Posts Tagged ‘NIST’

Compartment Fire Behavior Blog Anniversary!

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Just over a year ago I had the idea to develop a blog focused on compartment fire behavior and firefighting. A bit of work on the technology side and I made my introductory post on 8 August 2008. That month the CFBT-US web site had 2900 page views, this past July the page view count was in excess of 24,000 with 4400 unique readers. While this is not a huge readership in terms of the total number of firefighters in the world who have English as a language, it shows significant growth.


At the start of this adventure, I set a goal to post twice weekly (Monday and Thursday mornings) and for the most part have managed to keep this schedule. Dominant themes have included:

  • Reviews of books, training programs, magazine/journal articles, and conference presentations
  • Case studies based on National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and agency reports on significant incidents, injuries, and fatalities
  • An ongoing series of posts examining the B-SAHF (building, smoke, air track, heat, and flame) organizing scheme for fire behavior indicators and reading the fire
  • B-SAHF video and photo based exercises in reading and interpreting B-SAHF indicators to predict likely fire behavior and the impact of tactical operations
  • Examination of extreme fire behavior phenomena such as flashover, backdraft, smoke explosion, and flash fire with an emphasis on understanding the underlying causes and influence of tactical operations on fire dynamics
  • Discussion of research on positive pressure ventilation and wind driven fires conducted by the National Institute for Standards and Technology
  • Identification of the potential learning opportunity presented by systematic investigation of near miss, injury, and fatality incidents
  • Discussion of the importance of deliberate practice and the concept of the need for 10,000 hours to master your craft

Hopefully you have found these posts useful in developing your understanding of compartment fire behavior or have motivated you to take action and share your knowledge of our profession with others. I have benefited greatly from the thought process and effort of writing on a regular and systematic basis.

As a reference, I have prepared a printer friendly Compartment Fire Behavior Blog Index in portable document format (PDF) which includes the date, title, URL, and brief synopsis of post content.

I Need Your Help

Your comments and feedback are important to making the Compartment Fire Behavior Blog better. If I write something that you do not agree with or think that a concept could be expressed more clearly, please comment or question!

The Way Forward

I am currently working on a loose editorial calendar to help guide my writing over the next year. Several important themes will continue:

  • Case studies and lessons learned
  • Reading the fire and B-SAHF exercises
  • Practical fire dynamics
  • Review of books, magazine/journal articles
  • Fire control and tactical ventilation

If there are topics you think should be on the list, please provide your input as a comment on this post.

My next several posts will get back to study of the B-SAHF scheme with a look at Heat Indicators and continuing examination of flashover. As I have been looking back over the last year, I find that I have taken two distinctly different approaches to sequencing posts. Some topics have been addressed in successive posts (e.g., case studies and discussion of wind driven fires) and others have alternated between several different topics (e.g., B-SAHF and flashover). From my perspective, each has its advantages and disadvantages. If you have a preference or opinion, please let me know!

Thanks for your readership and participation,

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

Understanding Flashover:
Myths & Misconceptions Part 2

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

A Quick Review

The first post in this series, Understanding Flashover: Myths & Misconceptions provided a definition of flashover and examined this extreme fire behavior phenomenon in the context of fire development in a compartment.

Flashover is the sudden transition to fully developed fire. This phenomenon involves a rapid transition to a state of total surface involvement of all combustible material within the compartment….Flashover may occur as the fire develops in a compartment or additional air is provided to a ventilation-controlled fire (that has insufficient fuel in the gas phase and/or temperature to backdraft).

Burning Regime

In the incipient and early growth stages of a compartment fire, the speed of fire growth is fuel controlled as fire development substantially influenced by the chemical and physical characteristics of the fuel. However, oxygen is required for the fuel to burn and release thermal energy. As a compartment fire develops, the available air supply for combustion becomes a more important factor. Increased combustion requires more oxygen and as smoke fills the compartment while the lowering neutral plane at compartment openings restricts the introduction of air into the compartment (see Figure 1).

The neutral plane is the level at a compartment opening where the difference in pressure exerted by expansion and buoyancy of hot smoke flowing out of the opening and the inward pressure of cooler, ambient temperature air flowing in through the opening is equal (Karlsson & Quintiere, 2000).

Figure 1. Lowering Neutral Plane


Note: Photos adapted from National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) ISO-Room/Living Room Flashover.

The distinction between fuel controlled and ventilation controlled is critical to understanding compartment fire behavior. Compartment fires are generally fuel controlled while in the incipient and early growth stage and again as the fire decays and the demand for oxygen is reduced (see Figure 2).

Figure 3. Fire Development with Limited Ventilation


While a fire is fuel controlled, the rate of heat release and speed of development is limited by fuel characteristics as air within the compartment and the existing ventilation profile provide sufficient oxygen for fire development. However, as the fire grows the demand for oxygen increases, and at some point (based on the vent profile) will exceed what is available. At this point the fire transitions to ventilation control. As illustrated in Figure 1, a ventilation controlled fire may reach flashover, all that is necessary is that sufficient oxygen be available for the fire to achieve a sufficient heat release rate for flashover to occur.

Heat Release and Oxygen

Combustion, as an oxidation reaction requires sufficient oxygen to react with the available fuel. Heat of combustion (energy released) and oxygen required for complete combustion are directly related (Thornton, 1917).The energy released per gram of oxygen consumed during complete combustion of natural and synthetic organic fuels is fairly consistent, averaging 13.1 kJ/g (±0.5%) (Huggett, 1980).

