Posts Tagged ‘fire research’

UL Vertical Ventilation Study
Tactical Implications

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Even as a member of the technical panel on the UL Vertical Ventilation Study, it will take some time to fully digest all of the data presented in the Study of the Effectiveness of Fire Service Vertical Ventilation and Suppression Tactics in Single Family Homes (Kerber, 2013). However, the tactical implications presented in this report provide an excellent starting point to understanding the influence of vertical ventilation on fire behavior and other important findings in this research project. UL will also be releasing an on-line training program in the near future that will provide a user friendly approach to exploring this information.

Read the Report and Stay up to date with the latest UL research with the fire service by connecting with the Firefighter Safety Research Institute on the web or liking them on Facebook.


Tactical Implications

A number of the tactical implications identified in the vertical ventilation study replicate and reinforce those identified when UL studied the effect of horizontal ventilation. Other implications are specifically focused on vertical ventilation. The following summary examines and expands slightly on the tactical implications presented in Study of the Effectiveness of Fire Service Vertical Ventilation and Suppression Tactics in Single Family Homes (Kerber, 2013).

The Fire Environment Has Changed: While many firefighters, particularly those who have less than 15 or 20 years of service have never known a fire environment fueled by synthetic materials with rapid fire development and ventilation limited fire conditions. However, many of the tactics in use today were developed when the fire environment was quite different. Decades ago the fire environment was predominantly fueled by natural materials; fires had a lower potential heat release rate, and remained fuel controlled much longer. Changes in the fire environment require reevaluation and shift of tactics to meet these changes.

Control the Access Door: If a fire is ventilation limited, additional oxygen will increase the heat release rate. The entry point is a ventilation opening that not only allows smoke to exit, but also provides additional atmospheric oxygen to the fire, increasing heat release rate and speeding fire development. Controlling the door slows fire development and limits heat release rate. Once the fire attack crew has water on the fire and is limiting heat release by cooling the door can and should be opened as part of planned, systematic, and coordinated tactical ventilation.

Coordinated Attack Includes Vertical Ventilation: While vertical ventilation is the most efficient type of natural ventilation, it not only removes a large amount of smoke, it also introduces a large amount of air into the building (the mass of smoke and air out must equal the mass of air introduced). If uncoordinated with fire attack, the increase in oxygen will result in increased fire development and heat release. However, once fire attack is making progress, vertical ventilation will work as intended, with effective and efficient removal of smoke and replacement with fresh air.

Large Vertical Vents are Good, But… Ventilation (either horizontal or vertical) presents a bit of a paradox. Hot smoke and fire gases are removed from the building, but the fresh air introduced provides oxygen to the fire resulting in increased heat release rate. A 4’ x 8’ ventilation opening removed a large amount of hot smoke and fire gases. However, without water on the fire to reduce the heat release rate and return the fire to a fuel controlled regime, the increased air supply caused more products of combustion to be released than could be removed through the opening, overpowering the vertical vent and worsening conditions on the interior. Once fire attack returned the fire to a fuel controlled regime, the large opening was effective and conditions improved.

Location of the Vertical Vent? It Depends! The best location for a vertical ventilation opening depends on building geometry, location of the inlet(s) and resulting flow path. Often this is not known with certainty. If ventilation and fire attack are coordinated, venting over the fire provides the most efficient flow of hot smoke, fire gases, and air. However, while not mentioned in this report on vertical ventilation, working above engineered wood roof supports that are involved in fire or may have been damaged by the fire presents considerable risk. Surprisingly vertical ventilation remote from the fire provided some positive effects, but this was dependent on geometry. One of the important lessons in this tactical implication is that the effects of vertical ventilation are not only dependent on the location of the exhaust opening, but also on the location of the inlet and resulting flow paths created within the building.

Operations in the Flow Path Present Significant Risk: In UL’s tactical implication titled Stages of Fire Growth and Flow Path, Steve Kerber states “the stage of the fire (i.e. ventilation or fuel limited)”. This may be a bit confusing as the stages of fire development are typically described as ignition or incipient, growth, fully developed, and decay. Burning regime may be used to describe the conditions of fuel or ventilation controlled (although this term is used in the text 3D Firefighting, it is not as commonly used in fire dynamics literature). The location of the inlet and exhaust openings, distance between the inlet opening and the fire, shape of the inlet and exhaust openings, the interior geometry of the building and its contents all impact on flow path and the availability of oxygen for fire growth. Firefighters must consider both the upstream (between the inlet and the fire) and downstream (between the fire and the exhaust) elements of the flow path. Operations in the downstream segment of the flow path are hazardous due to the flow of hot gases and smoke, increasing convective heat transfer and potential for fire spread in this space.

Timing is (Almost) Everything: Why do we perform tactical ventilation? While firefighters can typically provide a list of potential benefits, one of the most important is to improve interior conditions for both firefighters and victims who may still be in the building. When effective tactical ventilation is coordinated with fire attack, the fire environment becomes cooler, visibility is increased, and useful flow paths are created that remove hot smoke, fire gases, and steam ahead of hoselines. However, tactical ventilation completed significantly before fire attack is having an effect on the fire can result in increased heat release rate and fire growth. Additional considerations that impact or are impacted on by timing of tactical ventilation include:

  • The fire does not react to additional air (oxygen) instantaneously
  • The higher the interior temperatures the faster the fire reacts
  • The closer the inlet opening is to the fire the faster it reacts
  • The higher the exhaust opening the faster the fire reacts
  • The more smoke exhausted from the building the more air that is introduced (the mass of air in must equal the mass of smoke and air that is exhausted)
  • The more air (oxygen) the faster the fire reacts

Reading The Fire: The UL report on vertical ventilation refers to “Reading Smoke”. While smoke is a critical category of fire behavior indicators, firefighters must consider all of the B-SAHF indicators (Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame) when reading the fire. The key point made in the UL vertical and horizontal ventilation reports is that nothing showing means exactly that. Nothing! As a fire becomes ventilation controlled, temperature decreases, reducing pressure in the building and as a result visible smoke indicators on the exterior often are substantially diminished or absent. When little or no smoke are observed, the fire should be treated as if it is in the ventilation limited, decay stage until proven otherwise.

Closed Doors=Increased Potential for Survival: As with UL’s horizontal ventilation experiments, the vertical ventilation experiments further demonstrated that closed doors increase victim survivability. . In each experiment a victim in the closed bedroom would have had survivable conditions and would have been able to function well through every experiment and well after the arrival of fire companies. In the bedrooms with open doors, potential victims would be unconscious if not deceased prior to fire department arrival or as a result of fire ventilation actions.

Softening the Target: In many cases, the fire has self-vented prior to the arrival of the first company (note that self-vented should not be confused with adequate, planned, systematic, and coordinated tactical ventilation). Tactical implications presented in Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction (Kerber, 2010) indicated that a self-vented fire most likely will most likely be ventilation controlled and will respond quickly to any increase in ventilation.

Even with a ventilation location open the fire is still ventilation limited and will respond just as fast or faster to any additional air [oxygen]. It is more likely that the fire will respond faster because the already open ventilation location is allowing the fire to maintain a higher temperature than if everything was closed. In these cases rapid fire progression is highly probable and coordination of fire attack with ventilation becomes even more important (Kerber, 2010, p. 301).

Data on the effects of water application from the exterior during the vertical ventilation experiments reinforced the conclusions drawn from those conducted during the horizontal ventilation study. Regardless of the point of application, water quickly applied into the fire compartment improved conditions throughout the entire building. In the vertical ventilation experiments water applied from the exterior for approximately 15 seconds had a significant impact on interior conditions increasing potential for victim survivability and firefighter safety. During size-up consider the fastest and safest way to apply water to the fire. This could be by applying water through a window, through a door, from the exterior or from the interior.

You Can’t Push Fire with Water: During the vertical ventilation study, UL continued examination of the question; can water applied from a hoseline push fire? Data from this study continues to support the position that application of water does not push fire. However, discussion during the study pointed to several situations that may give the appearance of fire being pushed.

  • A flow path is changed with ventilation and not water application
  • A flow path is changed with water application
  • Turnout gear becomes saturated with energy and passes through to the firefighter
  • One room is extinguished, which allows air to entrain into another room, causing the second room to ignite or increase in burning (see Contra Costa LODD: What Happened? for an example of this phenomena)

Direct Attack is Important on Fires in Large Spaces: While large open floor plans in many modern homes presents a fire suppression challenge, open floor plans also permit application of water to burning fuel from a distance. This tactical recommendation points to the importance of using the reach of a hose stream to advantage. It is not necessary to be in the fire compartment to begin effective suppression. If an involved room is in line of sight, water can be applied to burning fuel with good effect.

