Archive for the ‘Extreme Fire Behavior’ Category

NIOSH Report 2012-28
Thought & Observations

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

After reading National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Death in the line of duty…2012-28, I was left scratching my head. For many years I have been a supporter of the Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program and have served as an expert reviewer for several reports involving fatalities resulting from extreme fire behavior. As a friendly critic I have encouraged the NIOSH staff to improve their investigation and analysis of fire behavior related fatalities. Over the last several years there has been considerable improvement However, this latest report leaves a great deal to be desired. That said, there are a number of important lessons that can be drawn from this incident.


Discussion of Fire Behavior

The Fire Behavior section of the report identified the attic as the origin of the fire and that the fire burning in the attic was ventilation limited. The report also identified that the enclosed rear porch was substantially involved. However, the report failed to discuss how the fire may have extended from the attic to the lower area of the porch (other than a statement that the BC notices “fire raining down in the enclosed porch area”.

The report correctly described the influence of the addition of air to a ventilation limited fire; increased heat release rate and potential to transition through flashover to a fully developed stage. However, the report failed to clearly articulate that there are two sides to the ventilation equation, air in and hot smoke and fire gases out. Flow path is critical to fire development and extension, and in this incident was likely one of the most significant factors in creating untenable conditions in the 2nd floor hallway.

It would have been useful to examine how the changes in ventilation resulting from opening of doors at the first floor level, existing openings in the attic (windows at the front and rear), opening of the door at the 2nd floor to extend the hoseline, and failure of the rear door may have influenced the flow path. While, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) modeling of this incident will shed considerable light on this subject, the physical evidence present at the fire scene could have informed discussion of flow path in the report.

Recommendation #1 states “Fire departments should ensure that fireground operations are coordinated with consideration given to the effects of horizontal ventilation on ventilation-limited fires”. This is a reasonable recommendation, but fails to speak to the importance of understanding flow path and the thermal effects of operating in the flow path downstream from the fire. In addition, while speaking to the importance of coordination, the report neglects to define exactly what that means; water on the fire concurrent with or prior to performing tactical ventilation.

Failure of the rear door established a flow path through the narrow, question mark shaped hallway and kitchen to the front stairway. Given the narrow width of this hall and its complex configuration, it is likely that there would be considerable mixing of hot smoke (fuel) and air providing conditions necessary for combustion. The dimensions of the space may also have influenced the velocity of the hot gases, increasing convective heat transfer.

The report did not speak to conditions initially observed in the kitchen and hallway or observed changes in conditions by members of other companies or the Engine 123 firefighter, prior to Captain Johnson’s collapse.

Things to Think About: Conditions on floor 2 were quite tenable prior to failure of the 2nd floor rear door, but changed extremely quickly in the hallway when the door failed. It is important to consider potential changes in flow path resulting from tactical operations and fire effects. It is unclear if the crews working on the 2nd floor were aware of the extent or level of the fire in the rear porches (having observed conditions indicating an attic fire on approach). The BC addressed the fire in the rear, but the it is uncertain if the line stretched to the back of the building was in operation before door failed or if application through the attic window would have significantly impacted the fire in the lower areas of the porch.


The section of the report addressing the Structure provided a reasonably good overview of the construction of this building and identified that the 2nd floor ceiling had multiple layers. However, there was no discussion of what influence these multiple layers may have had (e.g., reducing the thermal signature of the fire burning above). One significant element missing from discussion of the structure was the open access between the rear porch and the attic that allowed ready extension of fire to the rear porches.

The report also failed to discuss the type of door between the 2nd floor living area and the rear porch, other than to mention in passing that it was metal. Closed doors frequently provide a reasonable barrier to fire spread, but in this case, the door failed following an undetermined period of fire exposure. This was likely a significant factor in changing the flow path and creation of untenable conditions on the 2nd floor.

Things to Think About: Closed doors can provide a significant fire barrier in the short term. However, it would be useful to examine door performance in greater depth to understand what happened in this incident.

Training and Experience

The section of the report addressing training and experience is exhaustive, providing an overview of state training requirements implemented in 2010 (well after the Captain would have attended recruit training). It was unclear if these requirements were implemented on a retroactive basis. The number of hours of training for various personnel involved in the incident were provided, but with little specificity as to content of that training.

These observations are not intended to infer that the training of the members involved was or may have been inadequate, but simply that if NIOSH is investigating a fire behavior related incident, it would be useful to speak to training focused on fire behavior, rather than a generic discussion of training.

It was also interesting to note that while the report spoke well of the Chicago Fire Department training program, it failed to mention that the CFD has been heavily involved in fire dynamics research with both NIST and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) for many years.

Things to Think About: If you are reading this, you likely are plugged into current research in fire dynamics and tactical operations. Share the knowledge and build a strong connection between theory and practical application on the fireground.

Other Observations

While the floor plan of the 2nd floor is useful in understanding the layout of that space, it does not provide a good basis to visualize the flow paths and changes in flow paths that influenced the tragic outcome of this incident. Providing a simple three dimensional drawing with ventilation openings would have significantly increased the clarity of the information provided.

Things to Think About: Don’t be a passive user of NIOSH reports. For a host of reasons, NIOSH does not include the names of Firefighters who have died in the line of duty, the agency they worked for, or the location of the incident (other than the state). However, this information is readily available and can provide additional information to help you understand the incident. In this case accessing the address of this incident (2315 W 50th Place, Chicago) allows the use of Google Maps satellite photos and street view to gain a better perspective of the exterior layout of the building and configuration of openings.

Final Thoughts

The NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program is an important and valuable resource to the fire service. Developing an understanding of causal factors related to firefighter fatalities is an important element in extending our knowledge and reducing the potential for future line of duty deaths. Firefighters often observe that NIOSH reports simply say the same thing over and over again. To some extent this is true, likely because Firefighters continue to die from the same things over and over again.

The fire service across the United States is making progress towards developing improved understanding of fire dynamics and the influence of tactical operations on fire behavior. This is in no small part due to the efforts of the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, NIST, and agencies such as the Chicago Fire Department and Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY). However, we need to look closely at near miss incidents, those involving injury, and fatalities resulting from rapid fire progression and seek to develop a deeper understanding of the contributing and causal factors. The NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program can be a tremendous asset in this process, but more work needs to be done.

What’s Next

I just spent the last two days at UL’s Large Fire Lab for the latest round of Attic Fire Tests and will be headed to Lima, Peru the first week of December. While on the road I will be working on my thoughts and observations related to attic fire tactics. The simple answer is that there is no single answer, but these recent tests presented a few surprises and have given me a great deal to think about.


Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

“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!



Explosion at Harrington NJ Commercial Fire

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Updated with Additional Video

On March 10, 2013 five Harrison, New Jersey firefighters were injured in an explosion while working at a commercial fire at 600-602 Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard. The fire originated in a two-story commercial building at the corner of Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard North and Davis Street and extended into Exposures Charlie and Delta, two-story residential buildings.

Figure 1. Alpha/Bravo Corner and Exposure Charlie

600-602 Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard

Image from Google Maps, click on the link to walk around using Street View.

Reading the Fire

Before watching the video (or watching it again if you have already seen it), download and print the B-SAHF Worksheet. Using the pre-fire photo (figure 1) and observations during the video, identify key B-SHAF indicators that may have pointed to potential for extreme fire behavior in this incident.

Important! Keep in mind that there is a significant difference between focusing on the B-SAHF indicators in this context and observing them on the fireground. Here you know that an explosion will occur, so we have primed the pump so you can focus (and are not distracted by other activity).

