan. For the firefight to be successful action must be immediate. Firefighters have only a few precious minutes to defeat their opponent.

Back in the day, Firefighting was all about racing to the scene, donning a tin helmet and aiming the nozzle at the flames and smoke. And that's pretty much how the general public still perceives the job. But times have changed, and today there’s an art, not to mention a science, to fighting fires.

In terms of extinguishing blazes, today’s firefighters are trained to go face-to-face with the beast, inside the burning building for an "offensive" attack. Some fire training experts say that the trick is to tame the fire, before extinguishing it, and there are dozens of tactics for doing so. But these strategies often come with extreme risk. Bottom line -- firefighters must make crucial life and death decisions quickly.

During the past 30 years, annual civilian fire deaths have been reduced by 50%. But firefighters deaths continue to rise, with 112 being lost in the line of duty last year alone. Even more disturbing are OSHA and the National Fire Protection Association’s predictions that fully one-third of the current firefighting force of 1,100,000 will be injured on the job during they year 2005. Of those who will be injured, it is estimated that over half do not have adequate insurance coverage to attend their needs. Is this any way to treat the Bravest?

Change Comes Slowly to America's Firehouses

Our firefighting counterparts of just 50 years ago were leather-lunged old salts who were overworked, under trained and poorly equipped. Without adequate personal protection, or proper equipment, a "career" in the fire service back then was a sure fire invitation to an early grave.

Thankfully, our job as firefighters has evolved into a high-tech profession. During the last generation alone, the fire-rescue service has seen more change than it did, but it's still a slow process.

In the years immediately following World War II, some of the technology that had been made available to the armed services was brought home to fire stations by the soldiers and sailors who actually used it. Tools and equipment like Chem-Ox masks, fog nozzles, even 1.5 inch hose were all born from military uses during the War. Imagine the culture shock that existed among veteran firefighters, when these "wet behind the ears" probies introduced their new toys. Hell, the old-timers we're just growing accustomed to motorized apparatus.

But the post War techno-revolution was short-lived, and our counterparts of the late 50's and early 60's found themselves falling way behind the rest of society. The World was changing, and so were our first-alarm districts. In homes and businesses, wooden furniture and cotton products were replaced by plastics and hydrocarbons, which changed the way we did business at fires. The DuPont slogan, "Better Living Through Chemistry," brought new meaning to America's Bravest.

Without proper equipment and training, fighting these "new wave" fires was a tough game. By 1965, we'd lost possession of the ball and our forward momentum had stalled. Our coaching staff was perplexed and the spectators were beginning to lose their interest.

The Fire Act

In 1972 President Richard M. Nixon (a Republican) made a bold move by appointing a special commission to study the fire problem here in the United States. His directive was simple -- determine the fire problems, and make suggestions on how to fix them. Nixon was determined to make the Commission succeed, and he did so by enlisting and recruiting the nation's movers and shakers of the fire-rescue services. Once together, theirs was no small task.

The commission took on some very controversial issues including rising civilian deaths, firefighter safety, the high-rise dilemma, and fire prevention. Their report "America Burning" was a harsh, and very critical review of the fire situation here in America.

"It is appalling,' the report began, 'that the most technologically advanced nation in the World, reports the highest per-capita fire deaths and monetary fire loss." They pulled no punches in their treatment of the issues, and those of us who serve today, owe a great deal to the men and women who recommended the changes most of us take for granted.

30 Years After

However, now 30 years later, the fire problem here in the United States has once again raised its fiery head. And according to fire administrators, the situation seems to be getting worse, instead of better.

“To a great extent, the fire problem in America remains as severe as it was 30 years ago.” That’s the very first sentence in the 1999 report, “America Burning Recommissioned.” Even with the introduction of the smoke detector, the incidence of fire in this nation has increased to an alarming rate. Why? Some say it’s public apathy.

“Americans have always been neglectful of safety and loss prevention,” says investigative journalist Herb Denenberg, He adds, “Perhaps we are more focused on producing wealth than preserving it.” The 1999 commission agrees. “The indifference with which Americans confront the subject, which the 1973 Commission found so striking. continues today.”

Fire is the most common of all home disasters and the third leading cause of accidental injury and death in the home. Fires spread very quickly, but it isn’t the fire itself that kills! Deadly smoke and poisonous gases snuff the life out of victims long before the flames reach them. There's no time to stop and think and wonder what's the best thing to do. The situation can change in seconds. Half a minute after the smoke alarm goes off, an entire floor of your house could be filled with dense smoke.

More than 4,500 Americans die each year in fires and over 100,000 are injured. An overwhelming number of these life threatening fires occur in the home. However, there are time-tested ways to prevent and survive a fire. It's not a question of luck - it's a matter of planning ahead.

Too many fires are caused by carelessness and ignorance of fire safety principles that have been, until now, thought to be obvious. Education about the fire hazard should not only reach children, but to the adult community as well – the caretakers. But one of the problems for fire departments is finding necessary funding to conduct adult oriented public education programs. Fact is, there are few fire safety informational programs designed for adults.

Do you know what you should do if there's a fire? Are you sure? Does everyone who lives in your home know? Email me with your ideas.
Check out Lou Angeli's video short "Inside The Fire"

Out Of Control

Training Fire Gone Bad

by: Lou Angeli

Live FIRE training is by far the best way for a firefighter to be introduced to the enemy --to watch it grow, shape and take on a life of its own.

Even though you’re in a controlled environment, things can – and do – go wrong. After all, we ARE playing with fire! A few years ago, in what was planned as a training burn, my partner and I filmed what easily could have become a disaster.

Even though a protective hoseline had been positioned, we knew that the main attack line was only flowing about 100 gallons per minute – about enough to handle a trash fire in a small dumpster. It didn’t take an Einstein to figure out that this baby would take OFF! And take off FAST!

We filmed the ignition team lighting the fire – and within moments flames began rolling over the heavily timbered ceiling. (pause) It got real hot, real fast and a few firefighters escaped through the main stairwell. It had only been 15 seconds since the fire had been lit – but staying in place wasn’t an option. Jim and I baled out a second floor window! That’s me coming down the ladder.

From our fixed camera position, you can see that heavy smoke is already blowing out the 2nd floor windows. But what we didn’t know was that someone had used gasoline as an accelerant for this “training” blaze and that’s the biggest NO-NO in the firefighter training business.

My partner and I assumed that the INSIDE team had escaped through the main stairwell. But shortly after we reached the ground – we saw a lone firefighter come out of the same window that we’d just exited. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The firefighter on the roof was veteran, Anna Marsh, who had been working with the ignition team to prepare the fire room. Anna knew there were others firefighters still inside, and she fished for them by pulling in the hoseline – only to find an unopened nozzle. As she stood there in the window, Anna experienced a thermal bath of temperatures reaching 800 degrees. But she stayed there, unwilling to abandon the other two firefighters.

At that point I knew that Marsh had little time to escape – FLASHOVER – was imminent. shouted through my own mask to warn Marsh of the danger – but the heat and smoke had damaged the facepiece of her breathing mask -- and she had become totally disoriented.

Listening to instructions from a safety officer, Anna was able to feel her way to an escape ladder and make her way to safety just as the room flashed over with violent force. I’m still not sure what happened, but there was no way that a single hoseline would have ever dampened that blaze. Anna and her crew were lucky to get out alive!!!!

I was with Anna on the fireground immediately afterwards. What I saw was a charred set of turnout gear and a brave grandmother who had just escaped death. She will always have my utmost respect because she exemplifies what every firefighter strives for courage and bravery. But most of all love – love her chosen career and love of her fellow firefighters

View the actual video on GoogleVideo