Posts Tagged ‘gas cooling’

A Response to: Nozzle Selection:
Are We Defeating the Enemy?

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Jason Sowders recently wrote an post on the Fire Engineering in support 150 gpm (570 lpm) as the minimum flow rate for interior structural firefighting and the use of solid (or if not solid, at least straight) streams for interior fire attack. I commented on-line that many of the conclusions stated in Jason’s post was not supported by scientific evidence or the experience of many of the world’s fire services. Have a look at Jason’s post: Nozzle Selection: Are We Defeating the Enemy? and give some thought to what he has to day. What do you agree with, what do you disagree with, and why?

I commend Jason on presenting his perspective in a public forum. While I don’t agree with many of the things that he has to say, putting ideas in a public space allows discussion and argument (using this term in its most positive sense) to improve our knowledge and understanding. Today more than ever, we have access to a tremendous amount of information via the internet and print publications. Some of this information is correct and some is not. To make things even more complicated, some of it is based on commonly held belief resulting from observation of the world around us, that seems quite logical and some of it is based on science which is sound but may seem to conflict with our practical experience. How do we sort through these statements, claims, and arguments?

  • Think about what you know?
  • How do you know this?
  • What are your assumptions and biases (this may be the most difficult question)?
  • What resources are available to help you develop a deeper understanding?

Military Metaphor

Jason begins his post by asserting that warfighting involves precision, well thought out methods of attack and overwhelming force to obliterate the enemy. Both statements have an element of truth, but the military metaphor for structural firefighting while useful in some contexts has significant limitations. Consider the differences between a ground offensive in a war and a special operations mission to capture or kill a terrorist leader. Both have elements of precision and well thought out methods, but the later does not use overwhelming force to obliterate the enemy, but employs the force necessary to accomplish the task while minimizing collateral damage.


Jason states that we are in a war and that fire has already invaded our homes, ready to show itself in a very “hostile” manner. The major fallacy in the use of military action or warfare as a metaphor for firefighting is the tendency to anthropomorphize the fire, ascribing humanlike characteristics such as thought and intent. An uncontrolled fire is not alive, it is not hostile, and it is not trying to kill either firefighters or civilians it is simply a physical and chemical phenomena that presents a hazard to life and property in either the natural or built environment.

Chief Fire Officer Paul Young of the Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service asked two important questions during a presentation at an Institution of Fire Engineers presentation several years ago: Are we participating in an individual struggle with a dangerous enemy? Or are we part of a disciplined, organized, and coordinated attack on an increasingly well understood chemical reaction?

These points do not diminish the hazards presented by the modern fire environment, but frame a fundamental difference in perspective about our work. One is dramatic, exciting, and focused to a greater extent on an emotional response (which is necessary, but not sufficient) and the other recognizes that our work while difficult, physical, and requiring emotional strength, must be based on integration of scientific evidence and experience developed in the field.

Heat Release Rate

Jason asserts that the heat release rate of today’s fuels is catching firefighters off guard and that they need to be treated as highly flammable fuels. While this is true to some extent, the term flammability generally refers to ease of ignition (e.g. flash point of liquids, ignition temperature, etc.) rather than heat of combustion (potential energy) or heat release rate (HRR). Jason’s statement that “heat makes more heat” is nonsense at face value in that heat (thermal energy in transit cannot multiply itself. Chemical potential energy in fuel can be transformed to thermal kinetic energy, but it can neither be created or destroyed (law of conservation of energy). However, if the point is that HRR does not (generally) increase in a linear manner, but frequently increases in an exponential manner, is generally correct.

Understanding the concept of heat release rate is critical to understanding and recognizing the hazards presented in the fire environment as well as the capabilities of water as an extinguishing agent.

Flow Rate

Jason asserts that flow rates below 150 gpm (768 lpm) are inadequate for interior structural firefighting without supporting this argument with specific evidence. While I agree that a 1-3/4” hoseline with a flow rate of 150 gpm (570 lpm) is a reasonable choice for interior structural firefighting, there are many fire service agencies around the world that are quite effective with much lower flow rates. How can this be? Context is critical and it is important to consider building characteristics, fuel loading, and tactical framework. That said, it is interesting that the New South Wales Fire Brigades in Australia (who has similar buildings and fuel loads to those found in North America) typically makes entry to residential fires with a flow rate that is five times lower than 150 gpm (570 lpm). This large fire brigade serving both the city of Sydney and smaller communities is effective in fire control while having a firefighter fatality rate that is considerably lower than the US fire service. This is likely due to a combination of factors, but their typical flow rate and use of 38 mm (1-1/2”) hoselines does not seem to have a negative impact on their fire suppression performance.

Jason provides an example of the effect of reducing line pressure on 200’ a 1-3/4” handline from 170 psi to 130 psi (to reduce nozzle reaction); stating that this would reduce the flow rate from 150 gpm (570 lpm) to 115 gpm (435 lpm) and that this would be “woefully inadequate and not a safe practice” as you would be simply containing the fire, not extinguishing it.

The first part of this argument has an element of truth. Reducing the line pressure on a handline reduces flow rate. However, depending on the type of nozzle, there may be other impacts as well. An automatic nozzle will maintain its design pressure with reduced flow rate (as long as the flow is within the nozzle’s flow range). If the nozzle is a standard combination nozzle with a designed nozzle pressure of 100 psi (689 kPa) as evidenced by the original 170 psi (1172 kPa) nozzle pressure in this example, reducing the line pressure not only reduces flow rate, but also increases droplet size and velocity of the stream; which further degrades performance. However, this leaves the question of what flow rate is “adequate” for structural firefighting. As with most questions, the answer is it depends.

Before starting a discussion of the adequacy of given flow rates, it is important to provide a bit of context (as this is not a debate just for the sake of argument, it is important for us to understand not only what we do, but why we do it).

Jason states that a flow rate of 115 gpm (435 lpm) will is inadequate and unsafe and that it will only contain the fire and not extinguish it (without stating fire conditions). Consider the cooling capacity of 115 gpm (435 lpm); this flow rate has a theoretical cooling capacity of 18.87 MW (7.26 kg/s x 2.6 MJ/kg = 18.87 MW). Given that this cooling capacity cannot be achieved in a practical sense it may be reasonable to say that the efficiency of hand held fire streams varies considerably, but as a point of illustration, consider an efficiency of 50% (half of the water is vaporized to steam). In this case, the cooling capacity of 115 gpm (435 lpm)  would be 9.43 MW. As a point of comparison, tests of a fully furnished modern living room conducted by Underwriters Laboratories resulted in a heat release rate of slightly less than 9 MW (Kerber, 2012) and could be readily controlled and extinguished with a flow rate lower than 150 gpm (570 lpm).

I have no argument with establishing a minimum flow rate for 1-3//4” handlines (and actually use 150 gpm as the standard for the agency where I serve as Fire Chief). However, not all fires require 150 gpm (768 lpm) and in other cases 150 gpm (570 lpm) is inadequate. Safety is not driven by flow rate, but by appropriate or inappropriate use of a given flow rate depending on conditions. At a minimum, the flow must at least meet the critical flow rate (minimum to extinguish the fire) and more likely should be somewhat higher to reduce the time to extinguishment. Drastically exceeding the critical flow rate has considerably less impact on time to achieve extinguishment, but has a significant impact on the total volume of water used (which in rural contexts can be limited and in any context results in unnecessary fire control damage). If this resulted in increased firefighter safety, this might be a reasonable tradeoff, but I have not seen evidence that this is the case.