Backdraft or Smoke Explosion

While smoke explosion and backdraft are often confused, there are fairly straightforward differences between these two extreme fire behavior phenomena. A smoke explosion involves ignition of pre-mixed fuel (smoke) and air that is within its flammable range and does not require mixing with air (increased ventilation) for ignition and deflagration. A backdraft on the other hand, requires a higher concentration of fuel that requires mixing with air (increased ventilation) in order for it to ignite and deflagration to occur. While the explanation is simple, it may be considerably more difficult to differentiate these two phenomena on the fireground as both involve explosive combustion.

  1. Did you observe any indicators of potential backdraft prior to the explosion?
  2. Do you think that this was a backdraft?
  3. What leads you to the conclusion that this was or was not a backdraft?
  4. If you do not think this was a backdraft, what might have been the cause of the explosion?

For more information in Backdraft, Smoke Explosion, and other explosive phenomena on the fireground, see:

Back at it!

I would like to say thanks to all of you who have sent e-mail or contacted me on Facebook inquiring about the status of the CFBT-US blog. The last several years have been extremely busy at Central Whidbey Island Fire & Rescue and my focus has been almost exclusively on the fire district. However, I am renewing my commitment to developing knowledge of practical fire dynamics throughout the fire service and will endeavor to return to posting on a regular basis. In addition, I am working on a series of short (10-minute) drills on fire dynamics that will be cross posted on the CFBT Blog and the Fire Training Toolbox.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFIreE, CFO

Explosions During Structural Firefighting

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Video of several incidents involving explosions during structural firefighting operations have been posted to YouTube in the last several weeks. Two of these videos, one from New Chicago, IN and the other from Olathe, KS involve residential fires. The other is of a commercial fire in Wichita, KS.

When a video shows some sort of spectacular fire behavior there is generally a great deal of speculation amongst the viewers about what happened. Was it a smoke (fire gas) explosion, backdraft, flashover, or did something else happen? Such speculation is useful if placed in the framework of the conditions required for these phenomena to occur and the Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame (B-SAHF) indicators that provide cues of to current fire conditions and potential fire behavior.

Occasionally, what happened is fairly obvious such as flashover resulting from increased ventilation under ventilation controlled conditions. However, the phenomena and its causal factors are often much more of a puzzle.

Download and print three copies of the B-SAHF Worksheet.

Residential Fire-Olathe, KS

Limited information was posted along with this pre-arrival video of a residential fire in Olathe, KS. The home was unoccupied when the fire occurred.

Watch the thirty seconds (0:30) of the video. First, describe what you observe in terms of the Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame Indicators; then answer the following five standard questions (based only on what you observe during the first thirty seconds of the video)?

  1. What additional information would you like to have? How could you obtain it?
  2. What stage(s) of development is the fire likely to be in (incipient, growth, fully developed, or decay)?
  3. What burning regime is the fire in (fuel controlled or ventilation controlled)?
  4. What conditions would you expect to find inside this building?
  5. How would you expect the fire to develop over the next two to three minutes

Watch remainder of the video and consider the following questions:

  1. Did fire conditions progress as you anticipated?
  2. What changes in the B-SAHF indicators did you observe?
  3. What may have caused the explosion (consider all of the possibilities)?
  4. Were there any indications that may have given warning of this change in conditions?

Residential Fire-New Chicago, IN

Companies from New Chicago and Hobart were dispatched to a reported house fire at 402 Madison in New Chicago, IN on February 17, 2012.

Watch the thirty seconds (0:30) of the video. First, describe what you observe in terms of the Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame Indicators; then answer the following five standard questions (based only on what you observe during the first thirty seconds of the video)?

  1. What additional information would you like to have? How could you obtain it?
  2. What stage(s) of development is the fire likely to be in (incipient, growth, fully developed, or decay)?
  3. What burning regime is the fire in (fuel controlled or ventilation controlled)?
  4. What conditions would you expect to find inside this building?
  5. How would you expect the fire to develop over the next two to three minutes

Watch remainder of the video and consider the following questions:

  1. Did fire conditions progress as you anticipated?
  2. What changes in the B-SAHF indicators did you observe?
  3. What may have caused the explosion (consider all of the possibilities)?
  4. Were there any indications that may have given warning of this change in conditions?

Commercial Fire-Wichita, KS

Wichita Fire Department on scene of a working building fire in large, non-combustible commercial building. Extreme heat and fire conditions cause an unknown cylinder to explode.

Keep in mind that gas cylinders and other closed containers can result in explosions during structural firefighting operations. Unlike backdraft and smoke explosion, the only clue may be building factors related to occupancy (and this may not be a good indicator when operating at a residential fire).

Wichita Fire Department on scene of a working building fire in a large metal structure. Extreme heat and fire conditions cause an unknown cylinder to explode. If you listen close, you can hear it vent before it goes off. Concussion actually cuts out my audio for just a couple seconds. No one was injured.

Video by Sean Black Photography

Firefighter Safety

Potential for explosions related to extreme fire behavior such as backdraft and smoke explosion may be recognized based on assessment and understanding the B-SAHF (Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame) indicators. Other types of explosions such as those resulting from failure of closed containers (e.g., containing liquids or gases) may be a bit more difficult as this potential is likely to be present in most types of occupancies. However, commercial and industrial occupancies present greater risks.

Recognizing that even with sound experienced judgment, there may be undetected hazards on the fireground. Managing the risk requires developing a solid knowledge base and skills and operating within sound rules of engagement such as the IAFC Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting. However, considering the hazards presented by rapid fire progression and potential for changes in conditions following explosive events, I would add the following:

  • Base your strategies and tactics on current and anticipated fire behavior and structural stability.
  • Ensure that members correctly wear complete structural firefighting clothing and SCBA when working in the hazard zone and practice good air management. Buddy check before entry!
  • Crews operating on the interior should have a hoseline or be directly supported by a crew with a hoseline. If conditions deteriorate, a hoseline allows self-protection and provides a defined egress path.
  • Have well practiced battle drills for tactical withdrawal and abandoning the building (depending on conditions). See Battle Drill, Battle Drill Part 2, and Battle Drill Part 3.


My next post will address the impact of a closed door on tenability during a residential fire as the ninth tactical implication identified in the UL study on the Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction.

Subsequent posts will come back to the Olathe, KS and New Chicago, IN residential fires to examine potential impacts on fire behavior and explosions that resulted during these incidents.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFIreE, CFO

Wind Driven Fires

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Seven Firefighters Injured

Seven firefighters were tragically injured in Prince George’s County Maryland on Friday, February 24, 2012. The fire broke out in the basement of a single-family, one-story house located at 6404 57th Avenue in Riverdale, MD shortly after 21:00 hours.

Note: View from Alpha-Bravo Corner street side. Photo by Billy McNeel.

On arrival, Engine 807B reported a two-story, single family dwelling with fire showing from the basement level on Side Bravo. Seven members from Companies 807 (Riverdale) and 809 (Bladensburg) entered Floor 1 of the building on Side A (East Side) and within eight seconds were enveloped by untenable, wind driven fire conditions. Preliminary reports indicate that firefighters had initiated an interior attack on the fire when a sudden rush of air, fanned by high winds, entered from the rear of the house either from a door or window being opened or broken out. (Brady, 2012). A report on Monday, February 27 indicated that some of the firefighters ran to the back of the one-story home, then entered through a basement door while other members of their company opened the front door in search of a victim (FirefighterNation, 2012).