Release of chemical potential energy from fuel is dependent on availability of adequate oxygen for the combustion reaction to occur. Interestingly, while the heat of combustion of various types of organic (carbon based) fuel varies widely, the amount of oxygen required for release of a given amount of energy remains remarkably consistent.

In the early 1900s, British scientist W.M. Thornton (1917) discovered that the amount of oxygen required per unit of energy released from many common hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon derivatives is fairly constant. In the 1970’s, researchers at the National Bureau of Standards independently discovered the same thing and extended this work to include many other types of organic materials and examined both complete and incomplete combustion (Huggett, 1980; Parker, 1977).

Each kilogram of oxygen used in the combustion of common organic materials results in release of 13.1 MJ of energy. This is referred to as Thornton’s Rule. See Fuel and Ventilation for a more detailed discussion of the application of Thornton’s Rule to compartment fires and ventilation.

Failure to Reach Flashover

Ventilation controlled compartment fires may reach flashover and fully developed compartment fires are generally ventilation controlled (IAAI, 2009). However, lack of ventilation may prevent a compartment fire from generating sufficient heat release rate to reach flashover. In some cases, ventilation controlled fires to not become fully developed, but decay and self-extinguish due to lack of oxygen.

In late 2007 an engine and truck company responded to a report of an odor of smoke in a three-story, wood-frame, apartment building. They discovered a ground floor apartment was smoke logged. They requested a first alarm assignment, forced entry, and initiated fire attack and primary search. Smoke was cool and to the floor, the fire was confined to an upholstered chair and miscellaneous items in the living room and at the time of entry was simply smoldering (see Figure 3). A rapid search discovered a deceased occupant in a bedroom remote from the fire.

Figure 3. Self-Extinguished Compartment Fire


Note: Gresham Fire & Emergency Services Photo

While a fire involving an upholstered chair typically results in sufficient heat release rate for the fire to extend to other nearby fuel packages and ultimately reach flashover, this fire did not as evidenced by the condition of the Christmas tree on the opposite side of the living room from the point of origin (see Figure 4). The Christmas tree, like many other fuel packages in the apartment showed evidence of pyrolysis, but did not ignite.

Figure 4. Condition of Other Fuel Packages


Note: Gresham Fire & Emergency Services Photo

Why didn’t this fire reach flashover? The fire occurred in early winter and the apartment’s energy efficient windows and doors were tightly closed. The developing fire consumed the oxygen available within the apartment and absent significant ventilation, decayed, and the temperature inside the apartment which had been increasing as the fire developed, dropped to a temperature slightly higher than would normally be expected inside an occupied apartment.

How might the development of this fire been different if it had been discovered earlier? What if a neighbor had opened a door or window in an effort to rescue the occupant? What if the fire department had opened the door without recognizing that the fire was significantly ventilation controlled?

When fire development is limited by the ventilation profile of the compartment, changes in ventilation will directly influence fire behavior. Reducing ventilation (i.e. by closing a door) will reduce the rate of heat release and slow fire development. Increasing ventilation (i.e. by opening a door or window) will increase the rate of heat release and speed fire development. Changes in ventilation profile may be fire caused (failure of glass in a window), occupants (leaving a door open), or tactical action by firefighters; but all will have an influence on fire behavior!

Figure 5. Ventilation Induced Flashover


For many years firefighters have been taught that ventilation reduces the potential for flashover. While this is sometimes true, it is only part of the story. Increasing ventilation to a fuel controlled fire will allow hot gases to exit, transferring thermal energy out of the compartment and replacing the hot gases with cooler air (which increases heat release rate). The combined influence of these two factors slows progression towards flashover and increases the heat release rate required to reach flashover. The bathtub analogy presented in Understanding Flashover: Myths and Misconceptions [LINK], does not apply in this case, because when a fire is ventilation controlled, heat release rate is limited by the available oxygen. Under ventilation controlled conditions; increasing air supply by creating opening results in increased heat release rate. This increased heat release rate may result in flashover (see Figure 5). For more information see Hazards of Ventilation Controlled Fires.

Two Paths to Flashover

With adequate fuel and oxygen, a growth stage compartment fire may flashover and rapidly transition to the fully developed stage. Given adequate fuel, but lacking adequate oxygen (due to limited ventilation), a growth stage compartment fire may begin to decay before becoming fully developed. However, this can quickly change if ventilation is increased, potentially resulting in ventilation induced flashover.

Understanding these two paths to flashover is essential, but still does not provide a complete picture of the flashover phenomena. The next post in this series will will use several case studies to examine the influence of air track on flashover in multiple compartments the threat that rapid fire progression presents to firefighters.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFIreE, CFO


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

National Institute of Standards and Technology. (2005). ISO-room/living room flashover [digital video disk]. Gaithersburg, MD: Author.

Thornton, W. (1917). The relation of oxygen to the heat of combustion of organic compounds. The Philosophical Magazine,33(6), 196-203.

Parker, W. (1977). An investigation of the Fire Environment in the ASTM E 84 Tunnel Test, NBS Technical Note945. Gaithersburg, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce/National Bureau of Standards.