Fire Streams

Jason’s use of Lloyd Layman’s work as an illustration of how water fog is used in firefighting is misleading. Indirect attack is only one way in which a combination nozzle can be used in structural firefighting. Jason is correct in that indirect attack involves production of a large volume of steam to cool and inert a fire compartment or compartments and that this method of fire attack should not be used in compartments occupied by firefighters (or savable victims).

Jason states “the fog stream has a much larger surface ratio and little if any of the broken stream makes contact with solid surfaces or fuel source. Remember, our goal is to apply water to the fuel source, not to just cool off the thermal layer.” While, a fog stream has a much larger surface area than a straight or solid stream, the remainder of this statement presents a number of problems.

First it is important to distinguish between a fog stream and a broken stream (which are quite different). A fog stream has much smaller droplets (which appears to be Jason’s point) while a broken stream (such as that produced by a Bresnan distributor) has much larger droplets.

Jason’s second point that little if any of the water makes contact with solid surfaces of the burning fuel is in direct conflict with his claim that the fog pattern produces a large volume of steam to fill the compartment (as in Layman’s indirect attack). Due to the substantial energy required to heat water to its boiling point (specific heat) and vaporize it into steam (latent heat of vaporization) and the relatively low specific heat of the hot gases; water vaporized in the upper layer actually reduces the total volume of hot gases and steam in the compartment. Water vaporized on hot surfaces does not take appreciable energy from the hot gases and the volume of steam produced is added to the total volume of the upper layer, resulting in the lowering of the bottom of the layer and making conditions less tenable. For a more detailed discussion of gas cooling see my prior post Gas Cooling, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. If in fact the water is not reaching hot surfaces, it would not have the effect that Jason describes. If it does reach the surfaces, resulting in the effect described, a fog pattern actually does cool hot surfaces and burning fuel. The fact of the matter is somewhere between these two extremes. Effective use of a combination nozzle allows for cooling of gases when this is the goal and cooling of hot surfaces and burning fuel when position allows direct attack.

I agree with Jason’s third point, that the goal is to “apply water to the fuel source, not just to cool off the thermal layer” [emphasis added]. However, if faced with a shielded fire and direct attack is not possible from the point of entry, it is necessary to cool the hot upper layer to reduce potential for ignition of the hot smoke (fuel) and reduce the thermal insult to the firefighters below. This requires a stream that is effective at cooling the gases (rather than only or primarily surfaces). Once it is possible to apply water directly onto the burning fuel, this is critical as gas cooling is not an extinguishing technique, but simply a way to more safely gain access to the seat of the fire. For additional discussion of shielded fires and application of gas cooling see my previous post Shielded Fires and Part 2.

It is indisputable that a fog pattern can be used to create a negative pressure at an opening such as a window or door to aid in ventilation and that a solid stream held in a stationary position and projected through the same opening will create less of a negative pressure and have less impact on ventilation. However, it is incorrect to state that the fog stream will always have this effect and thus will have a negative impact if used for interior firefighting. Development of the increased air movement described requires that the stream be positioned in an opening to create a negative pressure, thus influencing air flow. Intermittent operation on the interior does not produce the same result.

Jason Sowders states “Let’s leave ventilation to the truck companies. Our main focus for the initial stretch should be extinguishment.” I have no argument that the main focus of the first line stretched should be confinement and extinguishment of the fire. However, engine companies have a significant impact on ventilation (and are an essential part of this essential tactic) in that all openings created in the building (including the door that the line was advanced through) are ventilation openings. For more on the entry point as ventilation, see my earlier post Influence of Ventilation in Residential Structures: Tactical Implications Part 2 and the last several posts on door control; Close the Door! Were You Born in a Barn? and Developing Door Control Doctrine.

Jason also states “We have been fooled for many years believing that a curtain of water between you and the fire is protection. What is occurring is that you are pushing heat, fire, smoke, and other products of combustion out in front of you.”

There are several interesting issues with these claims. First, if a fog pattern did not provide effective protection from radiant heat, fog streams would be ineffective protection when dealing with exterior flammable gas fires. However, this is not the issue here. As demonstrated in tests conducted by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) on Horizontal (Kerber, 2011) and Vertical Ventilation (Kerber, in press) as well as additional tests conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) (Healey, Madrzykowski, Kerber, & Ceriello, 2013), water does not push fire (for more information see the UL Report and On-Line Training Program Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction. When a stream is operated continuously as in a combination attack where the stream (fog, straight, or solid) is rotated to cover the ceiling, walls, and floor and water is vaporized on contact with hot surfaces and burning fuel, steam is produced and the air flow developed by the stream aids in pushing these gases away from the nozzle and hopefully, towards an exhaust opening (half of the ventilation equation). Coordination of fire attack and ventilation is always important, but in this case ventilation in front of the hoseline is critical to safe and effective extinguishment. This is true regardless of the type of nozzle and stream used.

Jason cites the disruption of the hot upper layer in the fire environment as a problem presented by application of water fog into the hot gases. He further asserts that a straight or solid stream will provide a more rapid knockdown by reaching the seat of the fire without premature conversion to steam or being carried away by convection currents. As with many of the other arguments in Jason’s post, there is an element of truth here, but not the entire story.

As discussed above, application of water in a manner to produce steam on contact with hot surfaces will in fact disrupt thermal layering (regardless of the type of stream), this has given rise to empirical (observed) evidence that application of water fog into the hot upper layer has adverse consequences. However, if applied at a flow rate and/or duration that results in vaporization in the hot upper layer, conditions improve. Penetration is often cited as an advantage of straight or solid streams. This is true, provided that the stream can be directly applied to the burning fuel. Reach of the stream becomes particularly important when working in large compartments that are well involved. In many cases, firefighters must gain access to the fire compartment prior to being able to make a direct attack on burning fuel and thus may have need first cool the hot gas layer on approach and then make a direct attack. These two tasks may be efficiently accomplished using a combination nozzle to cool hot gases with pulsed application of water fog and a straight stream for direct attack.

Jason emphasizes that solid stream nozzles produce a superior stream in comparison to that produced by a combination nozzle set on a straight stream. The primary rationale stated in this argument is that the stream is denser and droplets produced when the solid stream is deflected off the ceiling or walls are larger and have sufficient mass to reach the burning fuel without being vaporized in the hot gases or carried away by convection. As with several other of Jason’s arguments, this has an element of truth. Larger droplets are effective for direct attack due to their mass and smaller surface area, increasing the amount of water reaching the burning fuel. The effects of convection on a straight stream from a combination nozzle are far less pronounced in a compartment than they are when attempting a defensive direct attack on a large fire with a significant convection column.

Most Fire Departments

Jason asserts that “Most fire departments throughout the country are aware of the harmful effects of fog application and are teaching their recruits to use straight stream water application for interior structural firefighting”. I am uncertain if most fire departments are teaching that only straight or solid streams should be used for interior firefighting operations. However, I would dispute that fog application is “harmful”. There are potentially harmful effects of inappropriate water application regardless of the type of stream. Firefighters must understand water as an extinguishing agent and develop mastery in the use of their primary weapon (to use the military metaphor), the nozzle. Firefighters today are more aware of the need to cool hot smoke (fuel) in the upper layer, it is essential to understand the capabilities and limitations of each type of fire stream

Constant Change

Jason concludes with the statement “We must be ready for battle with effective hoseline selection, nozzle selection, and flow rates…. It is our duty to be proactive when it comes to the constant changes our profession brings.”  I agree completely! However, our strategies, tactics, and doctrine must be evidence based, must have a sound theoretical foundation and be supported by both scientific research and practical experience. Unfortunately, our profession continues to struggles to integrate these elements and is saddled with conclusions based on experience without understanding. Theory and scientific research does not trump experience, neither does experience trump scientific knowledge. Both are essential!