In a statement to Washington Post reporter J. Freedom du Lac (2012), Chief Marc Bashoor indicated that strong winds were gusting out of the west at up to 40, 45 mph, blowing directly into the burning basement, which had a west-facing door. “As soon as the guys opened the front door and advanced, it blew from the basement, up the steps and right out the front door,” Bashoor said. “It was like a blowtorch coming up the steps and out the door… Without that wind, the hot air and gases would have been venting out of the rear of the house,” he said. “The current of air essentially produced a chimney right up the steps and out the front door.” (Washington Post, 2012).

Firefighters Ethan Sorrell and Kevin O’Toole from Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Department remain in critical condition at Washington Hospital Center. Riverdale Volunteer, Michael McLary also remains hospitalized for injuries. The other injured firefighters were released and sent home Saturday evening according to the latest reports.

The wind-fueled fireball that injured seven Prince George’s County firefighters when it blew through the burning house they had just entered was “a freak occurrence,” a department spokesman, Mark Brady, said Saturday (du Lac, 2012).

Chris Naum at Command Safety has an excellent post examining the fire building and weather conditions at the time of the incident. See Residential Fire Injures Seven Firefighters: Wind Driven Conditions Suspected.

Freak Occurrence?

Dealing with an accident involving a serious injury or fatality is extremely difficult, particularly when the complete circumstances and eventual outcome is unknown. What may appear to be obvious in retrospect may also have been not so clear to the individuals engaged in emergency operations. However, one might ask if the fire behavior encountered at 6404 57th Avenue in Riverdale, MD was in fact a freak occurrence. A freak is defined as a thing or occurrence that is abnormal, markedly unusual or irregular.

The conditions encountered were markedly different than usually encountered in fires occurring in single family dwellings. However, the conditions described in this incident are not unusual when considered in light of the building configuration and wind conditions at the time of the incident. Wind, flow path, and burning regime (fuel or ventilation controlled) have a tremendous impact on fire behavior and potential for rapid fire progression resulting in untenable conditions.

Wind Driven Fires

On April 16, 2007 Technician Kyle Wilson of the Prince William Fire & Rescue lost his life in a wind driven fire occurring in a large, single family dwelling. In the introduction to the investigative report produced by Prince William Fire & Rescue examining this incident, Chief Kevin J. McGee states:

First, the impact the wind had on this event was significant. While weather conditions, and specifically wind, are often discussed in the firefighting environment of wildland fires, it does not receive the same attention and consideration in structure fires. This incident showed the dramatic and devastating effect the wind can have on the spread of fire in a building. The wind forced the fire into the building and caused the sudden change in fire conditions inside, including the “blowtorch” effect witnessed by the crews on the scene (Prince William County Fire Rescue, 2008)

In January, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released Simulation of the Dynamics of a Wind-Driven Fire in a Ranch-Style House-Texas (Barowy & Madrzykowski, 2012) examining fire behavior in the incident that took the lives of Houston Fire Department Captain James Harlow and Firefighter Damion Hobbs on April 12, 2009 while engaged in firefighting operations in a single family dwelling. This report emphasized that potential for wind driven fire conditions can occur in all types of buildings, including single-family residential structures.

NIST research (Madrzykowski & Kerber.(2009a, 2009b) has identified that wind driven fire conditions can be created with wind speeds as low as 4.5 m/s (10 mph) and that while structural fire departments have recognized the impact of wind on fire behavior, in general, standard operating guidelines (SOG) have not changed to address the risk of wind driven fires (Barowy & Madrzykowski, 2012).

Previous posts have examined NISTs research on the issue of wind driven fires:

Flow Path

On May 30, 1999, Firefighters Anthony Phillips and Louis Matthews of the District of Columbia Fire Department (DCFD) died and two others were severely injured as a result of rapid fire progression while engaged in firefighting operations at 3146 Cherry Road, NE. The fire occurred in the basement of a two-story, middle of building, townhouse apartment. Crews entered on Floor 1, Side A and were caught in the flow path of hot smoke and flames when a sliding glass door was opened at the Basement Level on Side C. Previous posts examined this incident in detail:

More recently, the City of San Francisco Fire Department released an investigative report examining the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Lieutenant Vincent Perez and Firefighter/Paramedic Anthony Valerio on June 2, 2011 while operating at a fire in the basement of a two story home with two levels below grade. Failure of a basement window placed the Lieutenant and Firefighter in the flow path between the basement window and their entry point on Floor 1. The investigative report produced by the San Francisco Fire Department details their findings and recommendations related to this incident.

Safety Investigation Report Line-of-Duty Deaths, 133 Berkley Way, June 2, 2011, Box 8155, Incident #11050532

Structural Firefighting Under Wind Conditions

Research and fireground experience point to the following:

  • Building configuration including windows, doors, and open interior stairways can have a significant impact on development of a flow path from the fire to one or more exhaust points.
  • Introduction of additional air to a ventilation controlled fire (without concurrent fire suppression) will quickly result in increased heat release rate.
  • Creation of openings at and above the fire level which result in a flow path with an exhaust opening above the inlet will result in a rapid increase in heat release rate.
  • Thermal conditions in the flow path above the fire and/or downstream from the fire location or will quickly become untenable.
  • Even limited wind conditions can result in wind driven fire conditions.
  • These factors in combination are even more likely to result in rapid fire progression and untenable conditions in the downstream flow path.

It is essential that Firefighters and Fire Officers recognize the influence of ventilation on fire behavior and potential for wind driven fire conditions and adjust their strategies and tactics accordingly. The following guidance is based on recommendations developed through the NIST wind driven fires research as well as data from National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) death in the line of duty reports and incident investigative reports by the Texas State Fire Marshals Office.

Potential for wind driven conditions increases directly with wind speed. When wind speeds exceed a gentle breeze (8-12 mph) consider the potential for wind driven fire conditions and apply the following strategic and tactical considerations (CWIFR District Board, 2011):

  • If potential for wind driven fire conditions is identified, this should be communicated to all companies and members working at the incident as a safety message.
  • When possible, operate from the exterior and apply water from upwind directly into the involved compartments prior to interior attack. Even low flow exterior streams applied from upwind can have a significant impact on controlling the fire prior to interior operations).
  • In a wind-driven fire, it is most important to use the wind to your advantage and attack the fire from the upwind side of the structure, especially if the upwind side is the burned side. Note that this may be contrary to conventional offensive tactics that place hoselines between the hazard presented by the fire and potential occupants and uninvolved property.
  • Avoid pressurization of the building without first establishing adequate exhaust openings (2-3 times larger than the inlet). Remember that wind can create the same (or greater) positive pressure as a blower used in positive pressure ventilation (PPV). Pressurization without adequate exhaust can result in extreme fire behavior. Note: This is particularly important when the fire is on the leeward (downwind) side of the building and entry is made from the windward (upwind) side of the building.
  • Consider controlling the flow path by using anti-ventilation such as door control and limiting the use of (horizontal and vertical) tactical ventilation prior to fire control. However, it is essential to remember that unplanned ventilation resulting from fire effects can have a significant impact on the ventilation profile and subsequent flow path(s).
  • Avoid working in the exhaust portion of the flow path (between the fire and exhaust opening) or potential flow paths (between the fire and potential exhaust openings). Unplanned ventilation from fire effects can suddenly change the interior thermal conditions.
  • Identify potential refuge areas, escape routes, and safety zones prior to and during interior operations. Taking refuge in a compartment with an intact and closed door may temporarily provide tenable conditions and a place of refuge until the fire can be controlled or another avenue of egress established.