International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI). (2009). Post flashover fires. On-Line Training Program, Downloaded August 6, 2009 from

Reading the Fire:
Building Factors Part 3

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

While I have not had much input (via Twitter or post comments), I have been working on the Building Factors map to include factors related to the surrounding environment and to revise fire protection systems, construction, fuel, size, and ventilation profile.

Surrounding Environment

Previous versions of the fire behavior indicators (FBI) concept map considered wind effects as a component of air track (which it influences significantly), but did not consider other environmental influences on fire behavior. After considerable thought, I recognized that building factors (and to some extent all of the FBI) can be viewed like Matryoshka Dolls (nested Russian dolls) when used to think about a single compartment, the building, or the building in its surrounding environment.

Environmental factors include exposures (which fire can extend from or to), ambient weather conditions, and terrain. Weather and terrain likely deserve a bit of explanation. While these factors are recognized as major players in wildland fire behavior, their influence is often not as quickly recognized in the built environment. Wind is likely the greatest meteorological concern when dealing with compartment fires. As discussed in prior posts (Wind Driven Fires, NIST Wind Driven Fire Experiments: Establishing a Baseline, Evaluating Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions), wind driven fires present a significant threat to firefighters. However, while buildings are generally designed to minimize the impact of temperature, humidity, and precipitation on their occupants, these factors can influence fire behavior directly or indirectly. For example, combustible exterior surfaces (e.g., wood shingle or shake roofs) present an increased hazard if humidity is low and ambient temperature is high. The influence of terrain may not be quite as obvious. In some cases, terrain may influence wind effects and in others slope may result in differences in elevation on each side of the building. When unrecognized, this has been a factor in a number of firefighter fatalities due to the resulting air track and path of fire spread from lower, to upper floors. For example see NIOSH (1999) Death in the Line of Duty Report F99-21 and Simulation of the Dynamics of the Fire at 3146 Cherry Road NE, Washington D.C. (NIST, 2000).

Fire Protection Systems

Fire suppression systems such as automatic sprinklers can obviously have a direct influence on fire development in a protected compartment. Similarly, fire detection may reduce the time between ignition and intervention by the fire department. However, prior versions of the FBI concept map did not include passive fire protection such as fire rated separations (other than generically as compartmentation).

Construction & Fuel

Prior versions of the FBI map linked Building to Contents and Construction. I have changed this to consider both contents and construction as fuel, while maintaining a link between building factors and construction as there are other facets of construction that can influence fire behavior. However, this area of the map remains a bit tentative (with more work to be done). Other changes to this part of the map include the addition of fire load density (kJ/m2) and increasing clarity of the concepts related to flow rate requirements for fire control.


The concept of size can be a bit confusing as it applies to individual compartments (habitable or void spaces), interconnected compartments, and the entire building. Refinements include the addition of void spaces and normal door position to the concept of compartmentation.

Ventilation Profile

Thermal performance of potential openings has been added to ventilation profile, recognizing that single pane windows perform considerably different than multi-pane, energy efficient windows under fire conditions. In addition, a note was added to clarify that ventilation may be from compartment to compartment or from the building to the external environment.

Figure 1. Building Factors Concept Map v5.2.2.1


You can also download a larger, printer friendly version of the Building Factors Concept Map v5.2.2.1 (including notes made during development). Several colleagues who have had a look at this map observed that it is extremely complicated. While this is true, if you take the time to examine each of the factors and give some thought to the interrelated influences on fire behavior, it becomes a bit clearer. Remember that this is my representation of the concepts, yours will likely be a bit different! As always, feedback is greatly appreciated.

Master Your Craft

Subsequent posts will examine the rest of the B-SAHF (Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, & Flame) organizing scheme for fire behavior indicators.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (1999) Death in the line of duty report F99-21. Retrieved July 2, 2009 from

National Insitute for Standards and Technology (NIST). Simulation of the Dynamics of the Fire at 3146 Cherry Road NE, Washington D.C. Retrieved July 2, 2009 from

Reading the Fire:
Building Factors

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

Fire Behavior Indicators – A Quick Review

The B-SAHF (Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, & Flame) organizing scheme for fire behavior indicators provides a sound method for assessment of current and potential fire behavior in compartment fires. The following provides a quick review of each of these indicator types.

Figure 1. B-SAHF


Building: Many aspects of the building (and its contents) are of interest to firefighters. Building construction influences both fire development and potential for collapse. The occupancy and related contents are likely to have a major impact on fire dynamics as well.

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.

Heat: This includes a number of indirect indicators. Heat cannot be observed directly, but you can feel changes in temperature and may observe the effects of heat on the building and its contents. Remember that you are insulated from the fire environment, pay attention to temperature changes, but recognize the time lag between increased temperature and when you notice the difference. Visual clues such as crazing of glass and visible pyrolysis from fuel that has not yet ignited are also useful heat related indicators.

Flame: While one of the most obvious indicators, flame is listed last to reinforce that the other fire behavior indicators can often tell you more about conditions than being drawn to the flames like a moth. However, that said, location and appearance of visible flames can provide useful information which needs to be integrated with the other fire behavior indicators to get a good picture of conditions.

It is important not to focus in on a single indicator, but to look at all of the indicators together. Some will be more important than others under given circumstances.

