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.


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