References & Additional Reading

Brady, M. (2012). Seven firefighters injured battling Riverdale house fire. Retrieved February 26, 2012 from

Central Whidbey Island Fire & Rescue (CWIFR) District Board. (2011). Board minutes February 9, 2012. Coupeville, WA: Author. [Adoption of Purpose, Policy, and Scope of SOG 4.3.6 Structural Firefighting Under Wind Conditions]

District of Columbia (DC) Fire & EMS. (2000). Report from the reconstruction committee: Fire at 3146 Cherry Road NE, Washington DC, May 30, 1999. Washington, DC: Author.

du Lac, J. (2012). Blaze that injured 7 Prince George’s firefighters called ‘freak occurrence’. Retrieved February 26, 2012 from

FirefighterNation. (2012). Critically burned in Maryland house fire, firefighters face long recovery. Retrieved February 28, 2012, from

Madrzykowski , D. &  Barowy, A. (2012). Simulation of the dynamics of a wind-driven fire in a ranch-style house – Texas, TN 1729. Retrieved February 8, 2012 from

Madrzykowski, D & Kerber, S. (2009a). Fire fighting tactics under wind driven conditions: Laboratory experiments, TN 1618. Retrieved February 8, 2012 from

Madrzykowski, D & Kerber, S. (2009b). Fire fighting tactics under wind driven fire conditions: 7-story building experiments, TN 1629. Retrieved February 8, 2012 from

Madrzykowski, D. & Vettori, R. (2000). Simulation of the Dynamics of the Fire at 3146 Cherry Road NE Washington D.C., May 30, 1999, NISTR 6510. August 31, 2009 from

National Institute for Occpational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2008). Death in the line of duty…2007-12. Retrieved February 9, 2012 from

National Institute for Occpational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2009). Death in the line of duty…2009-11. Retrieved February 9, 2012 from

National Institute for Occpational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2009). Death in the line of duty…2007-29. Retrieved February 9, 2012 from

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (1999). Death in the line of duty, Report 99-21. Retrieved August 31, 2009 from

Prince William County Department of Fire & Rescue. (2007). Line of duty death investigative report. Retrieved February 9, 2012 from

San Francisco Fire Department. (2012). Safety Investigation Report Line-of-Duty Deaths, 133 Berkley Way, June 2, 2011, Box 8155, Incident #11050532 Retrieved February 26, 2012 from

Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office. (2007). Firefighter fatality investigation, Investigation Number FY 07-02.

Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office. (2009). Firefighter fatality investigation, Investigation Number FY 09-

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

Safe & Effective Live Fire Training or Near Miss?

Monday, July 4th, 2011

A recent video posted on the [] web brought to mind a number of painful lessons learned regarding live fire training in acquired structures. When watching video of fire training or emergency incidents, it is essential to remember that video provides only one view of the events. This video, titled Probationary Live House Burn shows a live fire evolution from ignition through fire attack with the comment “Burnin up the probies… LOL”.

This video shows multiple fire locations and an extremely substantial fire load (well in excess of what is necessary to bring typical residential compartments to flashover). I am uncertain if the comment posted with the video “burnin up the probies…LOL [laughing out loud]” was posted by an instructor or learner. Likely this is considered as just a joke, but comments like this point to our collective cultural challenges in providing safe and effective live fire training.

Fuel Load & Ventilation in Live Fire Training

NFPA 1403 Standard on Live Fire Training is reasonably explicit regarding the nature of acceptable fuel, extent of fuel load, as well as number and location of fires used for live fire training in acquired structures.

4.3.1 The fuels that are utilized in live fire training evolutions shall have known burning characteristics that are as controllable as possible.

4.2.17 Combustible materials, other than those intended for the live fire training evolution, shall be removed or stored in a protected area to preclude accidental ignition.

4.3.3* Pressure-treated wood, rubber, and plastic, and straw or hay treated with pesticides or harmful chemicals shall not be used.

A.4.3.3 Acceptable Class A materials include pine excelsior, wooden pallets, straw, hay, and other ordinary combustibles.

Fuel materials shall be used only in the amounts necessary to create the desired fire size.

A.4.3.4 An excessive fuel load can contribute to conditions that create unusually dangerous fire behavior. This can jeopardize structural stability, egress, and the safety of participants.

4.3.5 The fuel load shall be limited to avoid conditions that could cause an uncontrolled flashover or backdraft.

4.4.15 Only one fire at a time shall be permitted within an acquired structure.

4.4.16 Fires shall not be located in any designated exit paths.

While quite explicit regarding fuel requirements and limitations, NFPA 1403 (2007) has little to say about the ventilation with the exception of a brief mention that roof ventilation openings that are normally closed but may be opened in an emergency are permitted (not required as many believe). However, the Appendix has a much more important statement regarding the importance of ventilation to fire development:

A.4.3.7 The instructor-in-charge is concerned with the safety of participants and the assessment of conditions that can lead to rapid, uncontrolled burning, commonly referred to as flashover. Flashover can trap, injure, and kill fire fighters. Conditions known to be variables affecting the attainment of flashover are as follows:

(1) The heat release characteristics of materials used as primary fuels

(2) The preheating of combustibles

(3) The combustibility of wall and ceiling materials

(4) The room geometry (e.g., ceiling height, openings to rooms [emphasis added])

In addition, the arrangement of the initial materials to be ignited, particularly the proximity to walls and ceilings, and the ventilation openings [emphasis added] are important factors to be considered when assessing the potential fire growth.

The building in this video appeared to have been used for multiple evolutions prior to the one depicted in the video. A number of the windows appeared to be damaged, providing increased ventilation to support combustion. The fuel load of multiple pallets and excelsior or straw (acceptable types of fuel) provided an excess of fuel required to reach flashover in typical residential rooms (which may have been an intended outcome and level of involvement given the transitional attack (defense to offense)). If in fact the sets were in multiple rooms, this would be inconsistent with the provisions of NFPA 1403 limiting acquired structure evolutions to a single fire.

It is essential for those of us who conduct live fire training to remember that most of the provisions of NFPA 1403 (2007) are based on line-of-duty deaths of our brothers and sisters. Safe and effective live fire training requires that instructors be technically competent, well versed in the requirements or relevant regulations and standards, and that individually and organizationally we have an appropriate attitude towards safe and effective learning and the process of passing on the craft of firefighting.

One useful case to focus discussion of these issues is the death of Firefighter/Paramedic Apprentice Rachael Wilson of the Baltimore City Fire Department:

Live Fire Training: Remember Rachael Wilson

Live Fire Training Part 2: Remember Rachael Wilson

NIOSH Death in the Line of Duty F2007-09

Independent Investigation Report: Baltimore City Fire Department Live Fire Training Exercise

Door Entry

At 4:56 in the video, accumulation of a layer of smoke is clearly visible under the porch roof. No comment is made about this by the instructors and no action is taken to mitigate the hazard. At 5:55, flames exiting a broken window to the left of the door ignite the smoke layer just prior to when the attack team opens the door.

Figure 1. Fire Gas Ignition Sequence

It is essential to recognize that smoke is fuel and that ignition of this gas phase fuel overhead results in a rapid and signfiicant increase in radiant heat flux (which is dependent largely on temperature and proximity). Cooling the gases overhead and use of good door entry technique can minimize risk of this thermal insult to firefighters and potential for transition to other types of extreme fire behavior such as flashover.