Getting Started

Considering the wide range of different building types and occupancies, developing a concept map of the factors and interrelationships that influence fire behavior is no simple task. As you begin this process, keep in mind that it is important to move from general concepts to more specific details. For example, you might select construction type, contents, size, ventilation profile, and fire protection systems as the fundamental factors as illustrated in Figure 2. (However, you also might choose to approach this differently!).

Figure 2. Basic Building Factors


Remember that this is simply a draft (as will each successive version of your map)! Don’t get hung up on getting it “right”. The key is to get started and give some thought to what might be important. After adding some detail, you may come back and reorganize the map, identifying another basic element. For example, early versions of this map listed Fire Suppression Systems (e.g., automatic sprinklers) as one of the core concepts. However, after adding some detail, this concept was broadened to Fire Protection Systems (e.g., automatic sprinklers, fire detection, and other types of inbuilt fire protection).

Developing the Detail

Expanding the map requires identification of additional detail for each of the fundamental concepts. If an idea appears to be obviously related to one of the concepts already on the map, go ahead and add it. If you are unsure of where it might go, but it seems important, list it off to the side in a staging area for possible additions. For example, area and height are important concepts related to size. However, compartmentation may be related to size or it may be a construction factor. If you are unsure of where this should appear on the map, place it in the Staging Area for now.

Figure 3. Expanding the Map


Next Steps

Remember that the process of contracting your own map is likely as important as the (never quite) finished product. The following steps may help you expand and refine the building factors segment of the map:

  • Look at each of the subcategories individually and brainstorm additional detail. This works best if you collaborate with others.
  • Take your partially completed map and notes and visit several different types of buildings. Visualize how a fire might develop and what building features would influence this process.
  • Examine the incident profiled in the Remember the Past segment of this post and give some thought to how building factors may have influenced fire behavior and the outcome of this incident.

In addition, I am still posing questions related to B-SAHF using Twitter. Have a look [] and join in by responding to the questions. While this is not a familiar tool to most firefighters, I think that it has great potential.

Master Your Craft


I would also like to thank Senior Instructor Jason Collits of the New South Wales (Australia) Fire Brigades and Lieutenant Matt Leech of Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue (also an Instructor Trainer with CFBT-US, LLC) for their collaborative efforts on extending and refining our collective understanding of the B-SAHF indicators. Jason and Matt have been using to develop and share their respective maps and I will be integrating their work into future posts on Fire Behavior Indicators.

Figure 4 Jason Collits and Matt Leech


Remember the Past

Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of a tragic fire in New York City that claimed the lives of three members of FDNY as a result of a backdraft in the basement of a hardware store.

June 17, 2001
Firefighter First Grade John J. Downing, Ladder 163
Firefighter First Grade Brian D. Fahey, Rescue 4
Firefighter First Grade Harry S. Ford,
Rescue 3
Fire Department City of New York

Fire companies were dispatched to a report of a fire in a hardware store. The first- arriving engine company, which had been flagged down by civilians in the area prior to the dispatch, reported a working fire with smoke venting from a second-story window.

A bystander brought the company officer from the first-arriving engine company to the rear of the building where smoke was observed venting from around a steel basement door. The first-arriving command officer was also shown the door and ordered an engine company to stretch a line to the rear of the building. A ladder company was ordered to the rear to assist in opening the door; Firefighter Downing was a member of this company. The first-due rescue company, including Firefighters Fahey and Ford, searched the first floor of the hardware store and assisted with forcible entry on the exterior.

The incident commander directed firefighters at the rear of the building to open the rear door and attack the basement fire. Firefighters on the first floor were directed to keep the interior basement stairwell door closed and prevent the fire from extending. The rear basement door was reinforced, and a hydraulic rescue tool was employed to open it. Once the first door was opened, a steel gate was found inside, further delaying fire attack.

Firefighters Downing and Ford were attempting to open basement windows on the side of the building, and Firefighter Fahey was inside of the structure on the first floor.

An explosion occurred and caused major structural damage to the hardware store. Three fire-fighters were trapped under debris from a wall that collapsed on the side of the hardware store; several firefighters were trapped on the second floor; firefighters who were on the roof prior to the explosion were blown upwards with several firefighters riding debris to the street below; and fire-fighters on the street were knocked over by the force of the explosion.

The explosion trapped and killed Firefighters Downing and Ford under the collapsed wall; their deaths were immediate. Firefighter Fahey was blown into the basement of the structure. He called for help on his radio, but firefighters were unable to reach him in time.

The cause of death for Firefighters Downing and Ford was internal trauma, and the cause of death for Firefighter Fahey was listed as asphyxiation. Firefighter Fahey’s carboxyhemoglobin level was found to be 63%.

In addition to the three fatalities, 99 firefighters were injured at this incident. The fire was caused when children – two boys, ages 13 and 15 – knocked over a gasoline can at the rear of the hard-ware store. The gasoline flowed under the rear doorway and was eventually ignited by the pilot flame on a hot water heater.