The issues of flow rate and stream selection are not one sided, there is evidence for the effectiveness of both water fog and solid stream application for control of fires in today’s fire environment. It is easy to examine the evidence and choose the facts that support our preconceived ideas (regardless of your perspective). It is much more difficult to objectively evaluate the evidence and determine what conclusions are actually supported. We must continue to ask why and question our assumptions!

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


Healey, G., Madrzykowski, D., Kerber, S., & Ceriello, J. (2013). Scientific research for the development of more effective tactics; Governors Island experiments July 2012 [PowerPoint]. Gaithersburg, MD: National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Kerber, S. (2011). Impact of ventilation on fire behavior in legacy and contemporary residential construction. Retrieved July 16, 2011 from

Kerber, S. (2012). Analysis of changing residential fire dynamics and its implications on firefighter operational timeframes. Retrieved June 26, 2013 from

Sowders, J. (2013) Nozzle Selection: Are We Defeating the Enemy? Retrieved June 26, 2013 from–are-defeating-the-enemy-.html?sponsored=firedynamics

FAQ-Fire Attack Questions Part 3

Saturday, April 27th, 2013


Thursday morning saw a sea change in perspectives on fire behavior in the United States! Over 2500 people were in the big room at FDIC to hear BC George Healey (FDNY), Dan Madryzkowski (NIST), Steve Kerber (UL), and LT John Ceriello (FDNY) talk about fire research conducted on Governors Island in New York.


This excellent presentation emphasized the importance of understanding fire behavior and the influence of flow path and provided several key tactical lessons, including:

  • Importance of control, coordination, and communication between crews performing fire attack and those performing tactical ventilation
  • The effectiveness of anti-ventilation such as closing the door (even partially) on slowing fire development
  • Effectiveness of water quickly applied into the fire compartment (from any location, but in particular from the exterior) in slowing fire progression
  • The demonstrated fact that flow path influences fire spread and not application of water. You can’t push fire with water applied into the fire compartment.
  • Importance of cooling the hot smoke (fuel) in the upper layer

Several years ago, who would have thought that a presentation on fire dynamics and research would have drawn this number of people to a presentation at FDIC. Kudos to FDNY, NIST, and UL for their ongoing work in developing an improved understanding of fire dynamics and firefighter safety.

FAQ (Fire Attack Questions) Continued

I had the opportunity to visit with Captain Mike Sullivan with the Mississauga Ontario Fire Department while at FDIC and we are continuing our dialog with another series of questions related to the characteristics of water fog and its use of a fog pattern for self-protection when faced with rapid fire progression in a structure fire.

The next three questions deal with using a fog stream for protection. In the IFSTA Essentials of Firefighting 5th edition it states that “wide fog patterns can also protect firefighters from radiant heat”, however in the IFSTA Essentials of Firefighting 3rd edition it states “In the past, water curtain broken stream nozzles were commonly used for exposure protection. However, research has indicated that these nozzles are only effective if the water is sprayed directly against the exposure being protected”. This tells me that fog patterns cannot protect from radiant heat.


Another question for which the answer is “it depends”. Both statements are correct (in context). Water droplets reduce radiant heat by absorbing energy and scattering the radiant energy. The effectiveness of these mechanisms depends on droplet size, wavelength of the radiation, geometric dimensions of the water spray, and density of the fog pattern. To put this in context, firefighters use a water spray for protection when approaching a flammable gas fire. In this context, the high density of the spray in proximity of the nozzle is quite effective. In contrast, application of a water spray between a fire and exposure is likely to be much less dense, and thus less effective in protecting the exposure than simply applying water to the exposure to keep its temperature <100o C.

In the past there was a belief (which some still believe) that if you find yourself in a bad situation in a house fire you can simply switch to a wide fog and it develops an “umbrella of protection from the heat and fire”. I believe this to be false. What I do think has happened in the past is that firefighters have found themselves in a room with extreme rollover or even had pockets of unburned gas igniting around them. When they used this technique they didn’t protect themselves with an umbrella of fog protection but they cooled the smoke layer and made the situation better.

This also is an interesting question, there are incidents where firefighters have opened the nozzle when caught in rapid fire progression and have survived (not necessarily uninjured), likely due to the cooling effects of the water spray. However, I would agree that this does not provide “an umbrella of protection” like a force field that provides complete protection. The benefit is likely by cooling of the hot gases above and potentially controlling some of the flaming combustion in the immediate area. However, as continuous application will likely not only cool the hot upper layer, but also generate a tremendous amount of steam on contact with compartment linings, the environment will not be tenable in the long term. However, this environment is likely more survivable than post-flashover, fully developed fire conditions.

Much the same as in driving or riding in fire apparatus, the best way to avoid death and injury in a crash is to not crash in the first place. If firefighters recognize worsening fire conditions, they should cool the upper layer to mitigate the hazards presented, if this is ineffective, withdrawing while continuing to cool the upper layer is an essential response.

My last comment on this; and this is where I am not really sure. If you are in a situation where you need to back out quickly, would it work to use a fog stream to push the heat away as you are reversing out of the structure? You would only do this for a short time while you retreat.

If you cannot put water on the fire to achieve control (shielded fire) or the heat release rate (HRR) of the fire exceeds the cooling capacity of your stream you are in a losing position. When faced with rapidly deteriorating thermal conditions, it is essential to cool the upper layer. It is important to note that cooling, not simply “pushing the heat away” is what needs to happen in this situation. This action reduces heat flux from both convective and radiant transfer. Adequate water must be applied to accomplish this task, as temperature increases so too does the water required. Long pulses provide a starting point, but the pulses need to be long enough to deliver the required water. If needed, flow could be continuous or near continuous while the crew withdraws. In much the same manner a crew working with a solid stream nozzle would operate the nozzle in a continuous or near continuous manner and rotate the stream to provide some cooling to the upper layer while withdrawing.

There are those who believe that you can use a fog stream to protect yourself in a house fire by pushing the heat away from you as you advance on the fire. I believe you can push heat away from you and it happens in 2 distinct ways,  the wide fog with the entrained air is literally pushing the heat away from you and you have now created high pressure in an area that was low pressure (typically you are near an open door) so you have effectively changed the flow path. Having said this, I feel the benefits are short lived. With this fog pattern you will also be creating a lot of steam which will continue expanding until it’s temperature reaches equilibrium with the rest of the fire compartment (expansion could be as high as 4000 times). With all this pushing and expansion you are now creating high pressure in an area down stream from you that had previously been a low pressure area. As we know, everything is trying to move from high to low pressure, now the low pressure area is directly behind the nozzle. Now you are in a situation where not only is the heat coming back behind the nozzle but there is an enormous amount of steam being created and heading your way. The confusion here is most likely with the techniques we use when practicing for gas fires, we do this outside where there is an endless amount of space to push the heat away (I read this part in a good article in Fire Engineering).

The impact of continuous application of a fog stream (or any stream for that matter) as you advance is dependent on a number of factors, principal among which are the flow path and where steam is produced (in the hot gas layer versus on contact with surfaces). Continuous application is likely to result in vaporization of a significant amount of water on contact with surfaces; this will result in addition of steam to the hot upper layer without corresponding contraction of the hot gases that results from vaporization of water while it is in the gases. Without ventilation in front of the fog stream (or any stream for that matter), this can result in a reduction in tenability. However, when ventilation in front of the stream is provided, a combination attack (using a fog pattern, straight, or solid stream) can be quite effective for fully developed fire conditions.

I was hoping you could elaborate on the term “painting”. It is defined as a “gentle application of water to cool without excess steam production”. The hard part as a firefighter is the word “gentle” as this word doesn’t register in firefighter lingo. I can see this during overhaul but was hoping you could elaborate.