Fire Streams

This video also shows some interesting aspects of fire stream application. A solid (or straight) stream can be quite effective in making a direct attack on the fire. However, when the fire is shielded, the effectiveness of this type of stream is limited. While limited steam production is often cited as an advantage of solid (and straight) streams, initial application of water through the doorway in this video results in significant steam production and limited effect on the fire. This is likely due to shielding of the burning fuel by interior configuration and compartmentation. Remember than no single type of fire stream is effective for all applications.


Consider the question posed in the title of this post: Was this a safe and effective live fire training session or a near miss? I suspect that the learners in the video enjoyed this live fire training session and that the instructors desired to provide a quality learning experience. It is even likely that this evolution was conducted substantively (but likely not completely) in compliance with the provisions of NFPA 1403. Like most training exercises and emergency incidents, it is easy to watch a video and criticize the actions of those involved. I do not question the intent of those involved in this training exercise, but point to some issues that we (all of us) need to consider and reflect on as we go about our work and pass on the craft to subsequent generations of firefighters.

What’s Next?

I am working hard at getting back into a regular rhythm of posting and hope to have a post looking at another of the Tactical Considerations from the UL ventilation study up within the next week.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


National Fire Protection Association. (2007). NFPA 1403 Standard on live fire training. Quincy, MA: Author.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2002). Death in the line of duty, F2007-09. Retrieved February 19, 2009 from

Shimer, R. (2007) Independent investigation report: Baltimore city fire department live fire training exercise 145 South Calverton Road February 9, 2007. Retrieved February 19, 2009 from


Monday, January 3rd, 2011

There were multiple near miss incidents and injuries involving flashover during the month of December. These incidents point to the importance of understanding fire dynamics and reading the fire as part of initial size-up and ongoing dynamic risk assessment. Each member operating on the fireground must maintain a high level of situational awareness and communicate key fire behavior indicators and potential for extreme fire behavior phenomena.

Flashover Disrupts Firefighters’ Rescue Effort

Firefighters attempting to rescue a victim from a burning Portsmouth (VA) house on Thursday were forced to abandon the rescue attempt and exit a window when a flashover occurred.

Firefighters first entered the home through the front door, but were repelled by flames. They then made entrance through the front bedroom windows when the flashover occurred. After escaping, firefighters tried to reenter through the back of the house, but they could not.

Ottawa Firefighter Pulled From Burning Basement

“An Ottawa firefighter had to be rescued from a burning basement after he was caught in a possible flashover yesterday afternoon. We don’t know what happened, and we haven’t had a chance yet to look into exactly what the details were, but we have a feeling that it might have been a flashover,” department spokesman Marc Messier said.

Columbus Firefighters Suffer Burns In Flashover

“Flames were coming up from the basement and out of the windows when crews arrived at the Dana Avenue house fire. There was a flashover, and fire crews quickly evacuated the duplex. Two firefighters were injured in the flashover, Battalion Chief David Whiting” said.

Kansas City Firefighters Injured in Flashover

When they arrived, flames were coming from the first and second story of the house, firefighters said.

Kansas City, Mo., Fire Chief Smokey Dyer tells KMBC 9’s Justin Robinson what happened in a fire early Saturday that left three firefighters injured

Kansas City Fire Chief Smokey Dyer said crews went inside and started to go up the stairs, when conditions inside the house suddenly changed. He said it burned the fire hose and left the firefighters completely surrounded by flames. The firefighters sent out a mayday call for help.

In the past 10 years, every significant firefighter injury that we have sustained in fire combat has been a result of a rapid change of conditions,” [emphasis added] Dyer said.

Incidents such as these point to the need for continued emphasis on developing firefighters’ understanding of practical fire dynamics and effective strategies and tactics to control the fire environment and prevent, rather than react to occurrence of fire phenomena such as flashover.

Flashover is Just Flashover

In a recent discussion with a number of international colleagues, we were challenged to think about language, terminology, and precision when describing fire phenomena. While this is a more obvious challenge when working with firefighters, researchers, and scientists who have different first languages, it is also a day to day problem for firefighters with a common native language (e.g., English).

I have previously raised this question and proposed one approach as a starting point for classification of fire behavior phenomena based on outcome and the conditions required for the phenomena to occur (Language & Understanding: Extreme Fire Behavior and Extreme Fire Behavior: An Organizing Scheme).

Consider two recognized definitions for flashover:

  • Stage of fire transition to a state of total surface involvement in a fire of combustible materials within an enclosure’ (ISO 13943, 2008, 4.156).
  • A transitional phase in the development of a compartment fire in which surfaces exposed to thermal radiation reach ignition temperature more or less simultaneously and fire spreads rapidly throughout the space resulting in full room involvement or total involvement of the compartment or enclosed area (NFPA 921-2007)

This transition is often assumed (and in many cases explicitly stated) to take place between the growth and fully developed stages. However, neither the ISO nor NFPA definition specifies this. In addition, while the NFPA definition indicates that this transition is extremely rapid (i.e., more or less simultaneously), the ISO definition does not describe the speed with which the transition to total surface involvement occurs.

In some respects, flashover is always a transition between the growth and fully developed stage (as increasing heat release rate is necessary). However, this may be a bit misleading. In the modern fire environment a compartment fire may follow an alternate path, often transitioning from growth to decay prior to flashover due to limited ventilation as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Fire Development in a Compartment

As illustrated in Figure 1, the traditional fire development curve shows fire progressing neatly through incipient and growth stages, with occurrence of flashover resulting in transition to the fully developed stage and then decay as fuel is consumed.

The path of fire development is often quite different in the modern fire environment. The nature of common building contents provides a rapid increase in heat release rate (HRR) and corresponding oxygen consumption, resulting in the fire becoming ventilation controlled. With heat release limited by ventilation, the fire begins to decay (HRR and temperature are reduced). Uninterrupted this may cause the fire to self-extinguish. However, should an opening be created (as a result of window failure due to fire effects or opening of a door), the fire re-enters the growth stage and transitions through flashover to the fully developed stage. This is sometimes described as ventilation induced flashover (but in some respects, flashover is simply flashover).

In a spirited debate, some of my international colleagues have stated that “all flashover is ventilation induced” as ventilation is necessary to develop sufficient HRR for flashover to occur. Others have said that “flashover is temperature driven” as sufficient upper layer temperature is required. None have specifically said that flashover is a fuel dependent phenomenon, but this is true as well (given that the fuel that is burning must have sufficient energy and heat release rate for flashover to occur). In addition, flashover is dependent on compartment size and configuration, as a given fire will reach flashover in one compartment (generally a smaller one) and not in another). So, what’s the answer? It Depends!

This really boils down to being able to recognize what is important for firefighters to understand about fire development and flashover (as well as other extreme (i.e., extremely rapid changes in) fire behavior.