Important! While not addressed in this tactical implication, the emphasis on direct attack does not diminish the importance of cooling the hot smoke and gases (fuel) in the upper layer as a control (not fire extinguishment) measure, particularly when the fire is shielded and not accessible for direct attack.

Ventilation Doctrine

Just as with door control (an anti-ventilation tactic) it is important to extend the concept of consistent doctrine to the broader context of tactical ventilation and anti-ventilation strategies and tactics. This doctrine is likely to differ based on context (e.g., building sizes and types and firefighting resources), but the fire dynamics framework will likely be quite similar. Future posts will work to examine the vertical ventilation study in more detail and to also integrate the tactical implications from this study with those from the earlier vertical ventilation study. These two important studies don’t answer all of the questions, but provide a good start.


Kerber, S. (2010). Impact of ventilation on fire behavior in legacy and contemporary residential construction. Retrieved July 17, 2013 from

Kerber, S. (2013). Study of the effectiveness of fire service vertical ventilation and suppression tactics in single family homes. Retrieved July 17, 2013 from

Influence of Ventilation in Residential Structures: Tactical Implications Part 5

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

The fifth tactical implication identified in the Underwriters Laboratories study of the Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction (Kerber, 2011) is described as failure of the smoke layer to lift following horizontal natural ventilation and smoke tunneling and rapid air movement in through the front door.

In the experiments conducted by UL, both the single and two story dwellings filled rapidly with smoke with the smoke layer reaching the floor prior to ventilation. This resulted in zero visibility throughout the interior (with the exception of the one bedroom with a closed door). After ventilation, the smoke layer did not lift (as many firefighters might anticipate) as the rapid inward movement of air simply produced a tunnel of clear space just inside the doorway.

Put in the context of the Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame (B-SAHF) fire behavior indicators, these phenomena fit in the categories of smoke and air track. Why did these phenomena occur and what can firefighters infer based on observation of these fire behavior indicators?

Smoke Versus Air Track

There are a number of interrelationships between Smoke and Air Track. However, in the B-SAHF organizing scheme they are considered separately. As we begin to develop or refine the map of Smoke Indicators it is useful to revisit the difference between these two categories in the B-SAHF scheme.

Smoke: What does the smoke look like and where is it coming from? This indicator can be extremely useful in determining the location and extent of the fire. Smoke indicators may be visible on the exterior as well as inside the building. Don’t forget that size-up and dynamic risk assessment must continue after you have made entry!

Air Track: Related to smoke, air track is the movement of both smoke (generally out from the fire area) and air (generally in towards the fire area). Observation of air track starts from the exterior but becomes more critical when making entry. What does the air track look like at the door? Air track continues to be significant when you are working on the interior.

Smoke Indicators

There are a number of smoke characteristics and observations that provide important indications of current and potential fire behavior. These include:

  • Location: Where can you see smoke (exterior and interior)?
  • Optical Density (Thickness): How dense is the smoke? Can you see through it? Does it appear to have texture like velvet (indicating high particulate content)?
  • Color: What color is the smoke? Don’t read too much into this, but consider color in context with the other indicators.
  • Physical Density (Buoyancy): Is the smoke rising, sinking, or staying at the same level?
  • Thickness of the Upper Layer: How thick is the upper layer (distance from the ceiling to the bottom of the hot gas layer)?

As discussed in Reading the Fire: Smoke Indicators Part 2, these indicators can be displayed in a concept map to show greater detail and their interrelationships (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Smoke Indicators Concept Map

Air Track

Air track includes factors related to the movement of smoke out of the compartment or building and the movement of air into the fire. Air track is caused by pressure differentials inside and outside the compartment and by gravity current (differences in density between the hot smoke and cooler air). Air track indicators include velocity, turbulence, direction, and movement of the hot gas layer.

  • Direction: What direction is the smoke and air moving at specific openings? Is it moving in, out, both directions (bi-directional), or is it pulsing in and out?
  • Wind: What is the wind direction and velocity? Wind is a critical indicator as it can mask other smoke and air track indicators as well as serving as a potentially hazardous influence on fire behavior (particularly when the fire is in a ventilation controlled burning regime).
  • Velocity & Flow: High velocity, turbulent smoke discharge is indicative of high temperature. However, it is essential to consider the size of the opening as velocity is determined by the area of the discharge opening and the pressure. Velocity of air is also an important indicator. Under ventilation controlled conditions, rapid intake of air will be followed by a significant increase in heat release rate.

As discussed in Reading the Fire: Air Track Indicators Part 2, these indicators can be displayed in a concept map to show greater detail and their interrelationships (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Air Track Indicators Concept Map

air t

Discharge of smoke at openings and potential openings (Building Factors) is likely the most obvious indicator of air track while lack of smoke discharge may be a less obvious, but equally important sign of inward movement of air. Observation and interpretation of smoke and air movement at openings is an essential part of air track assessment, but it must not stop there. Movement of smoke and air on the interior can also provide important information regarding fire behavior.

An Ongoing Process

Reading the fire is an ongoing process, beginning with reading the buildings in your response area prior to the incident and continuing throughout firefighting operations. It is essential to not only recognize key indicators, but to also note changing conditions. This can be difficult when firefighters and officer are focused on the task at hand.

UL Experiment 13

This experiment examined the impact of horizontal ventilation through the door on Side A and one window as high as possible on Side C near the seat of the fire. The family room was the fire compartment. This room had a high (two-story) ceiling with windows at ground level and the second floor level (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Two-Story Dwelling

In this experiment, the fire was allowed to progress for 10:00 after ignition, at which point the front door (see Figure 3) was opened to simulate firefighters making entry. Fifteen seconds after the front door was opened (10:15), an upper window in the family room (see Figure 3) was opened. No suppression action was taken until 12:28, at which point a 10 second application of water was made through the window on Side C using a straight stream from a combination nozzle.

As with all the other experiments in this series fire development followed a consistent path. The fire quickly consumed much of the available oxygen inside the building and became ventilation controlled. At oxygen concentration was reduced, heat release rate and temperature within the building also dropped. Concurrently, smoke and air track indicators visible from the exterior were diminished. Just prior to opening the door on Side A, there was little visible smoke from the structure (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Experiment 13 at 00:09:56 (Prior to Ventilation)

As illustrated in Figure 5, a bi-directional air track was created when the front door was opened. Hot smoke flowed out the upper area of the doorway while air pushed in the bottom creating a tunnel of clear space inside the doorway (but no generalized lifting of the upper layer.

Figure 5. Experiment 13 at 00:10:14 (Door Open)

As illustrated in Figure 6, opening the upper level window in the family room resulted in a unidirectional air track flowing from the front door to the upper level window in the family room. No significant exhaust of smoke can be seen at the front door, while a large volume of smoke is exiting the window. However, while the tunneling effect at floor level was more pronounced (visibility extended from the front door to the family room), there was no generalized lifting of the upper layer throughout the remainder of the building.

Figure 6. Experiment 13 at 00:10:21 (Door and Window Open)

With the increased air flow provided by ventilation through the door on Side A and Window at the upper level on Side C, the fire quickly transitioned to a fully developed stage in the family room. The heat release rate (HRR) and smoke production quickly exceeded the limited ventilation provided by these two openings and the air track at the front door returned to bi-directional (smoke out at the upper level and air in at the lower level) as shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Experiment 13 at 00:11:22 (Door and Window Open)

What is the significance of this observation? Movement of smoke out the door (likely the entry point for firefighters entering for fire attack, search, and other interior operations) points to significant potential for flame spread through the upper layer towards this opening. The temperature of the upper layer is hot, but flame temperature is even higher, increasing the radiant heat flux (transfer) to crews working below. Flame spread towards the entry point also has the potential to trap, and injure firefighters working inside.

Gas Velocity and Air Track

A great deal can be learned by examining both the visual indicators illustrated in Figures 4-7 and measurements taken of gas velocity at the front door. During the ventilation experiments conducted by UL, gas velocities were measured at the front door and at the window used for ventilation (see Figure 3). Five bidirectional probes were placed in the doorway at 0.33 m (1’) intervals. Positive values show gas movement out of the building while negative values show inward gas movement. In order to provide a simplified view of gas movement at the doorway, Figure 8 illustrates gas velocity 0.33 m (1’) below the top of the door, 0.33 m (1’) from the bottom of the door, and 0.66 m (2’) above the bottom of the door.

A bidirectional (out at the top and in at the bottom) air track developed at the doorway before the door was opened (see Figure 8) as a result of leakage at this opening. It is interesting to note variations in the velocity of inward movement of air from the exterior of the building, likely a result of changes in combustion as the fire became ventilation controlled. The outward flow at the upper level resulted in visible smoke on the exterior of the building. While not visible, inward movement of air was also occurring (as shown by measurement of gas velocity at lower levels in the doorway.