For additional information on this incident, see the following:

NIOSH Death in the Line of Duty Report F2001-23,

Simulation of the Dynamics of a Fire in the Basement of a Hardware Store

Incident Photos by Steve Spak

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


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

Hartin, E. (2007) Fire behavior indicators: Building expertise. Retrieved June 17, 2009 from

Hartin, E. (2007) Reading the fire: Building factors. Retrieved June 17, 2009 from

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2003) Death in the line of duty report F2001-23. Retrieved June 18, 2009 from

Bryner, N. & Kerber, S (2004) Simulation of the dynamics of a fire in the basement of a hardware store – New York, June 17, 2001 NISTR 7137. Retrieved June 18, 2009 from

United States Fire Administration (USFA) Firefighter fatalities in 2001. Retrieved June 18, 2009 from

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

Positive or Negative:
Perspectives on Tactical Ventilation

Monday, May 25th, 2009

This post reviews articles on positive pressure ventilation written by Watch Manager Gary West of the Lancashire (UK) Fire and Rescue Service and Battalion Chief Kriss Garcia of the Salt Lake City Fire Department. Gary, Kriss, and I were recently in Australia for a meeting of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) Compartment Firefighting Special Interest Group and to present at the 2009 International Firefighting Safety Conference hosted by IFE-Australia.

Gary and Kriss are both strong advocates of positive pressure ventilation (PPV) and its use to support fire attack (positive pressure attack (PPA)). In August 2008, Gary’s article Positive Thinking was published in Fire Risk Management Journal and October 2008, Kriss’s article The Power of Negative Thinking was published in FireRescue magazine. While the titles appear to be contradictory, both of my colleagues had a common theme; the importance of education and training to ensure safe and effective tactical ventilation on the fireground.

Common Elements

Gary and Kriss both emphasize the benefits of effective use of PPV while cautioning that education in practical fluid and fire dynamics and tactical ventilation concepts must be integrated with training in PPV/PPA tactics.

Positive Thinking

Gary provides an overview of the three phased approach to PPV training and implementation commonly used in the UK. This approach is designed around building understanding of key concepts and competence in tactical skills while minimizing risk.

Phase I-Post Fire Control PPV: In this phase, PPV is limited to clearing smoke after the fire has been controlled. In many respects this is the simplest and safest application of PPV.

Phase 2-Defensive PPV: In Phase 2, PPV is used during firefighting operations to clear smoke logged areas not involved in fire. This approach requires confinement of the fire using structural barriers (e.g., closing doors) and placement of hoselines. This tactical approach is less common in the United States, likely due to differences in construction. However, use of PPV to clear and then pressurize attached exposures can be an effective tactic in limiting smoke and fire spread.

Phase 3-Offensive PPV (PPA): In the third phase, PPV precedes fire attack and has a direct influence on fire behavior as well as clearing smoke from the entry path and uninvolved areas of the building.

Gary concludes with reinforcement of the importance of education and training prior to implementation and the criticality of ongoing training and development:

It must be understood that PPV is a tool that will save the lives of casualties, and also reduce the risk to firefighters, if used correctly. Initial training should cover all aspect of fan configurations, the different phases of PPV, and include an understanding of the way in which fire behaves generally [emphasis added], among other things.

However, it cannot be emphasized enough that, if used incorrectly, PPV is a potentially life-threatening and, as such, an ongoing training and development programme ought to be available to all users [emphasis added] (P. 49).

Critique of Positive Thinking

Gary provides a solid overview of the three phased approach to PPV training and implementation used in the UK and advocates for progression to Phase 3, positive pressure ventilation in support of fire attack. However, I take exception to two statements made in this article.

The first relates to the relationship between the size of inlet and exhaust opening. “It is widely understood that the size of the exhaust(s) must add up to less than the surface are of the inlet in order that positive pressure is achieved.” This is incorrect. As outlined in my previous post, Positive Pressure Ventilation: Inadequate Exhaust, the exhaust opening should be at least equal to the size of the inlet and preferably two to three times the area of the inlet opening.

The second statement relates to water application technique. “Students have a temptation to apply water using pulsing and gas-cooling techniques. However, it is not necessary in this mode of PPV [Phase 3]. While of less concern than inadequately sized exhaust openings, use of PPV does not necessarily negate the use of gas cooling. Depending on firefighters operating location and conditions encountered, cooling hot gases may still be necessary, particularly away from the path leading from inlet to outlet. Nozzle techniques and water application should be determined based on conditions, not the ventilation tactic being used. However, that said, Gary is correct that excess steam produced during attack in the fire compartment will be carried out the exhaust opening.

Negative Thinking

Kriss shares much of Gary’s perspective regarding the value of PPV and in particular its use to support fire attack (Phase 3/PPA).  However, the main focus of The Power of Negative Thinking is on the practical aspects of the fluid dynamics involved in PPV. Kris points out that the application of positive pressure at an inlet simply adds a slight amount of pressure to direct the flow of fire effluent from the inlet to the exhaust opening(s).

Kriss states that “When PPA goes wrong, it’s usually attributable to one or two conditions, or their combination. First, mistakes result from a lack of coordination and control on the fireground including a lack of department wide training and education in the use of PPA.

Second, problems may arise from insufficient or not forward exhaust. When products of combustion are emitted under pressure adhead of the attack crews, substantial exhaust is need (P. 39).

One of the most important points that Kriss raises in this article is the importance of reading conditions at the inlet opening (which he refers to as the “ventilation” opening). “If heavy smoke and/or fire is returning to the attack entrance [and] exhausting above the blower, do not enter (p. 39) [additional emphasis added].

This article also outlines initial considerations for using PPV in support of fire attack Phase 3/PPA). Of particular importance is training and educating members in theory, application, and precautions involved in the offensive use of PPV. In addition, departments training and implementing the use of this tactic must define when it will be used (e.g., fire conditions, building types).