What We Know and Why It Matters

There are a number of things that we know about compartment fire behavior that are significant when considering how and why flashover occurs:

  • Fire behavior is completely predictable if you have the necessary information and the time to analyze it (but on the fireground you seldom do). Predicting fire behavior is really saying: This is what I think is likely to happen.
  • Changes in the built environment have influenced fire development (but there are a number of variables that may vary from nation to nation). In the US, modern building contents have increased heat of combustion and heat release rate, resulting in more rapid fire development than in the past.
  • If ventilation is adequate, the typical room (e.g., bedroom, living room, family room) has well in excess of the amount of fuel (both in heat of combustion and peak heat release rate) to allow a fire to progress to flashover.
  • Smoke is fuel. This is not dependent on the size or occupancy of the building. Smoke always presents a potential flammability hazard and as the concentration of fuel and energy in the smoke increases (think temperature, even though this is not the same as energy), the hazard increases.
  • When a compartment fire becomes ventilation controlled, pyrolysis continues, adding additional gas phase fuel to the smoke in the upper layer.
  • Building configuration and ventilation profile has a significant impact on fire development. However, despite increased compartment size and open floor plans, fires in modern single family dwellings are likely to be ventilation controlled when the fire department arrives.
  • Increasing the air supplied to a ventilation controlled fire will result in an increased heat release rate (unless you immediately put the fire out) and this can occur quickly. Where you ventilate in relation to the fire, the existing heat release rate, and energy in the upper layer will all influence how quickly these changes occur.
  • Creating an opening for entry is ventilation! This change in the ventilation profile often influences development of ventilation controlled fires by increasing air supply and providing a flow path for fire travel from the current area of involvement to the entry point (watch for a bi-directional air track with air in at the bottom and smoke out at the top of the opening).
  • Adding additional openings will further increase the HRR and speed fire growth (unless you put the fire out). This is true even if the openings are near the seat of the fire.
  • It is unlikely that you can tactically create sufficient ventilation to return a ventilation controlled fire to a fuel controlled burning regime (meaning that as you continue to increase ventilation, HRR will continue to rise). This does not mean that ventilation is bad as you may influence fire spread and the level of the upper layer, but recognize that the fire will get larger (increased HRR).
  • Wind can have a significant influence on fire behavior. Consider wind direction, velocity, and how fire behavior (e.g., HRR, flow path) may change if the ventilation profile changes.

Given what we know, how should this inform our choice of strategies and tactics? Remember that strategies and tactics are context dependent. If you arrive with a single resource and two firefighters, your capabilities are different than if you arrive with six resources and 24 firefighters. Resources change some of your tactical options and the potential for concurrent operations. However, resources and their capability do not change the chemistry and physics of fire dynamics. It is important to recognize potential fire behavior, the scope and magnitude of the problems presented by the incident and the capabilities of the resources at hand.

Recognize that there are no simple answers to the questions of how much risk is too much and what actions are appropriate in a given circumstances. That said the following are steps you can take to reduce the potential of being caught or trapped by rapid fire progress:

  • Recognize the indicators of flashover potential and communicate these observations to the members of your crew. Company officers (crew/team leaders) should communicate observation of flashover indicators to their immediate supervisor (e.g., Command, Division or Group Supervisor).
  • Ensure that fire attack (or any other operation that involves working inside a burning building) and tactical ventilation is coordinated. In more explicit terms this means that ventilation occurs when companies or crews assigned to fire attack can quickly put water on the fire (not when they are ready to call for water or are simply ready to enter the building).
  • Ensure that you are working on a hoseline (or are protected by one) if you are working in a smoke filled environment. Without a charged hoseline you have no defense (you cannot outrun flashover or other rapid fire development phenomena).
  • Take positive actions to reduce the threat. If there are hot gases overhead, cool them. If you can put water directly on the fire, do it. If you put the fire out, things will generally improve! When you can control the fire ventilate to remove the smoke and remove the hazard.
  • Consider the effects of wind on potential fire behavior. Consider exterior attack and avoid advancing lines in the potential flow path when the potential for wind driven fire conditions exits. Use caution when entering from the windward side and control inlet openings (or provide adequate exhaust).

Clearly understand when you are taking a reasonable and calculated risk and when you are gambling. Think about this before you are engaged in a firefight. Make it a conscious decision and not simply a default choice. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel made this distinction between taking risks and gambling: “With a risk, if it doesn’t work, you have the means to recover from it. With a gamble, if it doesn’t work you do not. Normally, to succeed you must take risks. On occasion you have to make a gamble” (Clancy, 1997, p. 152).

What’s Next?

My next post will dig into the findings and tactical implications of the recently released research results and on-line training program from Underwriters Laboratories (UL): Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction.

This training program is of critical importance to anyone fighting fires in today’s buildings. All firefighters and fire officers should complete this training program before the end of January 2011! Take the time and get your head around the implications of this research on what we do on the fireground. This takes a bit of effort as we need to question our assumptions and standard practices, but the outcome is worth the work.

Be a student of our craft, be safe and look out for the firefighters and fire officer that work with you. Have a great New Year!


Clancy, T. Into the storm: A study in command. New York: G. F. Putnam & Sons

Hazards Above: Part 3

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

My last two posts (Hazards Above, Hazards Above: Part 2)examined a series of incidents involving firefighter injuries or near miss incidents involving fires occurring in or extending into void spaces in wood frame, residential structures. Yesterday, two members of the Bridgeport, Connecticut Fire Department lost their lives under similar circumstances.

Bridgeport, CT LODD

At 1553 hours on Saturday, July 24, 2010, the Bridgeport, Connecticut Fire Department was dispatched for a residential fire at 41 Elmwood Avenue. First arriving companies found heavy smoke from Floors 2 and 3 of a 2-1/2 story, wood frame, multi-family dwelling. Lieutenant Steven Velazquez and Firefighter Michael Baik were performing a search of the third floor when they transmitted a Mayday. Lieutenant Velazquez and Firefighter Baik were located on Floor 3 by the Rapid Intervention Team (RIT), but were not breathing and in cardiac arrest when removed from the building. CPR was initiated and they were transported to Bridgeport and St. Vincent’s Hospitals where they were pronounced dead.

More information on this tragic incident will be provided as it becomes available.

FBI and Ventilation Controlled Fires-the UL Experiments

As discussed in Hazards Above: Part 2, obvious smoke and air track indicators of a ventilation controlled fire may become diminished as the fire transitions from growth to decay stage. The decay stage ventilation controlled fire may present similar (but not identical) indicators to an incipient or early growth stage fire.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) recently conducted a study of the effects of horizontal, natural ventilation on fires in residential structures (see Did You Ever Wonder. The results of this research will be released this fall along with a free on-line training program through UL University. During this research 15 experiments were conducted in two different residential structures. Fuel loading was consistent and the point of origin was a couch in the living room for each of the tests. The variable was the location, size, and sequence of horizontal ventilation. Interestingly, one observation remained remarkably consistent throughout the tests: Diminished smoke and air track indicators as the ventilation controlled fire transitioned from growth to decay stage. This is illustrated by a series of screen captures from video shot from Side A of the one-story structure used in these experiments.

Figure 1. Early Growth Stage

Figure 2. Growth Stage (Peak HRR Prior to Ventilation)

Figure 3. Decay Stage (Reduced HRR)

Figure 4. Conditions Immediately Following Ventilation (HRR Increasing)

Another commonality between each of the experiments was a fairly rapid and significant increase in HRR after ventilation was performed. In no case did ventilation (alone) improve conditions at any location or level inside the test buildings. Horizontal, natural ventilation (tactical or unplanned) with a delay in application of water to the seat of the fire will result in worsening conditions.

Situational Awareness

As illustrated in Figure 3, lack of obvious indicators can be deceptive. The structure used in the UL tests did not have normal window glazing as this would have resulted in less predictability in the exact location and sequence of ventilation. However, in an actual structure fire, observation of smoke conditions through windows, condensation on window glazing (incipient or early growth stage) and condensed pyrolizate (decay stage), and heat effects on window treatments (e.g., curtains, blinds) can provide important cues related to the stage of fire development and burning regime.