Creation of the initial ventilation opening by opening the front door created a strong bidirectional air track with smoke pushing out the top of the door while air rapidly moved in the bottom. Had the door remained the only ventilation opening, this bidirectional flow would have been sustained (as it was in all experiments where the door was the only ventilation opening).

Opening the upper window in the family room resulted in a unidirectional flow inward through the doorway. However, this phenomenon was short lived, with the bidirectional flow reoccurring in less than 60 seconds. This change in air track resulted from increased heat release rate as additional air supply was provided to the fire in the family room.

Figure 8. Front Door Velocities

Note: Adapted from Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction (p. 243), by Stephen Kerber, Northbrook, IL: Underwriters Laboratories, 2011.

While not the central focus of the UL research, these experiments also examined the effects of exterior fire stream application on fire conditions and tenability. Each experiment included a 10 second application with a straight stream and a 10 second application of a 30o fog pattern. Between these two applications, fire growth was allowed to resume for approximately 60 seconds.

The straight stream application resulted in a reduction of temperature in the fire compartment and adjacent compartments (where there was an opening to the family room or hallway) as water applied through the upper window on Side C (ventilation opening) cooled the compartment linings (ceiling and opposite wall) and water deflected off the ceiling dropped onto the burning fuel. As the stream was applied, air track at the door on Side A changed from bidirectional to unidirectional (inward). This is likely due to the reduction of heat release rate achieved by application of water onto the burning fuel with limited steam production.

When the fog pattern was applied, there was also a reduction of temperature in the fire compartment and adjacent compartments (where there was an opening in the family room or hallway) as water was applied through the upper window on Side C (ventilation opening) cooled the upper layer, compartment linings, and water deflected off the ceiling dropped onto the burning fuel. The only interconnected area that showed a brief increase in temperature was the ceiling level in the dining room. However, lower levels in this room showed an appreciable drop in temperature. Air track at the door on Side A changed from bidirectional to unidirectional (outward) when the fog stream was applied. This effect is likely due to air movement inward at the window on Side C and the larger volume of steam produced on contact with compartment linings as a result of the larger surface area of the fog stream.

The effect of exterior streams will be examined in more detail in a subsequent post.

Important Lessons

The fifth tactical implication identified in the Underwriters Laboratories study of the Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction (Kerber, 2011) is described as failure of the smoke layer to lift following horizontal natural ventilation and smoke tunneling and rapid air movement in through the front door.

Additional lessons that can be learned from this experiment include:

  • Ventilating horizontally at a high point results in higher flow of both air and smoke.
  • Increased inward air flow results in a rapid increase in heat release rate.
  • The rate of fire growth quickly outpaced the capability of the desired exhaust opening, returning the intended inlet to a bi-directional air track (potentially placing firefighters entering for fire attack or search at risk due to rapid fire spread towards their entry point).

Tactical applications of this information include:

  • Ensure that the attack team is in place with a charged line and ready to (or has already) attack the fire (not simply ready to enter the building) before initiating horizontal ventilation.
  • Cool the upper layer any time that it is above 100o C (212o F) to reduce radiant and convective heat flux and to limit potential for ignition and flaming combustion in the upper layer.

Note that this research project did not examine the impact of gas cooling, but examination of the temperatures at the upper levels in this experiment (and others in this series) point to the need to cool hot gases overhead.

What’s Next?

I am on the hunt for videos that will allow readers to apply the tactical implications of the UL study that have been examined to this point in conjunction with the B-SAHF fire behavior indicators. My next post will likely provide an expanded series of exercises in Reading the Fire.

The next tactical implication identified in the UL study (Kerber, 2011) examines the hazards encountered during Vent Enter Search (VES) tactical operations. A subsequent post will examine this tactic in some detail and explore this tactical implication in greater depth.


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

Did You Ever Wonder?

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

The ability to read the fire and predict likely fire behavior is a critical skill for both firefighters and fire officers. Previous posts have examined how to use the B-SAHF scheme to recognize critical fire behavior indicators and identify the stage of fire development, burning regime, and potential for extreme fire behavior such as flashover or backdraft. However, there is something missing!

Experience is critical to adapting standard procedures and practices to a complex and dynamic operational environment. However, learning about fire behavior and changes in fire conditions based on fireground observations are a bit like a black box test. Black box testing is a technique for testing computer software in which the internal workings of the item being tested are not known by the tester. This is not entirely true in the case of fire behavior, but there is much that we dont know when assessing conditions on the fireground. How long has the fire been burning? What are the specific characteristics of the fuel? What sort of internal compartmentation is present? What exactly is the ventilation profile? Some of these factors can be determined during fire investigation and it is also possible to determine (with some degree of uncertainty) what influence these factors had on the outcome of the incident. Did you ever wonder how fire behavior would have changed if you had used different tactics? Unfortunately, in real life there are no do overs!

UL Tactical Ventilation Research Project

One of the people who has asked himself the question of what would have changed if different tactics were used is Underwriters Laboratories Fire Protection Engineer Steve Kerber.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) has received a Firefighter Safety Research and Development Grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This research project will investigate and analyze the impact of natural horizontal ventilation on fire development and conditions in legacy (older, more highly compartmented) and contemporary (multi-level, open floor plan) residential structures.

Preliminary work has included review of literature related to horizontal ventilation and incidents in which ventilation had a significant influence on firefighter injuries and fatalities. In addition, UL has done preliminary work on the performance of various structural components such as single and multi-pane windows as preliminary input for design of full scale residential fire experiments.

In mid-December 2009, Steve Kerber met with the project advisory panel comprised of Captain Charles Bailey, Montgomery County (MD) Fire Department; Lieutenant John Ceriello New York City Fire Department, Firefighter James Dalton and Director of Training Richard Edgeworth, Chicago Fire Department, Chief Ed Hartin, Central Whidbey Island (WA) Fire & Rescue, Chief Otto Huber Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department, and Chief Mark Nolan, Northbrook (IL) Fire Department. In addition, the advisory panel includes Fire Protection Engineers Dan Madrzykowski from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Dr. Stefan Svensson, a research and development engineer from the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency.

Figure 1. Defining Experiment Parameters for the Contemporary Structure


The main task presented to the advisory panel at the first meeting was to aid in defining the parameters for the experiment; including fire location, changes in ventilation profile, timing of these changes, and instrumentation to measure effects on fire development and conditions.

UL Large Fire Research Facility

The ventilation experiments will be conducted at the UL Large Fire Research Facility in Northbrook, IL. From the exterior, this facility simply looks like a large industrial building (see Figure 2). However, the interior of the structure includes a unique facility for fire research.

Figure 2. UL Large Fire Research Facility


One of the facilities inside this building is a 100 x 120 (30.48 m x 36.58 m) with a ceiling height that is adjustable up to 50 (15.24 m) (see Figure 3). All of the smoke resulting from tests in this facility is exhausted through a system designed to oxidize unburned fuel and scrub hazardous products from the effluent prior to discharge to the atmosphere. Tests are monitored from a control room that overlooks the large burn room.

Figure 3. Large Burn Room


Over the next month, the two residential structures to be used for the ventilation experiments will be constructed inside the large burn room at the UL Large Fire Test Facility. After construction is complete, a series of 16 full scale fire experiments is planned to evaluate a range of different horizontal ventilation scenarios.

Research with the Fire Service

Steve Kerber has often stated that it is essential that scientists and engineers conduct research with, not for, the fire service. Engagement between researchers and firefighters on the street is essential in advancement of our profession. With this ventilation research project, Underwriters Laboratories is actively engaged in this process.

The outcome of this project will not simply be an academic paper (but there might be one or more of those as well). As part of the DHS grant, UL will be developing an on-line course to present the results of the experiments and their practical application on the fireground.

Happy Holidays,

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

Real Backdraft?

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

I had intended to continue discussion of flame indicators in this post, but was motivated to address a common fire service myth based on information presented in an article in the New Canaan (Connecticut) Advertiser’s on-line newspaper titled Real ‘Backdraft’.

Figure 1. Backdraft Demonstration


Note: Photos of backdraft demonstration at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency College in Revinge, Sweden by Ed Hartin

The Question

The article was written by a fire officer in response to the question” “is there really such a thing as a backdraft as depicted in the 1991 Ron Howard movie by the same name?” His response to the question:

I found the movie very entertaining; however, I was completely distracted by the unrealistic depiction of fire and how it behaved compared to real life. . . . A backdraft occurs when a fire, in a confined space (room or building), has used up the available air and begins to starve for oxygen. When this occurs, great quantities of carbon monoxide (CO) are produced.

We all know that CO is the odorless, colorless and tasteless gas that can kill us. Another lesser known fact is that it is also highly flammable – like propane or natural gas.