The way that I typically explain the concept of “gentle” is using a fire in a small trash can or other incipient fire inside of a building. If you use a hoseline to extinguish this fire, it is unlikely that you will need a high flow rate or application of the stream with the bail of the nozzle fully open. It would be appropriate to simply open the nozzle slightly on a straight stream and apply a small amount of water to the burning fuel.

Surface cooling can be done using a vigorous application from a distance when faced with a well involved compartment. In this situation, the reach of the stream is appropriately used to extinguish the fire and cool hot surfaces from a distance to minimize thermal insult to firefighters while quickly achieving control. However when faced with hot and pyrolizing compartment linings or contents, it may be useful or necessary to cool these surfaces from closer proximity. In this case applying water with force will result in much of the water bouncing off the surfaces and ending up on the floor. Painting involves using a straight stream or narrow fog pattern with the nozzle gated back to provide a gentle application resulting in a thin layer of water on the hot surface. As you note, this is most commonly used during overhaul, but could be used anytime that there is a need to cool hot, pyrolizing, but unignited surfaces.

Next week Mike and I will conclude this series of FAQ with a look at pyrolysis and flow path.


FAQ-Fire Attack Questions: Part 2

Saturday, April 20th, 2013


Captain Mike Sullivan with the Mississauga Ontario Fire Department and I are continuing our dialog with another series of questions related to the science behind fire attack and fire control methods. Mike’s next several question deal with gas and surface cooling.

I know the best way to extinguish a fire is to put water on it but my questions below deal with a situation of large, open concept homes where you can see the entire main floor except the kitchen cooking area, in many cases this area is not separate from the open floor plan but around the corner so we can’t hit the fire until we get around that corner. My questions are all geared around how to cool the environment as you make your way to the fire (if you need to go to the very back of the house to get to the fire, fire can’t be seen).

When you answered the question about the effects of flowing a straight/solid stream across the ceiling it sounds as if this is really only surface cooling and not effectively gas cooling. If this is true then I was wondering what the value of doing this is, what are the main benefits of cooling the ceiling, walls and floor (and any furniture etc. the water lands on)? Also, what do you recommend to those departments that only use solid bore nozzles?

Use of a solid (or straight) stream off the ceiling has some effect on cooling the gases, but this is limited as the droplets produced are quite large and do not readily vaporize in the hot upper layer (great for direct attack, but not so much for gas cooling). The value of doing this is that any energy taken out of the hot upper layer (buy cooling the gases or by cooling surfaces and subsequent transfer of energy from hot gases to the cooler surfaces) will have some positive effect. In addition, hot combustible surfaces, depending on temperature are likely pyrolizing and adding hot, gas phase fuel to the upper layer. Cooling reduces pyrolysis and the fuel content of the smoke overhead.

The following video of the “Nozzle Forward”, Aaron Fields, Seattle Fire Department demonstrates some excellent hose handling techniques and also provides an illustration of how a solid stream nozzle can be used to cool hot gases by breaking up the stream on contact with compartment linings. Have a look at the video between 2:00 and 2:30 where the nozzle is being rotated as in a combination attack while advancing down a hallway. Note that the stream breaks up on contact with the ceiling and walls, providing a distribution of large droplets in the overhead area.

This technique can be quite effective when faced with a large volume of fire and ventilation is provided in front of the fire attack. However, if the hallway is not involved in fire, but there is a hot layer of smoke overhead, this approach is less effective as large droplets are less efficient in cooling the hot gases and much of the water will end up on the floor, not having done appreciable work.

While this will likely generate some hate and discontent, I would recommend that departments using only solid stream nozzles reconsider their choice. This type of nozzle has a number of great characteristics, but also has a number of significant limitations, principal among which is limited ability to cool the hot upper layer when dealing with shielded fires. That said, the firefighter riding backwards or company officer in the right front seat may have limited impact on this decision (at least in the short term). If all you have to work with is a solid stream nozzle, directing the stream off the ceiling to break up the pattern and provide limited gas cooling when dealing with extremely hot gases overhead are likely a reasonable option.

I understand how penciling a fog stream in the hot gas layer is the best way to cool the gases. My concern is this, where I work there are many new homes with open concept, large rooms and little compartmentation. I like the idea of cooling the gases above my head but I still have a large room full of gases that could still flash. Sure I’m cooling the gases around me but if the gases at the other end of the open space flash, I am still in the same room and in trouble. I would prefer to cool that area before I get there. What are your recommendations for this situation?

As a point of clarification, we use the term “penciling” in reference to an intermittent straight stream application. Gas cooling is most effectively accomplished with pulsed or intermittent application of water fog. We refer to this technique as “pulses” (to differentiate this from penciling with a straight or solid stream)

We also have quite a few large residential occupancies with open floor plans. The issue of large area or volume compartments also applies in commercial and industrial building as well. Gas cooling simply provides a buffer zone around the hose team, but other than in a small compartment does not change conditions in the upper layer throughout the space. Gas cooling must be a continuous process while progressing towards a shielded fire. The upper limit of area (or more appropriately volume) is an unanswered question. My friend Paul Grimwood, Principal Fire Safety Engineer with the Kent Fire and Rescue Service in the UK holds that the upper limit with a relatively normal ceiling height is approximately 70 m2 (753 ft2). Paul’s perspective is anecdotal and not based on specific scientific research. However, this is not unreasonable, given the reach of a narrow fog pattern and vaporization of water as it passes through the upper layer. Given the higher flow rates used by the North American fire service, it may be possible to control a somewhat larger area than Paul suggests, but this remains to be determined.

As to an answer to this problem, pulsed application does not always mean short pulses, multiple long pulses with a narrow pattern or a sweeping long pulse may be used to cover a larger area. In addition, large area compartments or open floor plan spaces may require multiple lines to adequately control the environment. The purpose of the backup line is to protect the means of egress for the attack line and this is of paramount importance in an open plan building.

The following two videos demonstrate the difference between short and long pulses. At 115 lpm (30 gpm) the flow rates in these two videos are low by North American standards, but are fairly typical for gas cooling applications in many parts of the world. Short pulses can be used effectively up to approximately 570 lpm (150 gpm) with minimal water hammer, for higher flow rates, long pulses are more appropriate.

When we do these quick bursts of fog to cool the gases we are not using much water compared to the feeling that the best way to handle this is to flow a large amount of water and basically soak the entire area down before you advance through it. I was hoping you could comment on this.

As noted in the answer to your previous question, pulses are sometimes, but not always quick. In a typical legacy residence (small compartments) short pulses are generally adequate to cool hot gases overhead. When accessing a shielded fire, and cooling the hot gases overhead it is not generally necessary to cool hot surfaces and fuel packages such as furniture (it may be a different story in the fire compartment). Water remaining on the floor or soaked into contents did not do significant work and simply added to fire control damage. We should not hesitate to use an adequate amount of water for fear of water damage, but tactical operations should focus on protecting property once (or while) we are acting to ensure the safety of occupants and firefighters.

We often enter house fires where the house is full of smoke but the smoke is not necessarily very hot. In these cases we would not normally cool the gases. From what we understand now, smoke is fuel and with open concept homes this smoke could ignite close to the fire therefore igniting the smoke nearer to us. What I was wondering is what are you teaching in regards to cooling the smoke, do you do it only when you feel a lot of heat or start cooling regardless?

As the temperature of the upper layer drops, the effectiveness of application of pulsed water fog diminishes. That said, if the upper layer is hot enough to vaporize some of the water (i.e. above 100o C), application of water will further cool the gases and provide some thermal ballast (the water will have to be heated along with the gases for ignition to occur).