Critique of Negative Thinking

This article raises important points in developing an understanding of why PPV works (e.g., pressure differences) and provides a straightforward explanation of its safe use in support of fire attack. However, Kriss indicates that the pressure generated by the blower is less than that created by the fire and expansion of steam due to fire control operations. This is inconsistent with the results of research conducted by NIST (Kerber & Madryzkowski, 2008; 2009). On a related note, Kriss’s assumptions regarding pressure generated by steam expansion are dependent on excessive or inappropriate water application during fire suppression operations (which is not necessarily a given).

Final Thoughts

In these two articles, Gary and Kriss raise a number of important points and focus attention on the importance of understanding not simply what and how, but why. Kriss’s emphasis on the importance of having a decision-making framework and assessing conditions to determine if PPV is working prior to entry is absolutely critical. Sometime in the next couple of months I will expand on the topic of command, control, and coordination of fire control and ventilation.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


West, G. (2008, August). Positive thinking. Fire Risk Management, 46-49.

Garcia, K. (2008, October) The power of negative thinking. Fire Rescue, 38-40. Retrieved May 24, 2009 from

Kerber, S. & Madrzykowski, D. (2008).Evaluating positive pressure ventilation In large structures: school pressure and fire experiments. Retrieved May 17, 2009 from

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

Positive Pressure Ventilation:
Did You Ever Wonder Why?

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Effective use of positive pressure ventilation aids in fire control and provides increased tenability throughout the fire building. However, inappropriate or ineffective use of this tactic has resulted in numerous near misses, injuries, and more than a few line of duty deaths. In many of these cases, positive pressure was applied with an inadequate exhaust opening.

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Did you ever wonder why the size and location of the exhaust opening is critical to safe and effective use of positive pressure ventilation? If not, maybe you should!

A Quick Review

As discussed in an earlier post (see Language and Understanding: Extreme Fire Behavior), common language and definitions are critical to developing a shared understanding. To that end, I want to start this examination of positive pressure ventilation (PPV) with a brief review of terminology used in this post.

Ventilation: The exchange of the atmosphere inside a compartment with the atmosphere outside the compartment. Ventilation is ongoing in all habitable spaces. Under fire conditions, this involves exit of smoke and intake of fresh air (if smoke is visible, ventilation is occurring).

Tactical Ventilation: Planned, systematic, and coordinated removal of heat, smoke, and fire gases (fire effluent) and their replacement with fresh air. There are three important parts of this definition, 1) tactical ventilation is part of the overall tactical plan and is coordinated with other fireground operations (particularly fire control), 2) hot fire effluent is removed, and 3) fresh (cooler) air is introduced into the compartment.

Note: I gave a bit of thought to use of the terms smoke and fire effluent in this discussion of ventilation. The International Standards Organization (ISO) definition of smoke focuses on the visible products of combustion while fire effluent includes all gaseous, aerosol, and particulates generated by combustion. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) definition of smoke is comparable to the ISO definition of fire effluent. Given that the traditional definition of (tactical) ventilation refers to “heat, smoke, and fire gases” (IFSTA, 2008, p. 541), I will use the term fire effluent as the broader, more encompassing term (inclusive of smoke and fire gases).

Natural Ventilation: Use of pressure and density differences generated by the higher temperature of gases inside the compartment than outside and ambient wind conditions to accomplish the exchange of hot fire effluent and air.

Assisted Ventilation: These tactics use mechanical or hydraulically generated pressure to influence and increase the exchange of fire effluent and air. Assisted ventilation includes the use of fog streams and fans to reduce pressure at the exhaust opening (negative pressure ventilation) and use of fans or blowers to increase pressure at the inlet opening (positive pressure ventilation).

Positive Pressure Ventilation (PPV): Use of a blower at the inlet opening to increase the pressure differential between the inlet and exhaust opening to control and increase the exchange of fire effluent and air.

Positive Pressure Attack (PPA): This term was coined by Garcia, Kauffmann, & Schelble (2006) to differentiate positive pressure ventilation initiated prior to fire attack from use of this tactic following fire control operations. From a physics perspective, PPV and PPA are the same, the term PPA simply designates the sequence in which the tactic is performed.

Exhaust Opening: The opening(s) used for removal of fire effluent. Note that this opening may be created by unplanned ventilation due to fire effects, civilians, or freelancing responders or it may be created as the result of tactical action. Remember that any location where flames and/or smoke is visible is an exhaust opening.

Inlet Opening: The opening(s) used to introduce fresh air into the compartment. As with exhaust openings, inlet openings may be unplanned or planned. Openings may serve simply as an inlet or may serve as both an inlet and outlet with fire effluent exiting at the top and air entering at the bottom (bi-directional air track).

Smoke Movement in Buildings

Fluids (like fire effluent) flow from areas of higher pressure to areas of lower pressure. In a compartment fire, energy released by combustion raises the temperature of the fire effluent and entrained air. As temperature increases, gases expand and become less dense (more buoyant). However, when gases are confined, increased temperature results in increased pressure. These differences in density and pressure result in movement of smoke out of the compartment and inward movement of air from outside the compartment. This exchange may be through normal building leakage, unplanned ventilation, or tactical ventilation.