This last characteristic is the catalyst for a backdraft. If a door or window is opened and a fresh supply of oxygen is introduced at the right (wrong) time, all of the built up CO will explode with devastating results.

Most action adventure films fail to depict fires and firefighting accurately, fueling (no pun intended) the public’s misperception of the hazards presented in the fire environment. While not likely the result of watching Backdraft and Ladder 49, many fire behavior myths and misperceptions persist in the fire service as well.

Fire Service Myth

The response to the question about backdraft is partially correct, this phenomenon involves introduction of air to a ventilation controlled fire. However, presumption that carbon monoxide is the predominant fuel in backdraft is a common fire service myth that is not supported by scientific research.

As observed by Gorbett and Hopkins (2007), there is considerable misunderstanding about extreme fire behavior such as flashover and backdraft. For example, many fire service texts and standards (e.g., National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 402 Guide for Aircraft Rescue and Fire-Fighting Operations) continue to perpetuate the misconception that carbon monoxide concentration is a major determinant in the occurrence of backdraft.

Scientific Evidence

A substantial number of scientific studies have demonstrated that the major component of gas phase fuel involved in backdraft phenomenon is unburned, excess pyrolizate from solid fuel (Gottuk, 1999; Gojkovic, 2000; Sutherland, 1999; Fleischmann, 1993; Fleischmann & Pagni, 1993; and Weng & Fan, 2003). While backdraft conditions develop under ventilation controlled conditions with lower than normal (21%) oxygen concentration, the concentration of total hydrocarbons is the primary determinant of backdraft potential (Fleischmann, 1992 Weng & Fan, 2003).

As illustrated in Figure 2, smoke from incomplete combustion of organic materials includes a substantial concentration of unburned pyrolysis products. containing considerable potential (chemical) energy. If this gas phase fuel accumulates in sufficient concentration while the fire is in decay due to limited oxygen, an increase in ventilation may result in a backdraft.

Figure 2. Multi-Compartment Doll’s House Demonstration, Klana Croatia


Note: Photo by Nikola Tramontana, Vatrogasci Opatija, Croatia.

As actor and author Will Rogers said “It’s not what we don’t know that hurts, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” What I learned about fire behavior as a recruit firefighter was incomplete and in some cases inaccurate. I don’t fault the instructors or the textbook that was used as both were the best available at the time. However, it is important that we continue to push at the edges of our understanding of fire behavior and recognize that what we recognize as fact today may not be so tomorrow.

For more information on the backdraft phenomenon, see:

Barring another target of opportunity, my next post will return to Reading the Fire and revision and extension of the Flame Indicators concept map.

Ed Hartin, MS,EFO, MIFireE, CFO


Fleischmann, C. & Pagni, P. (1993) Exploratory backdraft experiments.” Fire Technology, 29(4), 298-316

Fleischmann, C. (1993) Backdraft phenomena, National Institute for Standards and Technology NIST-CGR-94-646). Retrieved March 26, 2009 from

Gojkovic, D. (2000) Initial backdraft experiments, Lund University. Sweden

Gorbett, G. & Hopkins, R. (2007). The Current Knowledge and Training Regarding Flashover, Backdraft, and Other Rapid Fire Progression Phenomenon. Retrieved March 19, 2009 from, D., Peatross, M., Farley, J. Williams, F. (1999) The development and mitigation of backdraft: A real-scale shipboard study. Fire Technology 33(4), 261-282.

Sutherland, B. (1999) Smoke sxplosions. University of Canterbury: Department of Engineering. Christchurch, New Zealand

Weng, W. & Fan, W. (2003). Critical condition of backdraft in compartment fires: A reduced scale experimental study. Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries, 16, 19-26.

Evaluating Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Art and Science of Firefighting

NIST has performed a wide range of research that can have a positive impact on the safety and effectiveness of firefighting operations. However, all too often, this information has not made it to front line firefighters. Dan Madrzykowski and Steve Kerber have made a concerted effort to address this issue and increase the day to day impact of NIST fire research. In the video overview of the wind driven fire research, Battalion Chief Jerry Tracy of the FDNY stated that this project was an effort to bridge the gap between the science and art of firefighting and get science to the street.

Research on Wind Driven Fires= Governors Island, New York City


Note: John Freeman Photo from NIST Report TN 1629

Understanding, Surviving, & Fighting Wind Driven Fires

This two DVD training package is based on NIST research conducted at the Building Fire Research Lab (BFRL) in Gaithersburg, MD and on Governors Island in New York city. The package contains:

  • Written reports on the laboratory and field experiments
  • Multiple videos of the experiments (from standard and thermal imaging video cameras)
  • PowerPoint presentation on experimental procedures and results
  • Video overview of the research and implications for fireground operations

While the reports and detailed video are tremendous resources, I believe that every firefighter in the United States would benefit from taking 86 minutes to watch the introductory video overview narrated by Battalion Chiefs Peter Van Dorpe (Chicago Fire Department), Jerry Tracy (Fire Department of New York), Dan Madrzykowski (NIST), and Steve Kerber (NIST). The overview presentation is divided into four segments:

  1. Introduction and the Chicago Fire Department Experience (BC Peter Van Dorpe)
  2. The FDNY Experience (BC Jerry Tracy)
  3. Laboratory Experiments (Dan Madrzykowski, PE)
  4. Governors Island Experiments (Steve Kerber)
  5. Conclusion (BCs Peter Van Dorpe and Jerry Tracy)

This video provides a powerful explanation of the potential danger of wind driven fires (in both high and low-rise structures) and illustrates how scientific research can have a positive impact on the safety and effectiveness of fireground operations. While some may discount the information presented because the research focused (to a large extent) on high-rise buildings, many of the lessons learned have applicability to a much wider range of buildings.

In the summary section of the overview video, BC Peter Van Dorpe made several interesting observations regarding the lessons he learned from this research:

In a high-rise building, you don’t ventilate until you have water on the fire based on potential for a wind driven fire and dramatic influence of wind and ventilation on fire behavior.

Consideration of the concept that the first water on a high-rise fire [in a non-sprinklered building] should be from the exterior based on the dramatic effect of relatively low flow application from the exterior in changing conditions from severe to controllable.

BC Jerry Tracy emphasized the importance of integrating the art and science of firefighting and the need for change. Credibility is critical, both from a scientific and operational perspective. He pointed to the importance of understanding impact of changes in ventilation profile on fire behavior in all types of fires and the potential benefits of alternative strategies and tactics.

How to Order

This two DVD set can be ordered from the United States Fire Administration (USFA) Web Site. However, orders are limited to a single set per organization.

Order Evaluating Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions

Information on this research is also available on the NIST Wind Driven Fire Research web page.

Action Steps

Get a copy of this training package and have a look at the overview video. Ask yourself how this information can be put to work in your environment? What application does this research have beyond high-rise buildings? How can we use this information to increase the safety and effectiveness of firefighting operations in single and multi-family dwellings and in commercial buildings?

CFBT-US on Twitter

In an effort to expand our network, CFBT-US is now on Twitter! Follow Chief Instructor Ed Hartin for information on fire behavior, incident information, photos and video for B-SAHF exercises. Check out the Twitter Portal for an overview video on Twitter and additional information on this social networking tool.

CFBT-US is exploring how to integrate Twitter with the CFBT Blog (and the blog with Twitter). Please share your feedback on the effectiveness and utility of this approach to information sharing.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

International Fire Instructors Workshop &
Firefighting Safety Conference

Monday, April 20th, 2009

In May 2008 I was fortunate to be one of 12 instructors, fire officers, and fire scientists who met in Revinge, Sweden at the invitation of Dr. Stefan Svensson of Rddnings Verket (Swedish Rescue Services Agency). Stefan was intrigued by the idea of putting a dozen or so leading fire service professionals with an interest in fire behavior, but divergent perspectives on strategies and tactics in the same room. His research question was to “see what would happen”. Stefan invited participants from Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, Poland, Germany, Spain, France, and the United States to this unique event.

Figure 1. Participants in the 2008 International Fire Instructors Workshop


What happened was that we found tremendous commonality of interest and commitment to improving firefighter safety and fire protection across the world. Surprisingly, while we often disagreed on technical issues and discussion was at times quite vigorous, we left the workshop with greater understanding and a stronger bond.

Special Interest Group

As an outgrowth of our meeting in Sweden, we formed a special interest group (SIG) under the umbrella of the Institution of Fire Engineers. The Compartment Fire Behavior Special Interest Group serves to construct knowledge by integrating fire behavior research, instruction, and practical application.