When presented with cold (< 100o C) smoke, firefighters still face a hazard as gas phase fuel can still be ignited resulting in a flash fire (if relatively unconfined) or smoke explosion. The only real solution to this hazard is to create a safe zone by removing the smoke through tactical ventilation.

Mike and I will continue this dialog next week with a discussion of the protective capabilities of fog streams.

“Flashover Training”

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

This week’s questions focus on training firefighters to recognize, prevent, and if necessary react appropriately to flashover conditions. Casey Lindsay of the Garland, Texas Fire Department sent an e-mail to a number of fire behavior instructors regarding how they conduct “flashover training”

One of the challenges we face in discussing fire behavior training, particularly live fire training is the result of variations in terminology. Differences exist in the way that live fire training props are described and in fire control techniques. For this discussion, CFBT-US defines the type of prop pictured below as a “split level demo cell”. This terminology is derived from the original purpose of this design as conceived by the Swedish Fire Service in the 1980s. The split level cell is intended for initial fire behavior training focused on observation of fire development. As used in the United States (and some other parts of the world) it is described as a “flashover simulator” or “flashover chamber”. This provides a disconnect in context as this prop is not intended and does not subject the participants in training to flashover conditions, but simply provides an opportunity to observe fire development through the growth stage and recognize some potential cues of impending flashover.


Note: The prop illustrated above is a Split level cell at the Palm Beach County Fire Training Center.

Container based props can be configured in a variety of ways for both demonstration and fire attack training. Most commonly single compartment cells are single level or split level design. Multiple compartment cells are arranged in a variety of ways with containers placed in an “L”, “H” or other configuration.

Do you currently teach firefighters that “Penciling control techniques can be used to give firefighters additional time to escape a flashover”?

We define penciling as an intermittent application using a straight stream as compared to pulsing which uses a fog pattern or painting which is a gentle application of water to hot surfaces. We do not teach penciling, pulsing, or painting as a technique to give firefighters additional time to escape flashover. We use gas cooling (short or long pulses) and coordination of fire attack and ventilation to control the environment and prevent or reduce the potential for firefighters to encounter flashover. However, long pulses (or continuous application) while withdrawing is taught as a method of self-protection if fire conditions exceed the capability of the crew engaged in fire attack.

In response to Casey’s questions, Jim Hester, with the United States Air Force (USAF) presents an alternative perspective:

No! We do not teach penciling or 3D Fog attack anymore. We did temporarily after receiving our training as instructors in the flashover trainer. We gave the technique an honest look and conducted research using Paul Grimwood’s theories. We decided there are too many variables. For example; what works in a room and contents [fire] will not work in heavy fire conditions inside a commercial. The last thing we want is someone penciling any fire, inside any structure, that requires constant water application until the fire is darkened down. That’s what we teach.  Open the nozzle for as long as it takes to get knock down and then shut the nozzle down. [It is as] simple as that. If you take that approach, even in the flashover trainer you will alleviate confusion or misapplication of your fire stream.

While I have a considerably different perspective, Jim raises several good points. I agree that there are many variables related to fire conditions and room geometry. If firefighters are trained in lock step manner that short pulses are used to control the temperature overhead, there will definitely be a challenge in transitioning from the container to a residential fire and even more so when confronted with a commercial fire. However, if firefighters are introduced to the container as a laboratory where small fires are used to develop understanding of nozzle technique, rather than a reflection of real world conditions, this presents less of an issue.

As Jim describes, fire conditions requiring constant application in a combination attack with coordinated tactical ventilation, may not be controlled by short pulses. However, when cooling hot smoke on approach to a shielded fire, constant application of water will likely result in over application and less tenable conditions (too much water may not be as bad as too little, but it presents its own problems).

Most firefighters, even those that advocate continuous application, recognize that a small fire in a trash can or smoldering fire in a upholstered chair or bed does not require a high flow rate and can easily be controlled and extinguished with a small amount of water. On the other hand, a fully developed fire in a large commercial compartment cannot be controlled by a low flow handline. To some extent this defines the continuum of offensive fire attack, small fires easily controlled by direct application of a small amount of water and large fires that are difficult to control without high flow handlines (or multiple smaller handlines). There is not a single answer to what is the best application for offensive fire attack. Shielded fires require control of the environment (e.g., cooling of the hot upper layer) to permit approach and application of direct or combination attack. Fires that are not shielded present a simpler challenge as water can be brought to bear on the seat of the fire with less difficulty.

Nozzle operators must be trained to read conditions and select nozzle technique (pulsed application to cool hot gases versus penciling or painting to cool hot surfaces) and fire control methods (gas cooling, direct attack, indirect attack, or combination attack) based on an assessment of both the building and fire conditions.

What flashover warning signs do you cover during the classroom portion of flashover training?

We frame this discussion in terms of the B-SAHF (Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame) indicators used in reading the fire (generally, not just in relation to flashover).


Building: Flashover can occur in all types of buildings. Consider compartmentation, fuel type, and configuration, ventilation profile, and thermal properties of the structure. Anticipate potential for increased ventilation (without coordinated fire control) to result in flashover when the fire is burning in a ventilation controlled regime (most fires beyond the incipient stage are ventilation controlled). Note that these indicators are not all read during the incident, but are considered as part of knowing the buildings in your response area and assessing the building as part of size-up.

Smoke: Increasing volume, darkening color and thickness (optical density), lowing of the level of the hot gas layer.

Air Track: Strong bi-directional (in at the bottom and out at the top of an opening), turbulent smoke discharge at openings, pulsing air track (may be an indicator of ventilation induced flashover or backdraft), and any air track that shows air movement with increasing velocity and turbulence.

Heat: Pronounced heat signature from the exterior (thermal imager), darkened windows, hot surfaces, hot interior temperatures, observation of pyrolysis, and feeling a rapid increase in temperature while working inside (note that this may not provide sufficient warning in and of itself as it is a late indicator).

Flame: Ignition of gases escaping from the fire compartment, flames at the ceiling level of the compartment, isolated flames in the upper layer (strong indicator of a ventilation controlled fire) and rollover (a late indicator).

How do you incorporate the thermal imaging camera into your flashover class?

We do not teach a “flashover” class. We incorporate learning about flashover (a single fire behavior phenomena) in the context of comprehensive training in practical fire dynamics, fire control, and ventilation (inclusive of tactical ventilation and tactical anti-ventilation). Thermal imagers (TI) are used in a variety of ways beginning with observation of small scale models (live fire), observation of fire development (with and without the TI) and observation of the effects of fire control and ventilation.

Do you allow students to operate the nozzle in the flashover chamber?

We use a sequence of evolutions and in the first, the students are simply observers watching fire development and to a lesser extent the effects of water application by the instructor. In this evolution, the instructor limits nozzle use and predominantly sets conditions by controlling ventilation. If necessary the instructor will cool the upper layer to prevent flames from extending over the heads of the participants or to reduce the burning rate of the fuel to extend the evolution. Students practice nozzle technique (short and long pulses, painting, and penciling) outside in a non-fire environment prior to application in a live fire context. After the initial demonstration burn, students develop proficiency by practicing their nozzle technique in a live fire context.

When working in a single level cell rather than a split level cell (commonly, but inaccurately referred to as a “flashover chamber” or “flashover simulator”) we expand on development of students proficiency in nozzle technique by having them practice cooling the upper layer while advancing and importantly, while retreating. In addition, students practice door entry procedures that integrate a tactical size-up, door control, and cooling hot gases at the entry point.

Do you maintain two-in/two-out during flashover chamber classes?