It is critical to take a holistic approach to observation of fire behavior indicators, to begin this process from the exterior, and to continue this process while operating on the interior.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFIreE, CFO

Hazards Above: Part 2

Monday, July 19th, 2010

My last post, Hazards Above, provided a brief overview of three incidents involving extreme fire behavior in the attic or truss loft void spaces of wood frame dwellings. This post will examine the similarities and differences between these lessons and identify several important considerations when dealing with fires occurring in or extending to void spaces. At the conclusion of Hazards Above, I posed five questions:

  1. What is similar about these incidents and what is different?
  2. Based on the limited information currently available, what phenomena do you think occurred in each of the cases? What leads you to this conclusion?
  3. What indicators might have pointed to the potential for extreme fire behavior in each of these incidents?
  4. How might building construction have influenced fire dynamics and potential for extreme fire behavior in these incidents?
  5. What hazards are presented by fires in attics/truss lofts and what tactics may be safe and effective to mitigate those hazards?

Similarities and Differences

The most obvious similarities between these incidents was that the buildings were of wood frame construction, the fire involved or extended to an attic or truss loft void space, and that some type of extreme fire behavior occurred. In two of the incidents firefighters were seriously injured, while in the other firefighters escaped unharmed.

Given the limited information available from news reports and photos taken after the occurrence of the extreme fire behavior events, it is not possible to definitively identify what types of phenomena were involved in these three incidents. However, it is interesting to speculate and consider what conditions and phenomena could have been involved. It might be useful to examine each of these incidents individually and then to return to examine fire behavior indicators, construction, and hazards presented by these types of incidents.

Minneapolis, MN

In the Minneapolis incident the fire occurred in an older home with legacy construction and relatively small void spaces behind the knee walls and above the ceiling on Floor 3. The triggering event for the occurrence of extreme fire behavior is reported to be opening one of the knee walls on Floor 3. As illustrated in Figure 1, the fire appeared to transition quickly to a growth stage fire (evidenced by the dark smoke and bi-directional air track from the windows on Floor 3 Side A. However blast effects on the structure are not visible in the photo and were not reported.

Figure 1. Minneapolis MN Incident: Conditions on Side A

Note: Photo by Steve Skar

Potential Influencing Factors: While detail on this specific incident is limited, it is likely that the fire burning behind the knee wall was ventilation controlled and increased ventilation resulting from opening the void space resulted in an increase in heat release rate (HRR). Potential exists for any compartment fire that progresses beyond the incipient stage to become ventilation controlled. This is particularly true when the fire is burning in a void space.

Extreme Fire Behavior: While statements by the fire department indicate that opening the knee wall resulted in occurrence of flashover, this is only one possibility. As discussed in The Hazard of Ventilation Controlled Fires and Fuel and Ventilation, increasing ventilation to a ventilation controlled fire will result in increased HRR. Increased HRR can result in a backdraft (if sufficient concentration of gas phase fuel is present), a vent induced flashover, or simply fire gas ignition (such as rollover or a flash fire) without transition to a fully developed fire.

Harrisonburg, VA

The Harrisonburg incident involved extreme fire behavior in Exposure D (not the original fire unit). The extreme fire behavior occurred after members had opened the ceiling to check for extension. However, this may or may not have been the precipitating event. As illustrated in Figure 2, as members prepare to exit from the windows on Floor 3 , Side C, flames are visible on the exterior at the gable, but it appears that combustion is limited to the vinyl siding and soffit covering. There are no indicators of a significant fire in Exposure D at the time that the photo was taken. However, it is important to remember that this is a snapshot of conditions at one point in time from a single perspective.

Figure 2. Harrisonburg, VA Incident: Conditions on Side C

Note: Photo by Allen Litten

Potential Influencing Factors: The truss loft was likely divided between units by a 1 hour fire separation (generally constructed of gypsum board over the wood trusses). While providing a limited barrier to fire and smoke spread, it does not generally provide a complete barrier and smoke infiltration is likely. Sufficient smoke accumulation remote from the original fire location can present risk of a smoke explosion (see NIOSH Report 98-03 regarding a smoke explosion in Durango, Colorado restaurant). Alternately, fire extension into the truss loft above an exposure unit can result in ventilation controlled fire conditions, resulting in increased HRR if the void is opened (from above or below).

Extreme Fire Behavior: Smoke, air track, and flame indicators on Side C indicate that the fire in the truss loft may not have continued to develop past the initial ignition of accumulated smoke (fuel). It is possible that smoke accumulated in the truss loft above Exposure B and was ignited by subsequent extension from the fire unit. Depending on the fuel (smoke)/air mixture when flames extended into the space above Exposure B ignition could have resulted in a smoke explosion or a less violent fire gas ignition such as a flash fire.

Sandwich, MA

In the Sandwich incident, the extreme fire behavior occurred shortly after the hose team applied water to the soffit. However, this may or may not have been the precipitating event. As illustrated in Figure 3, the fire transitioned to a fully developed fire (likely due to the delay in suppression as the injured members were cared for). Blast effects on the structure are obvious.

Figure 3: Sandwich, MA: Conditions on Sides C and D

Note: Photos by Britt Crosby (

Potential Influencing Factors: The roof support system in this home appears to have been constructed of larger dimensional lumber (rather than lightweight truss construction). In addition, it is likely that the attic void spaces involved in this incident were large and complex (given the size of the dwelling and complex roof line). It appears that at least part of the home had a cathedral ceiling. Fire burning in the wood framing around the metal chimney would have allowed smoke (fuel) and hot gases to collect in the attic void in advance of fire extension.

Extreme Fire Behavior: The violence of the explosion (see blast damage to the roof on Side D in Figure 3) points to the potential for ignition of pre-mixed fuel (smoke) and air, resulting in a smoke explosion. However, it is also possible that failure of an interior ceiling (due to water or steam production from water applied through the soffit) could have increased ventilation to a ventilation controlled fire burning in the attic, resulting in a backdraft).

Fire Behavior Indicators

The information provided in news reports points to limited indication of potential for extreme fire behavior. One important question for each of us is how we can recognize this potential, even when indicators are subtle or even absent.

Important! A growth stage fire can present significant smoke and air track indicators, with increasing thickness (optical density), darkening color, and increasing velocity of smoke discharge. However, as discussed in The Hazard of Ventilation Controlled Fires, when the fire becomes ventilation controlled, indicators can diminish to the point where the fire appears to be in the incipient stage. This change in smoke and air track indicators was consistently observed during the full-scale fire tests of the influence of ventilation on fires in single-family homes conducted by UL earlier this year.

Even with an opening into another compartment or to the exterior of the building, a compartment fire can become ventilation controlled. Consider building factors including potential for fire and smoke extension into void spaces in assessing fire conditions and potential for extreme fire behavior. A ventilation controlled fire or flammable mixture of smoke and air may be present in a void space with limited indication from the exterior or even when working inside the structure.

Building Construction

Each of these incidents occurred in a wood frame structure. However, the construction in each case was somewhat different.

In Minneapolis, the house was likely balloon frame construction with full dimension lumber. As with many other structures with a “half-story”, the space under the pitched roof is framed out with knee walls to provide finished space. This design is not unique to legacy construction and may also be found with room-in-attic trusses. The void space behind the knee wall provides a significant avenue for fire spread. When involved in fire, opening this void space can quickly change fire conditions on the top floor as air reaches the (likely ventilation controlled) fire.

The incident in Harrisonburg involved a fire in a townhouse with the extreme fire behavior phenomena occurring in an exposure. While not reported, it is extremely likely that the roof support system was comprised of lightweight wood trusses. In addition, there was a reverse gable (possibly on Sides A and C) that provided an additional void. As previously indicated, the truss loft between dwelling units is typically separated by a one-hour rated draft stop. Unlike a fire wall, draft stops do not penetrate the roof and may be compromised by penetrations (after final, pre-occupancy inspection). Installed to code, draft stops slow fire spread, but may not fully stop the spread of smoke (fuel) into the truss lofts above exposures.

Firefighters in Sandwich were faced with a fire in an extremely large, wood frame dwelling. While the roof appeared to be supported by large dimensional lumber, it is likely that there were large void spaces as a result of the complex roofline. In addition, the framed out space around the metal chimney provided an avenue for fire and smoke spread from the lower level of the home to the attic void space.

Hazards and Tactics

Forewarned is forearmed! Awareness of the potential for rapid fire development when opening void spaces is critical. Given this threat, do not open the void unless you have a hoseline in hand (not just nearby).

Indirect attack can be an effective tactic for fires in void spaces. This can be accomplished by making a limited opening and applying water from a combination nozzle or using a piercing nozzle (which further limits introduction of air into the void).

If there are hot gases overhead, cool them before pulling the ceiling or opening walls when fire may be in void spaces. Pulses of water fog not only cool the hot gases, but also act as thermal ballast; reducing the potential for ignition should flames extend from the void when it is opened.

Lastly, react immediately and appropriately when faced with worsening fire conditions. Review my previous posts on Battle Drill (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). An immediate tactical withdrawal under the protection of a hoseline is generally safer than emergency window egress (particularly when ladders have not yet been placed to the window).

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

Hazards Above

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Finally! It has been quite some time since my last post, but the CFBT-US web site and blog have been attacked twice by hackers WordPress and ISP upgrade issues have been a major challenge and it has taken some time to get things back to normal.

A Big Improvement, But More Work is Needed

The Fire Service in the United States saw a considerable reduction in firefighter line-of-duty deaths in 2009. However, our efforts to improve firefighter safety must persist. Recent events reinforce the need to ensure understanding of practical fire dynamics and have the ability to apply this understanding on the fireground.

Three recent incidents involving extreme fire behavior present an opportunity to examine and reflect on the hazards presented by fires and accumulation of excess pyrolizate and unburned products of combustion in attics and other void spaces.

Minneapolis, MN Residential Fire

At 1130 hours on Saturday, July 3, 2010 Minneapolis firefighters responded to a residential fire at 1082 17th Avenue SE. First arriving companies observed light smoke and flames showing from a two and one-half story wood-frame home. A crew opening up the kneewall on the A/D corner of Floor 3 was trapped on the third floor by rapid fire progress.

Note: Photo by Steve Skar

A department spokesperson indicated that as they opened up the walls “it flashed over on them”. News reports indicated that the blast threw Firefighter Jacob LaFerriere, across the room and that he was able to locate a window, where he exited and dropped to the porch roof, one floor below. Capt. Dennis Mack was able to retreat into the stairwell where he was assisted to the exterior by other crews operating on the fireground (Mathews, 2010; Radomski & Theisen, 2010).

News reports also reported that a witness stated that the “flashover was quite loud and within seconds heavy fire was venting from the attic area” (Mathews, 2010). A later statements by department spokespersons indicated introduction of oxygen when the wall was opened resulted in the flashover (Porter, 2010) and that a burst of flames blew out the south side of the roof (Radomski & Theisen, 2010).

Firefighter Jacob LaFerriere suffered third degree burns on his arms and upper body. Capt. Dennis Mack suffered second degree burns (Radomski & Theisen, 2010) and are as of Sunday, July 4 were in satisfactory condition in the Hennepin County Medical Center Burn Unit.

Harrisonburg, VA Townhouse Fire

On June 24, 2010 Harrisonburg, Virginia firefighters responded to an apartment fire off Chestnut Ridge Drive. First arriving companies encountered a fire in a townhouse style, wood frame apartment. Investigating possible extension into Exposure Bravo, Firefighters Chad Smith and Bradly Clark observed smoke and then flames in the attic. They called for a hoseline, but when the pulled the ceiling, conditions worsened as the room ignited. Both firefighters escaped through a second floor window (head first, onto ladders placed by exterior crews). Four other firefighters were inside Exposure B when the extreme fire behavior occurred. Two received second degree burns, one was treated for heat exhaustion, and the fourth was uninjured ( News, 2010; WHSV, 2020). Department spokespersons indicated that a backdraft occurred when fire gases built up in the attic.

Note: Photo by Allen Litten

Sandwich MA Residential Fire

At around noon on Memorial Day, Sandwich, Massachusetts firefighters responded to a residential fire at 15 Open Trail Road. On arrival they found a 5,000 ft2 (464 m2) wood frame single-family dwelling with a fire on Side C (exterior) with extension into the home. Firefighters Daniel Keane and Lee Burrill stretched a handline through the door on Side A, knocking down the fire and extending the line out onto a deck on Side C. Fire was extending through a void containing a metal chimney flue on the exterior of the building. The crew on the hoseline was making good progress until they hit the soffit with a straight stream and an explosion occurred. The force of the blast knocked the crew over the deck railing and caused significant structural damage. Firefighter Keane suffered fractures of his neck and back while Firefighter Burrill experienced a severely fractured ankle (Fraser, 2010; D LeBlanc personal communication June 2010).

Note: Photos by Britt Crosby (


One of these fires occurred in an older home of legacy construction, the other two occurred in relatively new buildings. One was a large contemporary home, likely with an open floor plan and large attic/trussloft voids. The other two occurred in buildings with smaller void spaces in the attic/trussloft.

  1. What is similar about these incidents and what is different?
  2. Based on the limited information currently available, what phenomena do you think occurred in each of the cases? What leads you to this conclusion?
  3. What indicators might have pointed to the potential for extreme fire behavior in each of these incidents?
  4. How might building construction have influenced fire dynamics and potential for extreme fire behavior in these incidents?
  5. What hazards are presented by fires in attics/trusslofts and what tactics may be safe and effective to mitigate those hazards?

Late Breaking Information

Two firefighters and an officer from the Wharton Fire Department were trapped by rapid fire progress in a commercial fire at the Maxim Production Company in Boling, TX on July 3, 2010. The crew had advanced a hoseline into the 35,000 ft2 (3252 m2) egg processing plant to cut off fire extension when they encountered rapidly worsening fire conditions. The two firefighters were able to escape, but Captain Thomas Araguz III was trapped and killed (Statter, D., 2010). More information will be provided on this incident as it becomes available.


Mathews, P. (2010). Two Minn. ffs burned in flashover. Retrieved July 4, 2010 from

Radomski, L & Theisen, S. (2010). Firefighters hospitalized after flashover identified. Retrieved July 4, 2010 from

Porter, K. (2010). 2 firefighters burned in Mpls. fire ID’d. Retrieved July 5, 2010 from

WHSV. (2010) Harrisonburg firefighters talk about their close call. Retrieved July 5, 2010 from News. (2010). Harrisonburg, Va. firefighters forced to bail out. Retrieved July 5, 2010 from

Fraser, D. (2010). Mass. firefighters thrown more than 30 Ft. by blast. Retrieved July 5, 2010 from

Statter, D. (2010). Update: Captain Thomas Araguz III killed during 4-alarm fire at egg plant in Boling, Texas.