The first meeting of this newly formed SIG will be held 27-28 April 2009 in Sydney, Australia with the theme Finding the Common Foundation. Participants from around the world will be examining compartment fire behavior training principles and practices to find common ground and identify best practices. Immediately following the workshop, the participants will be presenting at the International Firefighting Safety Conference in Sydney on 29 April through 1 May and in Perth on 4-5 May 2009.

International Firefighting Safety Conference

The conference theme is Protecting the Protectors with a wide range of presentations on fire science, strategy and tactics, and fire behavior training.

I will be making two presentations in Sydney and one in Perth:

  • How Much Science? (Sydney)
  • Extreme Fire Behavior: Understanding the Hazard (Sydney)
  • Fire Development in a Compartment (Perth)

Additional information and a complete outline of the program is available on the conference web site .

Critical NIOSH Recommendation

On Thursday morning, I will be somewhere over the western Pacific, but use WordPress’ automated publishing feature to upload a post on NIOSH Report F2007-28 on the line-of-duty deaths of Captain Matthew Burton and Engineer Scott Desmond of the Contra Costa Fire Protection District while conducting primary search at a residential fire. In a groundbreaking first, NIOSH has identified the need for improvement in Firefighter and Fire Officer Professional Qualifications Standards in the area of fire behavior knowledge:

Standard setting agencies, states, municipalities, and authorities having jurisdiction should: consider developing more comprehensive training requirements for fire behavior to be required in NFPA 1001 Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications and NFPA 1021 Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications and states, municipalities, and authorities having jurisdiction should ensure that fire fighters within their district are trained to these requirements.

Following the conference, I will publish a series of posts from a CFBT-US case study on this incident and the potential influence of the ventilation tactics used on the extreme fire behavior phenomena that occured.

Reports from the Workshop and Conference

I will be posting on information presented at the workshop conference over the next two weeks.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

62 Watts Street:
Modeling the Backdraft

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

On March 24, 1994 Captain Drennan and Firefighters Young and Seidenburg of the FDNY were trapped in the stairwell of a three-story apartment building by rapid fire progression that occurred as other companies forced entry into the fire apartment on the floor below. The FDNY requested assistance from National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) in modeling this incident to develop an understanding of the extreme fire behavior phenomena that occurred in this incident.

Brief Review

A short case study of the 62 Watts Street incident was presented in my last post. As a brief review, FDNY companies responded to 62 Watts Street for a report of smoke and sparks coming from the chimney (see Figure 1). On arrival, there was no indication of a serious fire in the building. Companies opened the scuttle over the stairwell and stretched a line to the first floor apartment while Captain Drennan and the other members of the Ladder 5’s inside team proceeded to the second floor to search for occupants. When the door to the first floor apartment was opened, air rushed in and then warm smoke pushed out. This pulsation in the air track at the door was followed by a flaming combustion filling the upper portion of the door and almost immediately filling the stairwell. Firefighters on the first floor were able to escape, while Captain Drennan and Firefighters Young and Seidenburg were trapped on floor 2.

Figure 1. 3D Cutaway View of 62 Watts Street


Analysis and Computer Modeling

FDNY asked NIST to assist in developing a computerized model to aid developing an understanding of the fire behavior phenomena that occurred during this incident.

Hypothesis: The fire burned for over an hour under severely ventilation controlled conditions resulting in production of a large quantity of unburned pyrolyzate and products of incomplete combustion. Opening the apartment door allowed exhaust of warm fire gases and inflow of cooler ambient air, resulting in a combustible fuel/air mixture. Bukowski (1995) does not identify a source of ignition. However, it is likely that the combustible fuel/air mixture underwent piloted ignition as flaming combustion resumed in the apartment. Once the gas phase fuel was ignited, flaming combustion extended from the door through the stairwell to the ventilation opening at the roof.

Richard Bukowski of the NIST Building and Fire Research Laboratory modeled the fire using CFAST to determine if a sufficient mass of gas phase fuel could have accumulated in the apartment to account for the severity and duration of flaming combustion that occurred. CFAST is a two-zone fire model used to predict the distribution of smoke and fire gases and temperature over time in a multi-compartment structure subjected to a fire. A two-zone model is based on calculations that describe conditions in the upper and lower layers (see Figure 2). While there are obvious differences in conditions within each of these zones, these differences are relatively small in comparison to the differences between the two zones (Jones, Peacock, Forney, & Reneke, 2005).

Figure 2. Upper and Lower Layers in Two Zone Models


Bukowski’s (1995) model of the Watts Street fire divided the involved area of the structure into three compartments. The apartment was defined as a single 6.1 m (20′) x 14 m (46′) x 2.5 m (8’3″) compartment. The stairwell was defined as a second 1.2 m (4′) x 3 m (10′) x 9.1 m (30′) compartment connected to the apartment by a closed door and having a roof vent with a cross sectional area of 0.84 m2 (9 ft2). The fireplace flue was defined as a vertical duct with a cross section of 0.14 m (1.5 ft2) x 10 m (33′).

The heat release rate in the initial growth phase of a compartment fire is nearly always accelerating with energy release as the square of time (t2). Multiplying t2 by a factor ?, various growth rates (e.g., ultra-fast, fast, medium, slow) can be simulated (Karlsson & Quintiere, 2000).

Based on experimental data from burning trash bags, Bukowski (1995) estimated the initial heat release rate at 25 kW with the fire transitioning to a medium t2 fire (typical of residential structure contents) which would have had a peak HRR of 1 MW, but did not reach this HRR due to limited ventilation.

Figure 3. Heat Release Rate of Growth Phase t2 Fires.


Note: Adapted from CFAST – Consolidated model of fire growth and smoke transport (Version 6).

Results of the computer model indicated that the HRR of the fire in the apartment grew to a heat release rate of 0.5 MW (see Figure 4) and then HRR decreased rapidly as oxygen concentration dropped below 10% (see Figure 5).

As the fire continued to burn under extremely ventilation controlled conditions, the concentration of unburned pyrolizate and flammable products of incomplete combustion in the apartment continued to increase.

Figure 4. Heat Release Rate


Note: Adapted from Modeling a Backdraft: The 62 Watts Street Incident.

Research indicates that the concentration of gas phase fuel (e.g., total hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide) is a critical determinant in the likelihood of backdraft occurrence. In small scale, methane fueled compartment fire experiments, Fleischmann, Pagni, & Williamson (1994) found that a total hydrocarbon concentration >10% was necessary for occurrence of a backdraft. At lower concentrations, flame travel is slow and compartment overpressure is lower. As total hydrocarbon concentration increased, the overpressure resulting from backdraft increased. Similarly, Weng & Fan (2003) found mass fraction (concentration by mass) of unburned fuel to be the critical determinant in the occurrence and severity of backdraft. In their small scale, methane fueled experiments, increases in mass fraction of unburned fuel resulted in increased overpressure and more severe backdraft explosions.

Both of these research projects involved use of a methane burner in a compartment and the researchers identified the need for ongoing research using realistic, full scale compartment configurations and fuel loads.

Figure 5. Oxygen Concentration


Note: Adapted from Modeling a Backdraft: The 62 Watts Street Incident.

Figure 6. Temperature


Note: Adapted from Modeling a Backdraft: The 62 Watts Street Incident.

Estimating the time that fire companies forced the door to the apartment, the front door in the simulation was opened at 2250 seconds. As in the actual incident, there was an outflow of warm air from the upper part of the doorway, followed by inward movement of ambient air in the lower part of the doorway. Almost immediately after this air track pulsation, the heat release rate in the stairwell increased to nearly 5.0 MW (see Figure 5), and raising temperature in the stairwell to in excess of 1200o C (2200o F).

Theory and Practice

Output from the CFAST model was consistent with the observation and conditions encountered by the companies operating at 62 Watts Street on March 28, 1994. The model showed that sufficient fuel could have accumulated under the ventilation controlled conditions that existed in the tightly sealed apartment to result in the extended duration and severity of flaming combustion that occurred in the stairwell.

Following this investigation, FDNY identified a number of similar incidents that had occurred previously, but which had gone unreported because no one had been injured. Remember that it is important to examine near miss incidents as well as those which result in injuries and fatalities.


The following questions focus on fire behavior, influence of tactical operations, and related factors involved in this incident.