We comply with the provisions of NFPA 1403 and provide for two-in/two-out by staffing a Rapid Intervention Crew/Company during all live fire training.

What is your fuel of choice for the 4×8 sheets (OSB, Particleboard or Masonite)?

We have used a variety of fuel types, but commonly use particle board. OSB tends to burn quickly, but can be used if this characteristic is recognized. We have also used a low density fiberboard product (with less glue) which performs reasonably well. The key with fuel is understanding its characteristics and using the minimum quantity of fuel that will provide sufficient context for the training to be conducted. I recommend that instructors conduct test burns (without students) when evaluating fuel packages that will be used in a specific burn building or purpose built prop (such as a demo or attack cell).

Do you have benches or seating in the flashover chamber?

No, firefighters are expected to be in the same position that they would on the fireground, kneeling or in a tripod position. When we work in a demo cell (“flashover chamber”) with benches, we keep the students on the floor.

Do you teach any flashover survival techniques, other than retreat/evacuate?

We focus first on staying out of trouble by controlling the environment. Second, we teach firefighters the skill of retreating while operating the hoseline (generally long pulses to control flames overhead). There are not really any options other than control the fire of leave the environment (quickly)! This is similar to James Hester’s answer of continuous flow, with a sweeping motion (long pulses can be applied in a sweeping manner, particularly in a large compartment). It is important to understand that a short pulse is extremely short (as fast as you can open the nozzle) and a long pulse is anything else (from several seconds to near continuous application, depending on conditions).

Refer to the series of CFBT Blog on Battle Drills for additional discussion developing proficiency in reaction to deteriorating conditions.

Additional Thoughts

Our perspective is that discussion of flashover should be framed in the context of comprehensive fire behavior training, rather than as a “special” topic. Practical fire dynamics must be integrated into all types of structural firefighting training, in particular: Hose Handling, Fire Control, and Tactical Ventilation (but the list goes on). When working with charged hoselines, take the time to practice good nozzle technique as well as moving forward and backward (do not simply stand up and flow water when performing hose evolutions). In fire control training (live fire or not), practice door control, tactical size-up, and door entry procedures. When training on the task activity of tactical ventilation (e.g., taking glass or cutting roof openings), make the decision process explicit and consider the critical elements of coordination and anticipated outcome of you actions.


Plan on attending Wind Driven Fires in Private Dwellings at Fire Department Instructors Conference, Indianapolis, IN on Wednesday April 24, 2013 in Wabash 3. Representing Central Whidbey Island Fire & Rescue, Chief Ed Hartin will examine the application of NIST research on wind driven fires to fires in private dwellings. This workshop is a must if the wind blows where you fight fires!



Fire Attack Methods: A Few Questions

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

As I was beginning work on a post focusing on fire attack methods and fire stream effectiveness, I received an e-mail from Captain Mike Sullivan with the Mississauga Ontario Fire Department asking for help in clarifying indirect and combination fire attack methods and their impact on the fire environment.

fire attack questions

Mike is particularly interested in how to explain the method of extinguishment in the various methods of fire attack discussed in the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) Essentials of Firefighting.

As Mike’s current perspectives and explanation of the methods of fire attack are quite good, they serve as a good starting point for our examination of this topic:

 Direct Attack: This is fairly straight forward; water is applied directly to the burning fuel to cool it to the point where there is no longer pyrolysis (below its ignition temperature).

 As Mike explains, the concept and mechanism of direct attack application of water to burning fuel to cool it. However, it is important to remember that combustion does not necessarily cease when flaming combustion is no longer visible, surface combustion can continue unless sufficient cooling is accomplished to not only extinguish flaming and surface combustion, but also to cool the fuel to the point where it is no longer pyrolizing.

 Indirect Attack: Here is how I would like to explain it. This is used when the seat of the fire cannot be readily accessed. Water is applied from the exterior of a very hot compartment (1000 degrees [F]+ at the ceiling) with limited ventilation. The goal is to create as much steam as possible. To do so you can begin with a fog stream since it is the most effective at cooling therefore creates more steam. The fog stream should be directed at the ceiling where it is hottest. Due to the fact that the stream has limited reach you will then want to narrow your stream eventually using straight stream. The idea is to reach as much of the room as possible. When a straight stream hits the superheated walls and ceilings it will also create a huge amount of steam as it cools the surfaces (most people don’t consider that a straight stream can create a lot of steam). The goal is to do this very quickly then close the door or window and let the steam do its work. There is one main question I was hoping you could help me with here since I have read different theories. What is the main mechanism of extinguishment here, does the steam continue to absorb heat to cool the room down and extinguish the fire or is there so much steam created that it excludes the oxygen therefore smothering and not cooling the fire (I realize both are actually happening), basically does this technique mainly cool or smother the fire.

 This is a complex question in need of a simple answer. The simplest answer is that the primary method of extinguishment is cooling. The complexity is in that the cooling is accomplished by several mechanisms. First, water heated from 20o C to 100o C and vaporized into steam absorbs a tremendous amount of energy based on its specific heat (energy required to raise the temperature of a specific mass of water by one degree) and latent heat of vaporization (energy required to change a substance from liquid to gas phase with no increase in temperature).

Water has a specific heat of 4.2 kJ/kg and a latent heat of vaporization of 2260 kJ/kg. Heating a single kilogram of water from 20o C to 100o C and vaporized it into steam, requires 2.6 MJ of energy. In addition (and contrary to common belief in the fire service) steam produced in an environment above 100o C continues to absorb energy and increase in temperature until the temperature of the steam and the surrounding environment is equalized. Steam has a specific heat of 2.0 kJ/kg. This compares to the specific heat of smoke of approximately 1.0 kJ/kg (Särdqvist, 2002) and gypsum board (a typical compartment lining material) which has a specific heat of 1.017 kJ/kg (Manzello, Park, Mizukami, & Bentz, 2008). Water converted to steam in an indirect attack absorbs a tremendous amount of energy and the steam continues to absorb energy as the temperature in the compartment moves towards equilibrium. As with gas cooling or direct attack, some of the water is vaporized in the hot upper layer and some is vaporized in contact with hot surfaces (compartment linings, burning fuel, etc.). As the specific heat of smoke and compartment lining materials are lower than the specific heat of water (as a liquid or steam) and considerably lower than the latent heat of vaporization of water, the temperature of the smoke and compartment linings will drop to a greater extent than the temperature of the steam will increase (for a more detailed discussion of the cooling effects of water along with a bit of math, see Gas Cooling Parts 1-5).

Steam produced in and enclosed space also reduces oxygen concentration. As oxygen is required for release of energy from fuel, this can also be considered an extinguishing method. Reduction in oxygen concentration results in decreased heat release rate (HRR), which correspondingly results in a decrease in temperature. So in reality it is all about cooling (largely accomplished by vaporization of water into steam along with reduction of oxygen concentration).

 Combination Attack: We seem to have a real problem with this one. When I ask for an explanation of this technique I usually get “T”, “O”, and “Z” pattern as an answer. As a matter of fact a neighbouring fire department has these 3 letters painted on their walls to practice the pattern, again we are dealing more with technique instead of method of extinguishment. My explanation is that these patterns are merely a way of creating steam by cooling all surfaces in the room as well as allowing the water land on the burning fuel to cool it. What is the main mechanism of extinguishment here is it the creation of steam (and again what is the steam doing, cooling or smothering) or is it the water on the fuel cooling it. Also, would you recommend using a fog stream to create steam as it cools the gases and nearby surfaces then switch to a straight stream to create steam as it hits more distant surfaces (walls ceilings).

 The combination attack is intended to both cool the hot upper layer and apply water to burning fuel (less so to cool compartment linings, although this is accomplished as well). The term “combination” refers to the combination of direct and indirect attack. As indirect attack is not applied in an occupied compartment due to steam production (on contact with compartment linings), it is critical ventilation be provided in front of and closely coordinated with fire attack. As with the other methods of fire attack, the principle method is cooling.

As to your second question regarding use of a fog stream to create steam as it cools the gases and nearby surfaces and then switch to a straight stream to cool more distance surfaces. A combination attack may be done with a narrow fog pattern, straight stream, or solid stream. Reach in this case is a good thing. Cooling of hot gases overhead (with a little cooling of compartment linings) is the basic concept used in gas cooling. This technique is most commonly used to control the fire environment when the fire is shielded from direct attack and is not an extinguishing method. This approach does not result in an increased volume of steam and smoke and related lowering of the upper layer. In fact if approximately 35% or more of the water is vaporized in the upper layer, the total volume will be reduced (see Gas Cooling Parts 1-5 for a more detailed explanation of why). This technique can be effectively combined with direct attack on burning fuel and painting of compartment linings to lower their temperature. Painting is a gentle application of water to cool without excess steam production.

I believe that the Fire Streams and Fire Control Chapters in the 6th Edition of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) Essentials of Firefighting provide a more clear discussion of fire attack methods inclusive of direct, indirect, combination, and the technique of gas cooling.


International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA). (2013). Essentials of firefighting (6th ed). Stillwater, OK: Fire Protection Publications.

Manzello, S., Park¸S, Mizukami, T., & Bentz, D. (2008) Measurement of thermal properties of gypsum board at elevated temperatures. Retrieved March 23, 2013 from

Särdqvist, S. (2002) Water and other extinguishing agents. Karlstad, Sweden: Räddnings Verket

Upcoming Events

April 19-20, 2013 – Seminar and Workshop on Practical Fire Dynamics & 3D Firefighting in Winkler, MB

April 23-27, 2013 – Wind Driven Fires in Private Dwellings at Fire Department Instructors Conference, Indianapolis, IN

May 25-26, 2013 – Compartment Fire Behavior Training Workshop at the British Columbia Training Officers Conference, Penticton, BC


Gas Cooling: Part 2

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

In a compartment fire, the upper layer can present significant hazards to firefighters, including potential for ignition and energy transfer). My last post, Gas Cooling, began an examination of the science behind gas cooling, application of water fog into the upper layer to reduce the potential for ignition and thermal hazards presented by the hot gases.

Figure 1. Energy Transfer Required for Cooling

With a specific heat of 4.2 kJ/kg and latent heat of vaporization of 2260 kJ/kg, it takes considerable energy to raise the temperature of water to its boiling point of 100o C and change it from liquid to gas phase steam. Smoke on the other hand has a specific heat of 1.0 kJ/kg, indicating that in comparison with water; much less energy is required to change its temperature. As explained in Gas Cooling, 11.3 MJ must be transferred from the upper layer of this compartment to water applied for cooling in order to lower the temperature of the upper layer in a compartment from 500o C to 100o C (see Figure 1). It is important to remember that the energy required to cool the upper layer is dependent on the mass of hot smoke and air in the upper layer. This value will vary with the size of the compartment and the temperature of the hot gases.

When starting out on this examination of gas cooling, we posed two questions:

  • How much water is required to cool the upper layer from 500o C to 100o C?
  • Why doesn’t the volume of the upper layer increase when water applied to cool the hot gases is turned to steam?

The answers to these questions are interrelated. First, let’s look at the amount of water required.

Water Required for Cooling

When water is applied for fire control and extinguishment, energy is transferred from materials that have a temperature higher than that of the water to raise the temperature of the water and to change it from liquid phase to gas phase.

The theoretical cooling capacity (TCC) of water is 2.6 MJ/kg. This value is based on heating a kilogram of water from 20o C to 100o C (0.3 MJ/kg) and vaporizing it completely into steam (2.3 MJ/kg).

Dividing the energy that must be transferred from the upper layer by the TCC calculates the amount of water that would theoretically be required to cool the upper layer from 500o C to 100o C if the energy transfer and conversion of water to steam was 100% efficient. If this was the case, the upper layer could be cooled to 100o C by applying 4.35 kg of water. Given the density of water at 20o C of approximately 1.0 kg/l, this would be a volume of approximately 4.35 liters. However, this assumes instantaneous heat transfer and 100% efficiency in conversion of water to the gas phase. Neither of which is possible in the real world!

Experimental data (Hadjisophocleous & Richardson, 2005; Särdqvist, S., 1996) has shown that the cooling efficiency of water in both laboratory experiments and actual firefighting operations ranges from 0.2 to 0.6. Särdqvist (1996) suggests that an efficiency factor of 0.2 be used for interior fog nozzles. Barnett (as cited in Grimwood, 2005) suggests that an efficiency factor of 0.5 be used for solid or straight stream application and 0.75 for fog application. In actuality, the efficiency of water application varies considerably with the design of the nozzle, skill of the nozzle operator, and a range of other factors. For our examination of gas cooling, we will use an efficiency factor of 0.6 (60%).

Multiplying the TCC of water by 0.6 adjusts the cooling capacity to account for the fact that some of the water applied into the hot gas layer will not turn to steam while passing through the hot gas layer. Some of the droplets will pass through the gas layer and vaporize on contact with hot surfaces (more on this later) and others will fall to the floor, with increased temperature, but remaining in liquid form.

Figure 2. Adjusted Cooling Capacity of Water

Dividing the 11.3 MJ of energy that must be transferred from the upper layer of the compartment by an Adjusted Cooling Capacity (ACC) of 1.56 MJ/kg determines that 7.2 kg (7.2 liters) of water are required to lower its temperature from 500o C to 100o C.

Figure 3 illustrates common flow rates from combination nozzles, Adjusted Cooling Capacity (ACC) and time required to apply the 7.2 kg of water necessary to cool the upper layer of the compartment from 500o C to 100o C.

Figure 3. Flow Rate, Adjusted Cooling Capacity, and Application Duration

As illustrated in Figure 3, if water is applied at 115 l/min (30 gal/min), several short pulses will provide sufficient water application. If the flow rate is increased to 230 l/min, a single pulse is likely to be sufficient. However, if the flow rate is increased further, it is likely that excessive water will be applied. In addition, droplet size increases with flow rate, reducing efficiency.

All Models are Wrong!

This examination of gas cooling provided a simple example of how much water is required to cool the upper layer in a given compartment. While this explanation provides a good way to understand how gas cooling works, it is incomplete. Box and Draper (1987, p. 424)observe that “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. The following factors add quite a bit of complexity to examination of gas cooling:

  • The energy that must be transferred from the upper layer is dependent on the mass of the hot gases and their temperature.
  • Not all of the water applied vaporizes in the upper layer (some droplets travel through the hot gases and vaporize on contact with hot surfaces and others drop to the floor without completely vaporizing).
  • Temperature of the hot gases in the upper layer is not uniform (as assumed in two layer models).
  • Ongoing combustion and energy transfer from hot compartment linings add energy to the hot gas layer.
  • Convection and gravity current influence the movement of hot and cool gases, making conditions dynamic rather than static.

While our model of gas cooling is wrong, I believe that it is useful. Firefighters do not calculate the volume of water required to cool the hot gas layer on the fireground. However, it is important to understand how flow rate and duration impact on effectiveness and efficiency.


Remember that this example involved gas cooling in a single compartment with static conditions. The flow rate and/or duration of application for fires in larger compartments or direct attack on burning fuel may be quite different.

What’s Next?