The pressure generated by a fire inside a compartment is dependent on the heat release rate, ventilation (openings), and resulting temperature inside the compartment. However, NFPA 92A Standard for Smoke-Control Systems Utilizing Barriers and Pressure Differences (NFPA, 2006) specifies pressure differences in non-sprinklered buildings of between 12.5 Pascal (Pa) and 44.8 Pa to overcome the pressure resulting from hot gases at a temperature of 927o C (1700o F) next to the smoke barrier (these pressures include a 7.4 Pa safety factor). If the safety factor is removed, the pressure generated by a fire in a non-sprinklered occupancy would likely be between 5 Pa and 37.3 Pa. All very interesting, but what is a Pascal?

While firefighters in the United States are generally familiar with pounds per square inch (psi) as a unit of measure for pressure, the standard international unit for pressure is the Pascal (P). A Pascal is an extremely small unit (1 psi = 6895 Pa) roughly equivalent to the pressure exerted by a sheet of writing paper laying on a flat surface. As you can see, the pressure generated by the fire is quite small, but more than adequate to result in significant movement of fire effluent!

Two key points that influence movement of fire effluent and ventilation under fire conditions:

  • If the temperature of fire effluent is higher than that of the ambient air it will tend to rise.
  • Fire effluent flows from areas of higher pressure to areas of lower pressure.

PPV Basic Concepts

Many firefighters think that they understand positive pressure ventilation and how it should (and should not) be used on the fireground. Some do. However, there are a number of common misconceptions and a great deal of misunderstanding when it comes to effective application of this tactic.

A good starting point is to examine the fundamental purpose of the use of positive pressure in tactical ventilation and anti-ventilation. “The purpose of the positive pressure ventilation fan is to create pressures higher than that of the fire to manage where the smoke and hot gases flow” (Kerber & Madrzykowski, 2008). When used in tactical ventilation, positive pressure can be used to control air track and speed the removal of fire effluent from the compartment. In anti-ventilation (e.g., pressurization of a stairwell or attached exposure), positive pressure is used to confine the fire effluent.

The basic sequence of positive pressure tactical ventilation is as follows

  1. Size-up and dynamic risk assessment (ongoing)
  2. Determination that positive pressure is indicated (and not contraindicated)
  3. Identification of appropriate and adequate exhaust openings
  4. If necessary creating or enlarging exhaust openings
  5. Application of positive pressure at the inlet
  6. Verification that positive pressure ventilation is working

Positive pressure ventilation is an extremely powerful tool that can rapidly clear smoke logged areas of the building. However, if used without thinking and understanding the influence of ventilation on fire behavior, it can cause extreme fire behavior even more quickly. The following criteria should be met for safe and effective use of positive pressure ventilation:

  • Firefighters understand the use of PPV and are skilled in its use
  • The required tools are available
  • Location and extent of the fire is known Svensson, 2000). This is not an absolute requirement, but influences the most appropriate location for the exhaust opening)
  • A charged hoseline is in place for fire control (Svensson, 2000)
  • Backdraft conditions are not present (Svensson, 2000; Garcia, Kauffmann, & Schelble, 2006).
  • Victims or firefighters are not between the fire and the exhaust opening (Svensson, 2000)
  • Victims or firefighters are not in the exhaust opening (Garcia, Kauffmann, & Schelble, 2006)
  • Ventilation openings can be controlled and an adequate exhaust (preferably 2 to 3 times the size of the inlet) opening is provided (Svensson, 2000).
  • Positive control of the blower (the ability to start and stop positive pressure immediately)
  • Ventilation is coordinated with fire attack (Svensson, 2000; Garcia, Kauffmann, & Schelble, 2006). This requires communication with personnel at the outlet, inlet, interior working positions, and Command.

Common Problems

Kriss Garcia, co-author of Positive Pressure attack for ventilation & firefighting indicates that most situations where use of positive pressure ventilation resulted in occurrence of extreme fire behavior or some other adverse outcome generally involve one or more of the following (personal communication, May 2006):

  • Lack of an exhaust opening
  • Inadequate exhaust opening size
  • Lack of command, control, & coordination

More to Follow

My next post will get to into the nuts and bolts of exhaust opening size and why use of positive pressure with an inadequate exhaust opening can result in extreme fire behavior.


Garcia, K., Kauffmann, R. & Schelble, R. (2006). Positive pressure attack for ventilation & firefighting. Tulsa, OK: Penwell.

International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA). (2008). Essentials of firefighting (5th ed.). Stillwater, OK: Fire Protection Publications.

Kerber, S. & Madrzykowski, D. (2008).Evaluating positive pressure ventilation In large structures: school pressure and fire experiments. Retrieved May 17, 2009 from

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). (2006). NFPA 92A. Standard for smoke-control systems utilizing barriers and pressure differences. Quincy, MA: Author.

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.

15 Years Ago:
Backdraft at 62 Watts Street

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Fifteen years ago tomorrow, three members of the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) lost their lives while conducting search in a three story apartment building located at 62 Watts Street in Manhattan. Captain Drennan and Firefighters Young and Seidenburg were trapped in a stairwell by rapid fire progression that occurred as other companies forced entry into the fire apartment on the floor below.

The Case

This case study was developed using a paper written by Richard Bukowski (1996) of the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) Building and Fire Research Laboratory (BFRL). The FDNY requested the NIST assistance in modeling this incident to develop an understanding of the extreme fire behavior phenomena that took the lives of Captain Drennan and Firefighters Young and Seidenburg.

At 1936 hours on March 28, 1994, FDNY responded to a report of heavy smoke and sparks from a chimney of a three-story apartment building at 62 Watts Street (see Figure 1) in Manhattan. On arrival companies observesd smoke from the chimney, but no other evidence of fire. The first due engine and truck companies stretched a hoseline to the first floor unit and vertically ventilated over the stairwell.

Figure 1. 62 Watts Street-Side A


Working as the inside team of the second due truck company, Captain John Drennan (Ladder 5), Firefighter James Young, and Firefighter Christopher Seidenburg (both detailed from Engine 24 to Ladder 5) went to the second floor to begin primary search of the upper floors. At the doorway to the second floor apartment unit they were trapped by an explosion and rapid fire progression from the first floor apartment up the common stairwell. Both firefighters died within 24 hours as a result of thermal injuries. Captain Drennan survived for 40 days in the burn unit before succumbing to his injuries.

Building Information

The fire occurred in a 6.1 m (20′) x 14 m (46′), 3 ˝ story apartment building of ordinary (Type III) construction, containing four dwelling units (the basement apartment was half below grade). Each unit had a floor area of slightly less than  81.7 m2 (880 ft2). The basement unit had its own entrance and the units on Floors 1-3 were served by a common stairwell on Side D of the building (see Figure 1). Exposure B was an attached building identical to the fire structure. Exposure D was a similar structure. Neither exposure was involved.

Figure 2. Floor Plan-First Floor Apartment


Note: Adapted from Modeling a Backdraft Incident: The 62 Watts St. (NY) Fire.

The building was originally built in the late 1800s and had undergone numerous renovations. Recent renovations involved replacement of plaster and lath compartment linings with drywall over wood studs and lowering of the ceiling height from 2.8 m (9’3″) to 2.5 m (8’4″). All apartments had heavy wood plank flooring. During the latest renovation, windows and doors were replaced and extensive thermal insulation added to increase energy efficiency. The building was originally heated with the use of multiple fireplaces in each apartment. However, most of these had been sealed shut. However, the fireplace in the living room of the first floor apartment (unit of origin) was operable and had a 0.209 m2 (2.25 ft2) flue.

All apartments had similar floor plans (differences resulting from location of the stairwell). The floor plan of the first floor apartment (unit of origin) is illustrated in Figure 2. Each apartment consisted of a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. The first floor unit had an office constructed within the bedroom.

The structure had a flat roof with a scuttle and skylight over the stairwell.

The Fire

The occupant left the first floor apartment at 1825 hours, leaving a plastic trash bag on top of the gas fired kitchen range (see Figure 2). Investigators deduced that the bag was ignited by heat from the pilot light. Fire extended from the bag of trash to several bottles of high alcohol content liquor located on the counter adjacent to the stove. The fire progressed into the growth stage, involving other fuel packages within the apartment. The apartment was tightly sealed with the only sources of ventilation being the open fireplace flue and minimal normal building ventilation.

Weather Conditions

The weather was 10o C (50 o F) with no appreciable wind.

Conditions on Arrival

On arrival companies observed smoke from the chimney of the apartment building, but no other signs of fire from the exterior.

Firefighting Operations

The outside team from the first due truck went to the roof and opened the scuttle over the stairwell while the first arriving engine company stretched a hoseline to the interior and prepared to make entry into the first floor apartment along with the inside team from the ladder company. Ladder 5 was the second due truck. The inside team from Ladder 5, Captain Drennan, Firefighter Young, and Firefighter Seidenburg, went to the second floor to begin primary search.

When the first due engine and truck forced the door to the first floor apartment they observed a pulsing air track consisting of an inward rush of air followed by an outward flow of warm (not hot) smoke. This single pulsation was followed by a large volume of flame from the upper part of the door and extending up the stairwell.

Figure 3. 3D Cutaway View of 62 Watts Street


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

The crews working on Floor 1 were able to escape the rapid fire progression, but Ladder 5’s inside team was engulfed in flames which filled the stairwell. Flames extended from the doorway of the first floor apartment through the stairwell and vented out the scuttle opening and skylight. This flaming combustion continued in excess of 6 minutes 30 seconds. The intense fire in the stairwell severely damaged the stairs and melted the wired glass in the skylight.


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

  1. Other than smoke and sparks from the chimney, what B-SAHF indicators might have been present and visible from the exterior or at the doorway that may have provided an indication of conditions inside the apartment?
  2. What do you make of the observations of the company making entry to the first floor apartment for fire attack? Is this consistent with your understanding of backdraft indicators? Why or why not?
  3. What steps can you take when making entry if you suspect that the fire is ventilation controlled? How would this change if you suspected or saw indicators of potential backdraft conditions?
  4. Firefighters often identify vertical ventilation when given a scenario where backdraft indicators are present. If there is value (savable people or property) and the fire is on a lower floor (as it was in the Watts Street incident), what tactical options are available to mitigate the hazards of potential backdraft conditions?

Analysis and Computer Modeling

My next post will examine the results of this investigation and how the computer modeling performed by NIST contributes to our understanding of the events that took the lives of Captain Drennan and Firefighters Young and Seidenburg.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFIreE, CFO

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;;;