  1. Examine the oxygen concentration and temperature curves (Figures 5 & 6) up to the time that the door of the apartment was opened (2250 seconds). How does this data fit with the observations of the company making entry into the first floor apartment and your conception of conditions required for a backdraft?
  2. How might the temperature in the apartment have influence B-SAHF indicators visible from the exterior an when performing door entry during this incident?
  3. In Modeling a Backdraft Incident: The 62 Watts St (NY) Fire, Bukowski (1995) states “as buildings become better insulated and sealed for energy efficiency such hazards [e.g., ventilation controlled fires, increased concentration of gas phase fuel, backdraft] may become increasingly common. Thus, new operational procedures need to be developed to reduce the likelihood of exposure to flames of this duration” (p. 5) What operational procedures and practices would be effective in reducing risk and mitigating the hazards presented by ventilation controlled fires in energy efficient buildings? Consider size-up and dynamic risk assessment as well as strategies and tactics.
  4. The often oversimplified tactical approach to dealing with potential backdraft conditions is to ventilate vertically. In this case, existing roof openings were used to ventilate the stairwell, but this had no impact on conditions in the apartment. How can tactical ventilation be used effectively (or can it) when faced with potential backdraft conditions on a lower floor or in a basement?
  5. Another, less common approach to dealing with potential backdraft conditions is to cool the atmosphere and inert the space with steam to reduce the potential for ignition. Examine the temperature curve prior to opening of the door (2250 seconds) and determine if this was a viable option?
  6. Bukowski’s (1995) paper did not speak to the door entry procedures used by the companies at the apartment door. How might good door entry procedures have reduced risk in this incident?

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFIreE, CFO


Bukowski, R. (1996). Modeling a backdraft: The 62 Watts Street incident. Retrieved March 14, 2009 from

Fleischmann, C., Pagni, P., & Williamson, R. (1994) Quantitative backdraft experiments. Retrieved March 15, 2009 from

Jones, W., Peacock, R., Forney, G., & Reneke, P. (2005). CFAST – Consolidated model of fire growth and smoke transport (Version 6) Retrieved March 15, 2009 from

Karlsson, B. & Quintiere, J. (2000). Enclosure fire dynamics. New York: CRC Press.

Weng, W. & Fan, W. (2003). Critical condition of backdraft in compartment fires: A reduced scale experimental study. Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries, 16, 19-26.

Language & Understanding:
Extreme Fire Behavior

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Language is Important

Language has a substantial influence on what and how we think. “What a man cannot state he does not perfectly know, and conversely the inability to put his thoughts into words sets a boundary to his thought” (Newbolt, Bailey, Baines, Boas, Davies, Enright, et al., 1921, p. 20).


While the authors of this statement were focused on English language education in English schools in the 1920’s, the underlying concept applies equally well today. Language is the foundation of understanding. While this is true in day-to-day life, it is equally (or even more) important when dealing with scientific concepts and phenomena related to firefighting.

While construction and fuel loading vary to some extent, fire services around the world are challenged by similar fire problems in the built environment. Each of us faces the same processes of compartment fire development and extreme fire behavior phenomena such as flashover, backdraft, and smoke explosion. However, our understanding and communication about these important processes and phenomena are limited by lack of a common language. In many cases terms have more than one definition. In addition, definitions are often unclear and imprecise.

Shared Concepts

In philosophy, ontology is the study of the nature of reality, categories of being, and their relations; what entities can exist and how they can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and divided based on their similarities and differences. Ontology is a system of concepts that provides a shared vocabulary that can be used to describe and think about a particular domain.

We do not really have an ontology that encompasses fire behavior phenomena such as flashover, backdraft, smoke explosion, and the like. As Dr. Stefan Svennson so astutely observes, it is complicated and there may not always be a clearly defined differences between phenomena. However, going back to the opening paragraph of this post, I contend that a shared language is necessary for us to understand and mitigate the hazards we face as a result of rapid fire progress. Hopefully this post will engage you in this ongoing effort.

Extreme Fire Behavior

Terms such as flashover, backdraft, and smoke explosion are often used to describe phenomena involving rapid fire progression in compartment fires. Currently accepted definitions provide a starting point for developing improved clarity. As a starting point, I have examined definitions of extreme fire behavior phenomena from the following sources:

  1. International Standards Organization (ISO)
  2. National consensus standards organizations (e.g., National Fire Protection Association, Fire Protection Association)
  3. International or national professional associations (e.g., Institution of Fire Engineers, Society of Fire Protection Engineers)
  4. Recognized texts

Consider the similarities and differences in the following definitions and give some thought to the questions that follow.

Flashover: 1) 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). 2) 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).

Discussion: This transition is often assumed 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.

  • Is the occurrence of flashover limited to the transition between growth and fully developed stages of fire development?
  • Can flashover result from increasing ventilation to a ventilation controlled fire (vent induced flashover)? If yes, how does this differ from backdraft?
  • Can a fire reach the fully developed stage without transitioning through flashover?

Backdraft: 1) Rapid flaming combustion caused by the sudden introduction of air into a confined oxygen-deficient space that contains hot products of incomplete combustion. In some cases, these conditions can result in an explosion (ISO 13943, 2008, 4.21). 2) A deflagration resulting from the sudden introduction of air into a confined space containing oxygen-deficient products of incomplete combustion (NFPA 921, 2008, 3.3.14). 3) A phenomenon that occurs when a fire takes place in a confined area such as a sealed aircraft fuselage and burns undetected until most of the oxygen within is consumed. The heat continues to produce flammable gases, mostly in the form of carbon monoxide. These gases are heated above their ignition temperature and when a supply of oxygen is introduced, as when normal entry points are opened, the gases could ignite with explosive force (NFPA 402, 2008).

Discussion: The ISO definition is considerably more broad than that specified in NFPA 921 and as such would be inclusive of phenomena such as ventilation induced flashover as well deflagration resulting from introduction of air to an extremely ventilation controlled fire. The definition of backdraft in NFPA 402, Guide for Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Operations illustrates the common misconception that carbon monoxide is the primary gas phase fuel in a backdraft. There is no scientific evidence that this is the case. Both NFPA definitions indicate that backdraft is explosive in nature (e.g., deflagration) while the ISO definition indicates that this is a possibility, but not a requisite outcome.

  • How does backdraft differ from a vent induced flashover? This is essentially the same question as before, but this time, think about it from the backdraft perspective.
  • If there is a difference between vent induced flashover and backdraft, what is different (about the nature of the phenomena, requisite conditions, and initiating event(s))?
  • Many firefighters believe that backdraft requires high temperature (resulting in auto-ignition following an increase in ventilation), yet this is not mentioned in any of the definitions. Is this the case?
  • Is a backdraft always an explosive event?

Fire Gas Ignition: Ignition of accumulated unburned pyrolysis products and flammable products of incomplete combustion existing in or transported into a flammable state (Grimwood, Hartin, McDonough, & Raffel, 2005)

Discussion: In 3D Firefighting, Grimwood uses the term Fire Gas Ignition as a broad category of phenomena including smoke (fire gas) explosion, flash fire, and a number of other fire behavior phenomena.

  • What differentiates phenomena classified as fire gas ignitions from backdraft, or for that matter flashover?
  • If there is a common theme, is it useful to have an overarching category such as fire gas ignition?

Smoke Explosion: 1) See Backdraft (NFPA 921, 2008). 2) When unburnt gases from an under-ventilated fire flow through leakages into a closed space connected to the fire room, the gases there can mix very well with air to form a combustible gas mixture. A small spark is then enough to cause a smoke gas explosion (Karlsson & Quintiere, 2000). 3) A smoke gas explosion results from ignition of a confined mass of smoke gases and air that fall within the flammable range. This may result in a significant increase in pressure within the compartment (paraphrased from Bengtsson, 2001).

Discussion: In the past, the terms smoke explosion and backdraft were frequently used synonymously (and still used this way within NFPA 921). However, smoke explosion is a substantively different phenomenon as evidenced by the definitions provided by Karlsson & Quintiere (2000) and Bengtsson (2001). Drysdale (1998) also discusses this phenomenon, and while not providing a definition per say, delineates the difference between smoke explosion and backdraft as different phenomena.

  • How are smoke explosion and backdraft different?
  • What differentiates smoke explosion from flash fire?
  • The phenomenon of smoke explosion as defined in various texts requires a mixture of fuel and air within the flammable range. If this flammable mixture is achieved by an increase in ventilation (adding air to a rich mixture of air and fuel), would piloted ignition result in a smoke explosion or backdraft?

Flash Fire: A fire that spreads rapidly through a diffuse fuel, such as dust, gas, or the vapors of an ignitable liquid, without the production of damaging pressure (NFPA 921, 2008, 3.3.72)

Discussion: While this definition appears reasonably clear when taken by itself, how does this differ from rollover, or for that matter flashover?

  • What differentiates flash fire from other phenomena such as rollover (flameover) where fire spread rapidly through gas phase fuel in the upper layer?
  • While the term “flash” infers a brief occurrence, the definition does not clearly define the duration of this phenomenon. Is this different from the rapid transition to a fully developed fire that results from flashover?
  • What differentiates flash fire from a smoke explosion (the NFPA definition of flash fire provides a fuzzy hint, but is this clear enough)?