One question remains in our examination of gas cooling. Why doesn’t the volume of the upper layer increase when water applied for gas cooling turns to steam? This will be the focus of the third post in this series.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


Box, G. & Draper, R (1987). Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces. New York: Wiley.

Hadjisophocleous, G.V. & Richardson, J.K. (2005). Water flow demands for firefighting. Fire Technology 41, p. 173-191.

Särdqvist, S. (1996) An Engineering Approach To Fire-Fighting Tactics Sweden, Lund University, Department of Fire Safety Engineering

Svennson, S. (2002). The operational problem of fire control (Report LUTVDG/TVBB-1025-SE). Sweden, Lund University, Department of Fire Safety Engineering.

Grimwood, P. (2005). Firefighting Flow Rate: Barnett (NZ) – Grimwood (UK) Formulae. Retrieved January 26, 2008 from

Gas Cooling

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

In a compartment fire, the upper layer presents a number of hazards to firefighters including the fact that 1) Smoke is fuel, and 2) the upper layer can be extremely hot. Application of an appropriate amount of water fog into the upper layer reduces the potential for ignition and lowers the temperature of the gases (reducing thermal load on the firefighters working below). While this sounds simple, and fairly intuitive, this basic technique to control upper layer hazards is frequently misunderstood. This is the first in a series of posts that will attempt to provide a simple explanation of the science behind gas cooling as a fire control technique.

How Does it Work

When a pulse (brief application) of water fog is applied into a layer of hot smoke and gases with a temperature of 500o C (932o F) what happens? As the small droplets of water pass through the hot gas layer, energy is transferred from the hot smoke and gases to the water. If done skillfully, the upper layer will not only be cooler and lest likely to ignite, but it will contract (or at least stay the same volume) providing a safer working environment below.

As demonstrated by Superintendent Rama Krisana Subramaniam, Bomba dan Penelamat (Fire & Rescue Malaysia) a short pulse can place a large number of small water droplets in the upper layer that develops during a compartment fire (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Short Pulse

When presenting this concept, firefighters often present me with two questions:

  • Since water expands approximately 1700 times when turned to steam at 100o C, why doesn’t the upper layer drop down on top of the firefighters?
  • How can such a small amount of water have such a dramatic effect on the fire environment?

Math or No Math?

Using a bit of math, there is a really good explanation as to how gas cooling really works. The best answer is a bit complex, but a good conceptual explanation can be accomplished with a minimal amount of math.

Heating the water to 100o C (212o F) and production of steam transfers a tremendous amount of energy from the hot smoke and gases to the water, reducing the temperature of the hot gases. As the temperature of the hot gases is reduced so is their volume. However, don’t forget about the steam.

When water is turned to steam, it expands. At its boiling point, water vaporized into steam will expand 1700 times. A single liter of water will produce 1700 liters (1.7 m3) of steam. The expansion ratio when water is vaporized is significant. However, due to the tremendous amount of energy required to vaporize the water (and resulting reduction in gas temperature), the final volume of the mixture of hot gases and steam is less than the original volume of hot gases within the compartment.

The Key

The temperature of the gases is lowered much more than the temperature of the water is increased. Why might this be the case? The key to this question lies in the concepts of specific heat and latent heat of vaporization. As illustrated in Figure 2, the specific heat of smoke is approximately 1.0 kJ/kg (Särdqvist, 2002; Yuen & Cheung, 1999) while the specific heat of water is 4.2 kJ/kg and even more importantly the latent heat of vaporization of water is 2260 kJ/kg. What this means is that it requires over four times the energy to raise the temperature of a kilogram of water by 1o C than it does to lower the temperature of smoke by the same amount. In addition, it requires 2260 times the energy to turn 1 kg of water to steam at 100o C than it does to lower the temperature of 1 kg of smoke by 1o C.

Figure 2. Heating and Cooling Curves of Smoke & Water

While water expand as it turns to steam, the hot gas layer will contract as it’s temperature drops. At the same pressure, change in the volume of a gas is directly proportional to the change in absolute temperature. If the initial temperature of the hot gas layer is 500o C (773 Kelvin) and its temperature is lowered to 100o C (373 Kelvin) the absolute temperature is reduced by slightly more than half (773 K-373 K=400 K). Correspondingly the volume of the hot gases will also be reduced by half.

An Example

Once the underlying concept of gas cooling has been explained, the question of how a small amount of water can have such a dramatic effect may still remain. After all, the preceding explanation compared a kilogram of water to a kilogram of air. Firefighters normally do not usually think of either of these substances in terms of mass. Water is measured in liters or gallons. If measurement of smoke and air is thought of, it would likely be in cubic meters (m3) or cubic feet (ft3). Sticking with SI units, consider the properties of water and smoke as illustrated in Figure 3:

Figure 3. Properties of Water and Smoke

While over simplified, the compartment fire environment can be considered as being comprised of two zones; a hot upper layer and a cooler lower layer, each with reasonably uniform conditions (this is the approach used by computer models such as the Consolidated Model of Fire and Smoke Transport, CFAST).

As illustrated in figure 4, our examination of gas cooling will consider a single compartment 4 meters (13’ 1”) wide and 5 meters (16’ 5”) long with a ceiling height of 3 meters (9’ 10”). The upper layer comprised of hot smoke and air is two meters deep and has an average temperature of 500o C (932o F).

Figure 4. Compartment with Two Thermal Zones

What volume of water must be applied into the upper layer to reduce its temperature from 500o C to 100o C?

Just as input of energy is required to increase temperature, energy must be transferred from a substance in order to lower its temperature. The first step in determining the water required for cooling is to calculate the energy that must be transferred from the upper layer to achieve the desired temperature reduction.

The specific heat of smoke is approximately 1.0 kJ/kg. This means that 1.0 kJ of energy must be transferred from a kilogram of smoke in order to reduce its temperature by 1o C. This requires that we determine the mass of the upper layer.

Calculation of mass involves multiplying the volume of the upper layer (40 m3) by the (physical) density of smoke (0.71 kg/m3) at the average temperature of the upper layer (500o C) as illustrated in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Mass of the Upper Layer

Specific heat is the energy required to raise the temperature of a given unit mass of a substance 1o. The same energy must be also be transferred to lower the temperature of a unit mass of a substance by 1o. As illustrated in Figure 3, the specific heat of smoke is 1.0 kJ/kg. Therefore, to lower the temperature of a single kilogram of smoke by 1o C, 1.0 kJ must be transferred from that kilogram of smoke. With an upper layer mass (Mu) of 28.24 kg, 28.24 kJ must be transferred from the upper layer to water applied for gas cooling in order to reduce its temperature by 1o C.

Reduction of upper layer temperature from 500o C to 100o C is a change of 400o. Multiplying 28.24 kJ by 400 determines the total amount of energy that must be transferred to water applied for gas cooling in order to reduce the temperature to 100o C. As illustrated in Figure 6, 11,296 kJ (11.3 MJ) must be transferred from the upper layer to the water to effect a 400o C reduction in temperature.

Figure 6. Energy Transfer Required

Now that we have determined the energy that must be transferred from the upper layer in order to lower the temperature from 500o C to 100o C, it is possible to identify how much water must be applied to accomplish this task. However, that will be the topic of my next post. In addition, I will provide an explanation as to why the volume of the upper layer does not (necessarily) increase when water applied to cool the gases turns to steam.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


Särdqvist, S. (2002). Water and other extinguishing agents. Karlstad, Sweden: Räddnings Verket.

Yuen, K. & Cheung, T. (1999). Calculation of smoke filling time in a fire room – a simplified approach. Journal of Building Surveying, 1(1), p. 33-37