For a longer and more detailed examination of the definitions of flashover and backdraft, see The Current Knowledge and Training Regarding Flashover, Backdraft, and Other Rapid Fire Progression Phenomenon (Gorbett & Hopkins, 2007).

What Next?

Over the next couple of months, I will be working to develop a discussion (in a variety of formats) to develop a common framework and working definitions that will aid us in talking about fire behavior phenomena that present a significant threat to firefighters (i.e., extreme fire behavior). I invite you to be part of this process! More information will be provided in subsequent posts.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


Bengtsson, L. (2001). Enclosure Fires. Karlstad, Sweden: Rddnings Verket.

Drysdale, D. (2000). An introduction to fire dynamics. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.

Gorbett, G. & Hopkins, R. (2007). The Current Knowledge and Training Regarding Flashover, Backdraft, and Other Rapid Fire Progression Phenomenon. Retrieved March 19, 2009 from

Grimwood, P., Hartin, E., McDonough, J., & Raffel, S. (2005). 3D firefighting: Training , techniques, and tactics. Stillwater, OK: Fire Protection Publications.

Karlsson, B. & Quintiere, J.G. (2000). Enclosure fire dynamics. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

National Fire Protection Association. (2008) NFPA 402 Guide for aircraft rescue and fire-fighting operations. Quincy, MA: Author.

National Fire Protection Association. (2008) NFPA 921 Guide for fire and explosion investigations. Quincy, MA: Author.

Newbolt, H., Bailey, J., Baines, K., Boas, F., Davies, H., Enright, D., et al. (1921). Teaching of English in England. Retrieved March 17, 2009 from

NIST Wind Driven Fire Experiments:
Wind Control Devices & Fire Suppression

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

Continuing examination of NIST’s research on Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions, this post looks at the results of experiments involving use of wind control devices and external water application.

In my last post, I posed several questions about wind control devices to “prime the pump” regarding wind driven fires and potential applications for use of wind control devices.


Give some thought to how wind can influence compartment fire behavior and how a wind control device might mitigate that influence.

  • How would a strong wind applied to an opening (such as the bedroom window in the NIST tests) influence fire behavior in the compartment of origin and other compartments in the structure?
  • How would deployment of a wind control device influence fire behavior?
  • While the wind control device illustrated in Figure 5 was developed for use in high-rise buildings, what applications can you envision in a low-rise structure?
  • What other anti-ventilation tactics could be used to deal with wind driven fires in the low-rise environment?

Answers: Thornton’s Rule indicates that the amount of oxygen required per unit of energy released from many common hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon derivatives is fairly constant. Each kilogram of oxygen used in the combustion of common organic materials results in release of 13.1 MJ of energy. Fully developed compartment fires are generally ventilation controlled (potential heat release rate (HRR) based on fuel load exceeds the actual HRR given the atmospheric oxygen available through existing ventilation openings). Application of wind can dramatically increase heat release rate by increasing the mass of oxygen available for combustion. In addition to increasing HRR, wind can significantly increase the velocity of hot fire gases and flames (and resulting convective and radiant heat transfer) between the inlet and outlet openings.

Deployment of a wind control device to cover an inlet opening (window or door), limits oxygen available for combustion to the air already in the structure and normal building leakage. In addition, blocking the wind will also reduce gas and flame velocity between the inlet and outlet.

While wind driven fires are problematic in high-rise buildings, the same problem can be encountered in low-rise structures and wind control devices may prove useful in some circumstances. However, exterior attack (discussed later in this post) is more feasible than in a high-rise building and other tactics such as door control may also prove essential in managing hazards presented by wind.

Test Conditions

As outlined in my earlier post, Wind Driven Fires, NIST conducted a number of different wind driven tests using the same multi-compartment structure. Experiment 3 involved evaluation of anti-ventilation tactics using a large wind control device placed over the bedroom window. Wind conditions of 6.7 m/s to 8.9 m/s (15 mph-20 mph) were maintained throughout the test.

As with the baseline test, two ventilation openings were provided. A ceiling vent in the Northwest Corridor and a window (fitted with glass) in the bedroom (compartment of origin). During the test the window failed due to fire effects and was subsequently fully cleared by the researchers to provide a full window opening for ventilation.

Figure 1. Isometric Illustration of the Test Structure


Note: The location of fuel packages in the bedroom and living room is shown on the Floor Plan provided in Wind Driven Fires post.

Experiment 3 Wind Driven Fire

This experiment was one of several that investigated wind driven fire behavior and the effectiveness of a wind control device deployed over the bedroom window to limit inward airflow. The fire was ignited in the bedroom and allowed to develop from incipient to fully developed stage in the bedroom.

The fire progressed in a similar manner as observed in the baseline test described in my earlier post NIST Wind Driven Fire Experiments: Establishing a Baseline. In this experiment the fire involving the initial fuel packages (bed and waste container) and visible smoke layer developed slightly more slowly. However, the bedroom window failed more completely and 11 seconds earlier than in the baseline test.

Almost immediately after the window failed, turbulent flaming combustion filled the bedroom and hot gases completely filled the door between the living room and corridor and were impinging on the opposite wall. At 222 seconds (15 seconds after the window was completely cleared) flames were visible in the corridor and the hollow core wood door in the target room was failing with flames breaching the top corners of the door and a smoke layer developing in the target room. While most of the hot gases and flames were driven through the interior (towards the ceiling vent in the corridor), flames continued to flow out the top of the window opening (against the wind).

At 266 seconds conditions had further deteriorated in all compartments with no visibility in the corridor and increased deterioration of the door to the target room. At this point the air track at the window was completely inward (no flames outside the window).

The wind control device was deployed at 270 seconds. Unfortunately soot on the video cameras lenses precluded a good view of interior conditions. However, video from the thermal imaging camera no longer showed any flow of hot gases into the corridor (only high temperature).

At 330 seconds, shortly after removal of the wind control device flames were visible in the bedroom and the fire quickly progressed to a fully developed state. At 360 seconds, flames were pulsing out the window opening (against the wind).

The experiment was ended at 380 seconds and the fire was extinguished.

Heat Release Rate

As with the baseline test NIST researchers recorded heat release rate data during Experiment 3. As discussed earlier in this post, application of wind increased the amount of oxygen available for combustion and resulting heat release rate in comparison to the baseline test.

Figure 2. Heat Release Rates in Experiments 1 (Baseline) and 3 (Wind Driven)


Note: Adapted from Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions.

Questions: Examine the heat release rate curves in Figure 2 and answer the following questions:

  • What effect did deployment of the wind control device have on HRR and why did this change occur so quickly?
  • How did HRR change when the wind control device was removed and why was this change different from when the window was vented?
  • What factors might influence the extent to which HRR changes when ventilation is increased to a compartment fire in a ventilation controlled burning regime?

Wind Control Device Research and Application

NIST has continued research into the practical application of wind control devices with tests in Chicago and New York involving large apartment buildings and realistic fuel loading. For additional information on these tests and video of wind control device deployment, visit the NIST Wind Driven Fires webpage.

Fire Control Experiments

NIST researchers also conducted a series of experiments in the same structure examining the impact of various fire control tactics. These included application of water using solid stream and combination nozzles (using a 30o fog pattern with continuous application). In addition, they examined the influence of coordinated deployment of a wind control device and low flow water application of water fog). In each of these tests, water was applied from the exterior of the structure through the bedroom window.

Water Fog Application: Experiment 6 involved application of water using a hoseline equipped with a combination nozzle at 90 psi (621 kPa) nozzle pressure, providing a flow rate of 80 gpm (303 lpm). The fog stream was initially applied across the window (no discharge into the bedroom). This had a limited effect on conditions on the interior. When applied into the room, the 30o fog pattern was positioned to almost completely fill the window. This action resulted in a brief increase (approximately 4 MW) and then a dramatic reduction in HRR.

Solid Stream Application: Experiments 7 and 8 involved application of water using a hoseline equipped with a 15/16″ smooth bore nozzle at 50 psi (345 kPa) nozzle pressure, providing a flow rate of 160 gpm (606 lpm). The solid stream was initially directed at the ceiling and then in a sweeping motion across the ceiling. In Experiment 8, the stream was then directed at burning contents in the compartment. Application of the solid stream had a pronounced effect, dramatically reducing heat release rate in both experiments.

Conditions varied considerably between these three tests (Experiments 6-8). This makes direct comparison of the results somewhat difficult. However, several conclusions can be drawn from the data:

  • Exterior application of water can be effective in reducing HRR in wind driven fires.
  • Both solid stream and fog application can be effective in reducing HRR under these conditions.
  • Continuous application of water fog positioned to nearly fill the inlet opening develops substantial air flow which can increase HRR (this works similar to the process of hydraulic ventilation, but in reverse).
  • A high flow solid stream may be more effective (but not necessarily more efficient) than a lower flow fog pattern if a direct attack on burning contents can be made.

Coordinated WCD Deployment and Water Application: Experiments 4 and 5 involved evaluations of anti-ventilation and water application using a small wind control device and 30 gpm (113.6 lpm) spray nozzle from under the wind control device. The effectiveness of the wind control device was similar to other anti-ventilation tests and application of low flow water fog resulted in continued decrease in HRR throughout the experiment.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


Madrzykowski, D. & Kerber, S. (2009). Fire Fighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions. Retrieved (in four parts) February 28, 2009 from;;;

NIST Wind Driven Fire Experiments:
Anti-Ventilation-Wind Control Devices

Monday, March 9th, 2009

My last post asked a number of questions focused on results of baseline compartment fire tests conducted by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) as part of a research project on Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions. This post looks at the answers to these questions and continues with an examination of NIST’s experiments in the application of wind control devices for anti-ventilation.


Generally being practically focused people, firefighters do not generally dig into research reports. However, the information on the baseline test conducted by NIST raised several interesting questions that have direct impact on safe and effective firefighting operations. First consider possible answers to the questions and then why this information is so important (the “So what?”!).

Figure 1. Heat Release Rate Comparison


Note: Adapted from Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions.

Heat Release Rate (HRR) Questions: Examine the heat release rate curves in Figure 1 and answer the following questions:

  • Why are these two HRR curves different shapes?
  • In each of these two cases, what might have influenced the rate of change (increase or decrease in HRR) and peak HRR?
  • What observations can you make about conditions inside the test structure and heat release rate (in particular, compare the HRR and conditions at approximately 250 and 350 seconds)?

Answers: The HRR test for the bed and waste container was conducted under fuel controlled conditions (oxygen supply was not restricted). The higher HRR in the compartment fire experiment results from increased fuel load (e.g., additional furniture, carpet). After reaching its peak, HRR in the compartment fire drops off slowly as the fire becomes ventilation controlled and the fire continues in a relatively steady state of combustion (limited by the air supplied through the lower portion of the bedroom window)

The rate of change in heat release rate under fuel controlled conditions is dependent on the characteristics and configuration of the fuel. However, in the case of the compartment fire test, the rate of change is also impacted by limited ventilation. As illustrated in the compartment fire curve, the fire quickly became ventilation controlled and HRR rose slowly until the window failed and was fully cleared by researchers.

At 250 seconds (when the window was vented) HRR rose extremely rapidly as the fire in the bedroom rapidly transitioned from the growth through flashover to fully developed stage. At 350 seconds the fire had again become ventilation controlled and was burning in a relatively steady state limited by the available oxygen.

The fully developed fire in the bedroom also became ventilation controlled due to limited ventilation openings, resulting in HRR leveling off with relatively steady state combustion based on the available oxygen.

Figure 2. Bedroom Temperature


Note: Adapted from Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions.

Temperature Questions: Examine the temperature curves in Figure 2 and answer the following questions:

  • What can you determine from the temperature curves from ignition until approximately 250 seconds?
  • How does temperature change at approximately 250 seconds? Why did this change occur and how does this relate to the data presented in the HRR curve for Experiment 1 (Figure 1)?
  • What happens to the temperature at the upper, mid, and lower levels after around 275 seconds? Why does this happen?

Answers: Temperature at the upper levels of the compartment increased much more quickly than at the lower level and conditions in the compartment remained thermally stratified until the ceiling temperature exceeded 600o C. At approximately 250 seconds, the compartment flashed over resulting in a rapid increase in temperature at mid and lower levels. This change correlates with the rapid increase in HRR occurring at approximately 250 seconds in Figure 1. Turbulent, ventilation controlled combustion resulted in a loss of thermal layering with temperatures in excess of 600o C from ceiling to floor. At around 275 seconds.

Figure 3. Total Hydrocarbons at the Upper Level


Note: Adapted from Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions.

Total Hydrocarbons (THC) Questions: Examine the THC curves in Figure 3 and answer the following questions:

  • Why did the THC concentration in the living room rise to a higher level than in the bedroom?
  • Why didn’t the gas phase fuel in the living room burn?
  • How did the concentration of THC in the bedroom reach approximately 4%? Why wasn’t this gas phase fuel consumed by the fire?

Answers: Oxygen entering the compartments through the window was being used by combustion occurring in the bedroom. Low oxygen concentration limited combustion in the living room and allowed accumulation of a higher concentration of unburned fuel. While the oxygen concentration in the bedroom was higher, the fire was still ventilation controlled and not all of the gas phase fuel was able to burn inside this compartment.

So What?

What do the answers to the preceding questions mean to a company crawling down a dark, smoky hallway with a hoseline or making a ventilation opening at a window or on the roof?

Emergency incidents do not generally occur in buildings equipped with thermocouples, heat flux gages, gas monitoring equipment, and pre-placed video and thermal imaging cameras. Understanding the likely sequence of fire development and influencing factors is critical to not being surprised by fire behavior phenomena. These tests clearly illustrated how burning regime (fuel or ventilation controlled) impacts fire development and how changes in ventilation can influence fire behavior. The total hydrocarbon concentration and ventilation controlled combustion in the living room would present a significant threat in an emergency incident. How might conditions change if the fire in the bedroom was controlled and oxygen concentration began to increase? Ignition of the gas phase fuel in this compartment could present a significant threat (see Fire Gas Ignitions) or even prove deadly (future posts will examine the deaths of a captain and engineer in a fire gas ignition in California).


For years firefighters throughout the United States have been taught that ventilation is “the planned and systematic removal of heat, smoke, and fire gases, and their replacement with fresh air”. This is not entirely true! Ventilation is simply the exchange of the atmosphere inside a compartment or building with that which is outside. This process goes on all the time. What we have thought of as ventilation, is actually tactical ventilation. This term was coined a number of years ago by my friend and colleague Paul Grimwood (London Fire Brigade, retired). It is essential to recognize that there are two sides to the ventilation equation, one is removal of the hot smoke and fire gases and the other is introduction of air. Increased ventilation can improve tenability of the interior environment, but under ventilation controlled conditions will result in increased heat release rate.

Another tactic change the ventilation profile and influence fire behavior and conditions inside the building is to confine the smoke and fire gases and limit introduction of air (oxygen) to the fire. Firefighters in the United States often think of this as confinement, but I prefer the English translation of the Swedish tactic, anti-ventilation. This is the planned and systematic confinement of heat, smoke, and fire gases and exclusion of fresh air. The concept of anti-ventilation is easily demonstrated by limiting the air inlet during a doll’s house demonstration (see Figure 4). Closing the inlet dramatically reduces heat release rate and if sustained, can result in extinguishment.

Figure 4. Anti-Ventilation in a Doll’s House Demonstration


For a more detailed discussion of the relationship between ventilation and heat release rate see my earlier post on Fuel and Ventilation.

Air Track and Influence of Wind

Air track (movement of smoke and air under fire conditions) is influenced by differences in density between hot smoke and cooler air and the location of ventilation openings. However, wind is an often unrecognized influence on compartment fire behavior. Wind direction and speed can influence movement of smoke, but more importantly it can have a dramatic influence on introduction of air to the fire.

While the comparison is not perfect, the effects of wind on a compartment fire can be similar to placing a supercharger on an internal combustion engine (see Figure 5). Both dramatically increase power (energy released per unit of time).

Figure 5. Influence of Wind


NIST Wind Control Device Tests

As discussed in Wind Driven Fires, the effects of wind on compartment fire behavior can present a significant threat to firefighters and has resulted in a substantive number of line-of-duty deaths. In their investigation of potential tactical options for dealing with wind driven fires, NIST researchers examined the use of wind control devices (WCD) to limit introduction of air through building openings (specifically windows in the fire compartment in a high-rise building) as illustrated in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Small Wind Control Device


Note: Photo from Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions.


Give some thought to how wind can influence compartment fire behavior and how a wind control device might mitigate that influence.

  • How would a strong wind applied to an opening (such as the bedroom window in the NIST tests) influence fire behavior in the compartment of origin and other compartments in the structure?
  • How would a wind control device deployed as illustrated in Figure 5 influence fire behavior?
  • While the wind control device illustrated in Figure 5 was developed for use in high-rise buildings, what applications can you envision in a low-rise structure?
  • What other anti-ventilation tactics could be used to deal with wind driven fires in the low-rise environment?

The Story Continues…

My next post will address the answers to these questions (please feel free to post your thoughts) and examine the results of NIST’s tests on the use of wind control devices for anti-ventilation.


Madrzykowski, D. & Kerber, S. (2009). Fire Fighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions. Retrieved (in four parts) February 28, 2009 from;;;

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO