Posts Tagged ‘structural firefighting’

NIOSH F2009-11: The Minority Report

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

As a critical friend of the NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, I have provided testimony at public hearings and engaged in discussions with NIOSH staff regarding improvement of the quality of information provided in Death in the Line of Duty Reports, particularly in incidents involving extreme fire behavior. In addition, I have provided expert review on a number of Death in the Line of Duty Reports (including F2009-11). The discussion of fire dynamics, fire behavior indicators, and influence of ventilation and wind effects in Report F2009-11 is evidence that this feedback has been heard! I would like to thank Tim Merinar and the other NIOSH staff for their efforts in this area.

However, more work is needed. Just over a year ago, I read a news report about the deaths of Captain James Harlow and Firefighter Damion Hobbs of the Houston Fire Department during operations at a residential fire. I recalled Houston had seen a number of fatalities during structural firefighting over a reasonably short period of time. Curious, I reviewed reports on these incidents developed by NIOSH and the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office. Seeing some commonality in the circumstances surrounding these incidents, I called a colleague at NIOSH and recommended that the investigation of the incident in which Captain Harlow and Firefighter Hobbs lost their lives, include review of prior incidents (and near miss data if available) to identify underlying causal or contributing factors that may not be evident from examination of a single incident.

While we often want to know the cause of a tragic event, the reality is that it is often much more complicated that we would like. Investigative reports such as those prepared by NIOSH focus a bright light on the what and how, but often leave the question of why hidden in the shadows. Observations and questions in this post are not presented as an indictment of the Houston Fire Department, or to question the commitment and bravery of Captain Harlow and Firefighter Hobbs, but simply to encourage each and every one of us to look more deeply; more deeply at our profession, at our own organizations, and at ourselves.


Epidemiology is the study of factors affecting the health and illness of populations. Epidemiological research is the foundation of public health intervention and preventative medicine. This research is focused at identifying relationships between exposures and disease or death. Identification of causal relationships between exposures and outcomes is critical. However, correlation does not determine cause, and identification of causality is often complex and tentative.

For the fire service, epidemiological study has and continues to focus on heart disease, stress, and cancer (see USFA, NIOSH Launch Cancer Study). However, these same concepts can be applied to traumatic fatalities as well.

R-Fire 7811 Oak Vista, Houston TX

On April 12, 2009 Captain James Harlow and Firefighter Damion Hobbs lost their lives in a residential fire at 7811 Oak Vista in Houston, Texas. On April 9, 2010, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released Death in the Line of Duty Report F2009-11 summarizing their investigation of this incident. Overall, this report is well written and provides an excellent examination of the events involved in this incident. The Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office also conducted an investigation of this incident and released a report a short time prior to release of NIOSH Report F2009-11.

Contributing Factors

NIOSH identified eight items as key contributing factors in the deaths of Captain Harlow and Firefighter Hobbs:

  • An inadequate size-up prior to committing to tactical operations
  • Lack of understanding of fire behavior and fire dynamics
  • Fire in a void space burning in a ventilation controlled regime
  • High winds
  • Uncoordinated tactical operations, in particular fire control and tactical ventilation
  • Failure to protect the means of egress with a backup hose line
  • Inadequate fireground communications
  • Failure to react appropriately to deteriorating conditions.

What is missing from this list? Six of the seven items on this list relate to human action or inaction. The report points out the need for policy, procedures, and additional training to address the contributing factors. While this is undoubtedly necessary, does this provide the entire answer?

The Remaining Question

As with all NIOSH firefighter fatality investigations, the focus of this report is on the circumstances and events surrounding a single incident. In this report, there is a brief mention of investigation of the deaths of other firefighters from this department, but no analysis of commonality or underlying contributing factors is provided. This leaves the question, to what extent did organizational culture impact on the circumstances and events involved in this tragic incident?

In his keynote presentation at the 2010 Fire Department Instructor’s Conference, Lieutenant Frank Ricci of the New Haven (CT) Fire Department indicated that the culture of the fire service is wrongly blamed for many of it’s problems. Lieutenant Ricci indicated that a large percentage of firefighter injuries and deaths are not due to inherent risks, but to an “unwillingness to take personal responsibility for safety” (Thompson, 2010). I would ask, why are firefighters unwilling to take personal responsibility? What factors influence this pattern of behavior? I suspect that it is our unquestioned assumptions about the way that things are (part of our culture). In this sense, culture is not to blame, but is simply one of a number of contributing and causal factors in many firefighter fatalities.

Common Elements

A cursory examination of the facts presented in the reports of NIOSH investigation of traumatic fatalities in the Houston Fire Department since 2000 shows a distinct pattern. Each of the fatalities involved members of the first arriving company where a fast attack was initiated without adequate size up and in most (and likely all) cases failure to assess risk versus gain. A more detailed examination of these events would likely provide a more finely grained picture of organizational expectations that make extremely aggressive fire attack without adequate size-up and risk assessment the norm, rather than the exception.

Table 1. Traumatic Line-of-Duty-Deaths in Houston, Texas 2000-2009

Report Event Type Commonality
F2000-13 Collapse (2 LODD)
Commercial Fire-Collapse
Victims were part of first in company

Inadequate size-up

Failure to assess risk versus gain

F2001-33 Rapid Fire Progress (1 LODD)
High-Rise Apartment Fire-Wind Driven Fire
Victim was part of the first in company

Inadequate size-up (consideration of wind)

F2004-14 Rapid Fire Progress (1 LODD)
Commercial Fire-Disorientation Subsequent to Rapid Fire Progress
Victim was part of the first in company

Inadequate size-up

Failure to assess risk versus gain

F2005-09 Collapse & Rapid Fire Progress (1 LODD) Residential Fire (Vacant)-Rapid Collapse Subsequent to Fire Progress Victim was part of the first in company

Inadequate size-up

Failure to assess risk versus gain

F2009-11 Rapid Fire Progress (2 LODD) Residential Fire-Wind Driven Fire Victim was part of the first in company

Inadequate size-up

Failure to assess risk versus gain

A Comparison

On September 11, 1991, Continental Express Flight 2574 crashed in Eagle Lake Texas killing all 14 people aboard. As with all commercial aircraft accidents, this incident was investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.  The board identified the cause as failure of maintenance and inspection personnel to adhere to proper maintenance and quality assurance procedures. However, the board also identified failure of management to ensure compliance with approved procedures and failure of Federal Aviation Administration to detect and correct this problem as contributing factors. Board member John K. Lauber, filed a dissenting statement. “It is clear based on this record alone, that the series of failures which led directly to the accident were not the result of an aberration, but rather resulted from the normal accepted way of doing business at Continental Express” (NTSB, 1992, p. 53). Lauber advocated restating the probable cause of this accident as “the failure of Continental Express management to establish a corporate culture which encouraged and enforced adherence to approved maintenance and quality assurance procedures” (NTSB, 1992, p. 54).

It is essential to look at the five events identified in reports F2000-13, F2001-33, F2004-14, F2005-09, and F2009-11 (NIOSH, 2001, 2002, 2005a, 2005b, 2010) from a longitudinal perspective to identify in greater detail and understand the common elements and potential systemic cultural issues that influenced the actions of those involved. While the influence of organizational culture is more difficult to identify than failure to comply with good practice, failure to recognize a hazardous condition, or an error in decision-making, it has a far more pervasive influence on fire fighter safety than these specific, individual acts.

Based on limited research, it is apparent that the Houston Fire Department (like many others) places an extremely high value on rapid and aggressive offensive firefighting operations. While the outcome of this incident resulted from a wide range of interrelated contributing factors, organizational culture and lack of knowledge regarding fire behavior and the influence of tactical operations were likely the most significant.

Identification of organizational culture as a contributing factor in this incident is based on data included in the DRAFT report as well as review of NIOSH Reports F2000-13, F2001-33, F-2004-14, F2005-09, and F2009-11 (NIOSH, 2001, 2002, 2005a, 2005b, 2010) as well as review of the Houston Fire Department Strategic Plan FY2008-2012 (n.d., HFD) and Philosophy of Firefighting (2003, HFD).

A memorandum from the Office of the Fire Chief defining the Houston Fire Department’s philosophy of firefighting (HFD, 2003) after the McDonald’s (NIOSH, 2001) and Four Leaf Tower (NIOSH, 2002) fires reinforced the importance of risk assessment in selecting strategies and tactics. In this memo, the chief identified the importance of organizational culture, stating “we pride ourselves in being very aggressive interior fire fighters and look down on those that fight fire from the street” (p. 1). While this memorandum was written in 2003, lack of adequate size up and risk assessment was a contributing factor in three incidents resulting in four line-of-duty deaths involving Houston Fire Department members in subsequent six years.

The Houston Fire Department Strategic Plan for FY2008-2012 (n.d., HFD) identifies safety as a core organizational value, stating: “preservation of life remains the number one goal of the HFD beginning with the responder and extending to the public” (p. 5). This focus continues with enhancement of the health and safety of HFD members as the first goal within the strategic plan. However, while the strategic plan provides a detailed blueprint for action, no objective or action plan element addresses the predominant contributory factors that are common in the seven line-of-duty deaths of Houston Fire Department members resulting from traumatic cause between 1999 and 2009. For example, Objective 1.5 of the strategic plan focuses on National Fallen Fire fighter Initiative #1 which states “define and advocate the need for cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility (HFD, n.d., p. 8). However, the sub elements of this objective focus on near miss reporting, roadway emergency safety, and response to violent incidents.

In the incident that took the lives of Captain Harlow and Firefighter Hobbs, several elements point to the focus on speed and aggressive action. Despite his seniority and experience, the captain of the first arriving engine quickly initiated an interior attack without adequate size-up and risk assessment (or performed a size-up and failed to recognize critical fire behavior indicators). In addition, he left his portable radio on the apparatus, E-26s thermal imaging camera (TIC) was left outside the front door. Any one of these elements alone might indicate a simple error, but in combination along with the context provided by previous LODD incidents (NIOSH, 2001, 2002, 2005a, 2005b) this is likely evidence of the cultural value of speed and aggressive action over deliberate assessment of conditions and decision-making based on risk assessment.

While increased protection through the use of the reed hood has significant potential benefits (similar technology is used by the Swedish fire service), it is quite possible that this type of personal protective clothing (which is somewhat unique to the Houston Fire Department) is used to permit fire fighters to penetrate deeper into hostile environments, rather than simply to provide improved protection with the ordinary or hazardous range of conditions encountered during structural firefighting.


Based on these factors identified in NIOSH Report F2009-11 (2010) as well Reports F2000-13, F2001-33, F2004-14, F2005-09 (2001, 2002, 2005a, 2005b), I recommend that fire service organizations assess the impact of their organizational culture on fire fighter safety and operational performance.

Note that this recommendation is not simply focused on the Houston Fire Department. It is a global recommendation, that each of us examine the influence of culture within our respective organizations.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


Houston Fire Department. (2003) Philosophy of firefighting. Retrieved January 24, from

Houston Fire Department. (n.d.) Houston Fire Department Strategic Plan FY2008-2012. Retrieved January 24 from

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Aircraft accident report: Britt Airways, Inc. d/b/a/ Contenental Express Flight 2474 in flight structural breakup, EMB-120RT, N33701, Eagle Lake, Texas, September 11, 1991, NTSB/AAR-92/04. Washington, DC: Author.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2001). Death in the line of duty, Report F2000-13. Retrieved January 24, 2010 from

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2002). Death in the line of duty, Report F2001-33. Retrieved January 24, 2010 from

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2005a). Death in the line of duty, Report F2004-14. Retrieved January 24, 2010 from

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2005b). Death in the line of duty, Report F2005-09. Retrieved January 24, 2010 from

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2010). Death in the line of duty, Report F2009-11. Retrieved April 25, 2010 from

Thompson, J. (2010) FDIC keynote: Fire service culture not to blame for problems. Retrieved May 3, 2010 from

Reading the Fire 14

Monday, April 19th, 2010

It has been a number of months since the last Reading the Fire post. It is essential to continue the process of deliberate practice in order to continue to improve and refine skill in Reading the Fire.

As we start the New Year it is a good time to reaffirm our commitment to mastering our craft. Developing and maintaining proficiency in reading the Fire using the B-SAHF (Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame) organizing scheme for fire behavior indicators, requires practice. This post provides an opportunity to exercise your skills using a video segment shot during a residential fire.

Residential Fire

In mid-January 2010, the Gary, Indiana Fire Department was dispatched to a residential fire on Massachusetts Street at East 24th Avenue, on arrival Battalion 4 advised of a working fire in a 2 story dwelling. While the first arriving engine was laying a supply line from a nearby hydrant, the first in truck forced entry.

Download and the B-SAHF Worksheet.

Watch the first 35 seconds (0:35) of the video. This segment was shot from Side A.  First, describe what you observe in terms of the Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame Indicators; then answer the following five standard questions?

  1. What additional information would you like to have? How could you obtain it?
  2. What stage(s) of development is the fire likely to be in (incipient, growth, fully developed, or decay)?
  3. What burning regime is the fire in (fuel controlled or ventilation controlled)?
  4. What conditions would you expect to find inside this building? If presented with persons reported (as the first arriving companies were) how would you assess potential for victim survival?
  5. How would you expect the fire to develop over the next two to three minutes

Now watch the remainder of the video clip and answer the following questions:

  1. Did fire conditions progress as you anticipated?
  2. A voice heard in the video states that this was a backdraft. Do you agree? Why or why not?

It is likely that the first in truck company in this incident made entry to search for occupants and to locate the fire. Regardless of your perspective on search with or without a hoseline, this video clip provides lessons.

  • It is essential to read the fire, recognize the stage(s) of fire development and burning regime(s) in the involved compartments.
  • In addition to reading current conditions, anticipate likely fire development and potential for extreme fire behavior.
  • Making entry (and leaving the door fully open) creates a ventilation opening (inlet, exhaust, or both). Recognize the potential influence of changes to the ventilation profile on fire behavior.
  • To borrow a phrase from a number of National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Death in the Line of Duty reports; “Ventilation and fire attack must be closely coordinated”. One key element in this coordination is that charged lines must be in place before completion of ventilation openings. This is critical when dealing with a ventilation controlled fire.

Master Your Craft

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFIreE, CFO

Battle Drill Part 2

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

A Quick Review

As discussed in the last post in this series, military battle drills are an immediate response to enemy contact that requires fire and maneuver in order to succeed. Battle drills are initiated with minimal commands from the unit leader. Soldiers or marines execute preplanned, sequential actions in response to enemy contact.

This post discusses application of the battle drill concept in training firefighters to react appropriately on contact with our enemy (the fire) which requires fire (application of water) and maneuver (movement to a safer location) in order to succeed.

Remember: The key elements of a battle drill are fire and maneuver! This requires the ability to operate and maintain control of the hoseline while moving backward.

Working Without a Hoseline

In the United States, it is common for some companies working on the fireground to operate inside burning buildings without a hoseline (particularly when performing search). While common, this practice places firefighters at considerable risk when faced with extreme fire behavior. Without a hoseline your only defense against rapid fire progress is recognition of developing conditions and immediate reaction to escape to a safer location (see video below); which is not always possible. In some cases, firefighters fail to recognize developing conditions or the speed with which conditions will change. In other cases, firefighters are unable to escape or take refuge outside the flow path of hot gases and flames quickly enough.


If your department’s operational doctrine includes companies working on the interior without a hoseline (or without being directly supported by a hoseline), it is essential that firefighters are trained to 1) recognize early indicators of potential for extreme fire behavior and 2) maintain a high level of awareness regarding locations which may provide an area of refuge. When confronted by rapidly worsening conditions, action to escape must be immediate and without hesitation.

Extreme Fire Behavior Battle Drill

Regardless of their assignment (e.g., fire attack, primary search), firefighters with a hoseline have a solid means of maintaining orientation, a defined primary escape route, and the ability to actively control the fire environment through application of water. However, as always, safe and effective operation in the fire environment is dependent on a solid size-up, dynamic risk assessment, maintenance of a high level of situational awareness, and proactively controlling the fire environment. The best way to deal with extreme fire behavior is to avoid it or prevent it from occurring. For more information on reading the fire and key fire behavior indicators related to potential for extreme fire behavior, see:

In situations where you were unable to recognize potential for extreme fire behavior or you have been unable to control the fire environment, immediate action is required!

This is my nozzle, there are many like it but this one is mine. My nozzle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life. Without me it is useless, without my nozzle I am useless.

I will use my nozzle effectively and efficiently to put water where it is needed. I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, and its care. I will guard it against damage, keep it clean and ready. This I swear.

As stated in the first paragraph of this adaptation of the United States Marine Corps Riflemans’ Creed, Without my nozzle I am useless.

The extent of thermal insult experienced in an extreme fire behavior event is dependent on both radiant and convective heat flux. Total radiant heat flux is dependent on temperature (of gases and compartment linings) and flow of hot gases. The higher the temperature and faster the speed of gas flow, the higher the heat flux. These scientific concepts drive the key elements of the extreme fire behavior battle drill. Extinguish or block the flames, cool hot gases, and maneuver out of the flow path to a point of egress or area of safer refuge.

Drill 8-Extreme Fire Behavior Battle Drill: Key hose handling and nozzle techniques when faced with extreme fire behavior are the ability to apply long pulses of water fog or maintaining a continuous flow rate while maneuvering backwards. This requires a coordinated effort on the part of the nozzle operator, backup firefighter, and potentially other firefighters working on the hoseline or at the point of entry.

Hose Handling & Nozzle Technique Drill 8 Instructional Plan

While this drill focuses on single company operations, it is important to extend this training to include crews operating backup lines. The importance, function, and operation of the backup line will be the focus of the next post in this series.

Not all That is Learned is Taught

When training to operate in a hazardous environment, avoid the mindset that it’s only a drill. As often observed, you will play the way that you practice. Extreme stress can activate inappropriate routine responses. For example, a Swedish army officer suddenly stood up while his unit was under fire while engaged in peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia. When asked about this response, he explained that in training, he often stood up while leading exercises (Wallenius, Johansson, & Larsson, 2002).

“A simple set of skills , combined with an emphasis on actions requiring complex and gross motor muscle operations (as opposed to fine motor control), all extensively rehearsed, allows for extraordinary performance levels under stress” (Grossman, 2008, p. 38).

When developing skill in nozzle technique and hose handline, and in particular the critical skills required to effectively perform this extreme fire behavior battle drill, it is essential to maintain critical elements of context such as appropriate use of personal protective equipment, position, and technique.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


Grossman, D. (2008). On-combat: The psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and peace. Millstadt, IL: Warrior Science Publications.

Wallenius, C. Johansson, C. & Larsson, G. (2002). Reactions and performance of Swedish peacekeepers in life-threatening situations. International Peacekeeping, 9(1), 133-152.

Effective and Efficient Fire Streams

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

It is often stated and commonly believed that it takes gpm to overcome Btu. While I suspect that firefighters understand the underlying intent of this statement, it is actually incorrect as it is comparing apples and oranges. Flow rate is expressed in terms of volume and time (gal/m or l/m). However, Btu (or Joules) is a measure of quantity (more like volume than flow rate).

You can say that it takes gallons (or liters) to overcome Btu (or Joules), But the rate at which energy is absorbed by a fire stream must overcome heat release rate (energy released/unit of time). This concept points to the need for a higher flow rate when the heat release rate from a fire is larger. This leads to another common fire service saying: “Big Fire, Big Water”. While this is not completely incorrect, it is a bit misleading as it does not account for the efficiency of the fire stream in absorbing energy. Not all of the water that leaves the nozzle absorbs the same amount of energy.

Theoretical Cooling Capacity

Water is an excellent extinguishing agent because it has a high specific heat (energy required to raise its temperature) and high latent heat of vaporization (energy required to change it from water to steam). As illustrated in Figure 1, conversion of water to steam is most significant as it absorbs 7.5 times more energy than heating water from 20o C (68o F) to its boiling point.

Figure 1. Theoretical Cooling Capacity


However, this only tells us the theoretical cooling capacity of a single kilogram of water at 20o C (68o F) if it is raised to 100o C (212o F) and completely vaporized. Examining theoretical cooling capacity in terms of flow rate requires a bit more work.

Flow is defined in terms of gallons per minute (gal/m) or liters per minute (l/m) and theoretical cooling capacity of water was defined in terms of energy absorbed per second per unit mass (MJ/kg) we need to work through conversion to common units of measure.

While SI units are simpler to work with, I have worked cooling capacity out in both liters per minute (LPM) and gallons per minute (GPM). However, in that specific heat and latent heat of vaporization are applied to mass rather than volume and Watts are joules per second, it is first necessary to covert flow rate into kg/s

Figure 2. Flow Rate and Theoretical Cooling Capacity


This example assumes instantaneous heat transfer and 100% efficiency in conversion of water to the gas phase. Neither of which is possible in the real world!

Factors influencing effectiveness and efficiency of heat transfer (Svennson, 2002) include:

  • Diameter (in the gas layer and on surfaces)
  • Temperature (in the gas layer and on surfaces)
  • Velocity (in the gas layer)
  • Film formation (on surfaces)
  • Temperature of the gas layer
  • Surface temperature

Fire Stream Efficiency

The firefighter’s power is not simply related to flow rate, but flow rate effectively applied to transfer heat from hot gases and surfaces by changing its phase from liquid (water) to gas (steam). Extinguishing a compartment fire generally involves converting a sufficient flow (gal/m or l/m) of water to steam. So while the “steam” itself does not generally extinguish the fire, the energy absorbed in turning the water to steam has the greatest impact on fire extinguishment.

Experimental data (Hadjisophocleous & Richardson, 2005; Särdqvist, S., 1996) has shown that the cooling efficiency of water in both laboratory experiments and actual firefighting operations ranges from 0.2 to 0.6. Särdqvist (1996) suggests that an efficiency factor of 0.2 be used for interior fog nozzles. Based on my personal observations (but no experimental data), I think that Särdqvist’s efficiency factor of 0.2 might be just a bit on the low side. Barnett (as cited in Grimwood,2005) suggests that an efficiency factor of 0.5 be used for solid or straight stream application and 0.75 for fog application. The following table takes a slightly more conservative approach, using 0.6 as an average efficiency factor.

Figure 3. Flow Rate and Adjusted Cooling Capacity


Figure 3 is provided to illustrate the impact of efficiency (or lack thereof) on fire stream cooling capability. The key point is that actual cooling capability is considerably less than the theoretical cooling capacity. Another complication is that in addition to nozzle performance characteristics, nozzle efficiency is also dependent on the skill of the nozzle operator, the manner in which water is applied (straight stream, narrow fog pattern, wide fog pattern), the configuration of the space, and fire conditions. Unfortunately, there is no standardized test with specified conditions that permits comparison of different nozzles and/or methods.

However, the concept of efficiency gives rise to an interesting question. Does a nozzle flowing 100 gpm with an efficiency factor of 0.6 have the same extinguishing capability as 200 gpm nozzle with an efficiency factor of 0.3. This is simple math! The cooling capacity would be identical. While the practical application is more complex (as we do not really know the efficiency factors for the two nozzles and manner in which they are being used), this is worth thinking about.

Flow Rate or Heat Absorption Capacity

CFBT-US Senior Instructor Trainer Matt Leech (LT Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue) proposed (half in jest) that nozzles should be labeled with their potential cooling capacity rather than flow rate. While this idea did not get significant traction, it is important for firefighters to recognize that flow rate and fire stream characteristics have a significant impact on potential cooling capacity.

Fire Stream Effectiveness

Safe, effective and efficient fire control requires:

  • Water application to control the fire environment as well as direct attack on the fire
  • Appropriate flow rate for the tactical application (cooling hot, but unignited gases may be accomplished at a lower flow rate than direct attack on the fire)
  • Direct attack to exceed the critical flow rate based on the fire’s heat release rate
  • Sufficient reserve (flow rate) be available to control potential increases in heat release rate that may result from changes in ventilation
  • Water application in a form appropriate to cool its intended target (i.e., small droplets to cool hot gases or to cover hot surfaces with a thin film of water)
  • Water to reach its intended target (fog stream to place water into the hot gas layer and a straight or solid stream to pass through hot gases and flames and reach hot surfaces)
  • Control of the fire without excessive use of water

Accomplishing this requires different stream characteristics at different times. The characteristics that are optimal for gas cooling are likely quite different than for cooling hot surfaces, particularly when dealing with fully developed fire conditions in a large compartment.


As regular readers have likely noted my posting schedule has been a bit off of late. My responsibilities as the new Fire Chief with Central Whidbey Island Fire & Rescue preclude the necessary research and writing necessary to constantly post twice weekly. I will be scaling back to a single post on Thursday for the next few months while I get a handle on my new job and get my family moved to Whidbey Island.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFIreE, CFO


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

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

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

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

Nozzle Techniques & Hose Handling: Part 2

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Prior posts in this series, My Nozzle and Basic Nozzle Techniques & Hose Handling, examined the importance of proficiency in use of the firefighters’ primary weapon in offensive firefighting operations.

This is my nozzle, there are many like it but this one is mine. My nozzle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life. Without me it is useless, without my nozzle I am useless.

I will use my nozzle effectively and efficiently to put water where it is needed. I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, and its care. I will guard it against damage, keep it clean and ready. This I swear [adapted from the Riflemans Creed, United States Marine Corps].

It is critical that firefighters have both a sound understanding of nozzle performance and skill in the use of their primary weapon. In Figure 1, Assistant Superintendent Mohamed Roslan Bin Zakaria, Bomba dan Penylamat, Malaysia examines stream characteristics from an Akron Turbojet. Note the change in droplet size as the nozzle is closed (droplet size increases as pressure drops). In a short pulse opening and closing the nozzle quickly minimizes production of large droplets that are unlikely to vaporize in the hot gas layer. In long pulses, closing the nozzle slowly increases the percentage of large droplets, but this is a necessary tradeoff to prevent excessive water hammer.

Figure 1. Determining Stream Characteristics


Note: Photo by Shan Raffel, ASFM, CMIFireE, EngTech.

This post continues with a discussion of training methods that can be used to develop proficiency in nozzle techniques and hose handling while deploying hoselines and in compartments having varied configurations. Continuing with our military metaphor, we will be practicing fire and maneuver.

Instructional Concepts

As discussed in Basic Nozzle Techniques and Hose Handling this sequence of drills is designed using the Simplifying Conditions Method (Reigeluth, 1999). This approach moves from simple to complex, beginning with the simplest version of the task that represents the whole and moves to progressively more complex versions until the desired level of complexity is reached. In the case of nozzle technique and hose handling, this involves moving from basic, individual skills, to team skills, and on to integration of physical skills and decision-making.

While modeling a specific technique (such as the short pulse) can be helpful in aiding the learners in developing basic skill, there is a danger. Technique is often mimicked without thought to why it is performed in a particular manner under specific circumstances. Demonstration of a short pulse with a 40o fog pattern (which might be appropriate in a small room) becomes “that is how all short pulses must be performed”. As the learners complete Hose and Nozzle Technique Drills 2 and 3, it is critical to provide changing conditions and encourage the learners to adapt their technique based on conditions.

Drill 2-Hose Handling and Nozzle Operation: Firefighters often lose focus on nozzle technique and operation when they are moving. This drill provides an opportunity for the firefighter with the nozzle and backup firefighter to develop a coordinated approach to movement and operation.

Hose Handling & Nozzle Technique Drill 2 Instructional Plan

Drill 3-Nozzle Operation Inside Compartments: Deployment of hoselines inside a building requires a somewhat different set of skills than simply moving forward and backward. Movement of hoselines around corners and adjustment of nozzle pattern to cool gases in hallways and varied size compartments are important additions to the firefighters’ skill set and provide the next step in developing proficiency in nozzle use.

Hose Handling & Nozzle Technique Drill 3 Instructional Plan

Battle Drills

Analysis of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODD) during structural firefighting operations points to the need for highly disciplined, immediate, and appropriate response to rapidly deteriorating conditions. In terms of military small unit tactics, battle drills provide a standardized, collective action rapidly executed without application of a deliberate decision making process (US Army, 1992).

Adapted to firefighting operations, Battle Drills:

  • Require minimal leader orders to accomplish and are standard throughout the department
  • Are sequential actions vital to success in firefighting operations or critical to preserving life
  • Apply to individual companies or teams
  • Are trained responses to changing conditions or leader’s orders
  • Represent mental steps followed for actions followed in training and firefighting operations

As a starting point for discussing this concept, give some thought to what situations might require a pre-planned and trained set of actions during offensive firefighting operations. For example, this might apply to locating a victim while deploying a hoseline for fire attack, rapidly deteriorating conditions, breathing apparatus malfunction, etc. Also consider how hose handling and nozzle techniques might apply in each of these situations.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


Reigeluth, C. (1999). Elaboration theory: Guidance for scope and sequence decisions. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.) Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory volume II. Mawah, NH: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

United States (US) Army. (1992). FM 7-8 Infantry rifle platoon and squad. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army

Townhouse Fire: Washington, DC
Extreme Fire Behavior

Monday, September 21st, 2009

This post continues study of an incident in a townhouse style apartment building in Washington, DC with examination of the extreme fire behavior that took the lives of Firefighters Anthony Phillips and Louis Mathews.

A Quick Review

Prior posts in this series, Fire Behavior Case Study of a Townhouse Fire: Washington, DC and Townhouse Fire: Washington, DC-What Happened examined the building and initial tactical operations at this incident. The fire occurred in the basement of a two-story, middle of building, townhouse style apartment with a daylight basement. This configuration provided an at grade entrance to the Floor 1 on Side A and at grade entrance to the Basement on Side C.

Engine 26, the first arriving unit reported heavy smoke showing from Side A and observed a bi-directional air track at the open front door. First alarm companies operating on Side A deployed hoselines into the first floor to locate the fire. Engine 17, the second due engine, was stretching a hoseline to Side C, but had insufficient hose and needed to extend their line. Truck 4, the second due truck, operating from Side C opened a sliding glass door to the basement to conduct search and access the upper floors (prior to Engine 17’s line being in position). When the door on Side C was opened, Truck 4 observed a strong inward air track. As Engine 17 reached Side C (shortly after Rescue 1 and a member of Truck 4 entered the basement) and asked for their line to be charged, and Engine 17 advised Command that the fire was small.

Extreme Fire Behavior

Proceeding from their entry point on Side C towards the stairway to Floor 1 on Side A, Rescue 1B and the firefighter from Truck 4 observed fire burning in the middle of the basement room. Nearing the stairs, temperature increased significantly and they observed fire gases in the upper layer igniting. Rescue 1B and the firefighter from Truck 4 escaped through the basement doorway on Side C as the basement rapidly transitioned to a fully developed fire.

Figure 1. Timeline Leading Up to the Extreme Fire Behavior Event


The timeline illustrated in Figure 1 is abbreviated and focuses on a limited number of factors. A detailed timeline, inclusive of tactical operations, fire behavior indicators, and fire behavior is provided in a subsequent section of the case.

After Engine 17’s line was charged, the Engine 17 officer asked Command for permission to initiate fire attack from Side C. Command denied this request due to lack of contact with Engines 26 and 10 and concern regarding opposing hoselines. Due to their path of travel around Side B of the building, Engine 17 had not had a clear view of Side A and thought that they were at a doorway leading to Floor 1 (rather than the Basement). At this point, neither the companies on Side C nor Command recognized that the building had three levels on Side C and two levels on Side A.

At this point crews from Engine 26 and 10 are operating on Floor 1 and conditions begin to deteriorate. Firefighter Morgan (Engine 26) observed flames at the basement door in the living room (see Figure 8 which illustrates fire conditions in the basement as seen from Side C). Firefighter Phillips (Engine 10) knocked down visible flames at the doorway, but conditions continued to deteriorate. Temperature increased rapidly while visibility dropped to zero.

As conditions deteriorated, Engine 26’s officer feels his face burning and quickly exits (without notifying his crew). In his rapid exit through the hallway on Floor 1, he knocked the officer from Engine 10 over. Confused about what was happening Engine 10’s officer exited the building as well (also without notifying his crew). Engine 26’s officer reports to Command that Firefighter Mathews was missing, but did not report that Firefighter Morgan was also missing. Appearing dazed, Engine 10’s officer did not report that Firefighter Phillips was missing.

Figure 2. Conditions on Side C at Aproximately 00:28


Note: From Report from the Reconstruction Committee: Fire at 3146 Cherry Road NE, Washington DC, May 30, 1999, p. 32. District of Columbia Fire & EMS, 2000.

Figure 3. Conditions on Side A at Aproximately 00:28


Note: From Report from the Reconstruction Committee: Fire at 3146 Cherry Road NE, Washington DC, May 30, 1999, p. 29. District of Columbia Fire & EMS, 2000.

Firefighter Rescue Operations

After the exit of the officers from Engine 26 and Engine 10, the three firefighters (Mathews, Phillips, and Morgan) remained on Floor 1. However, neither Command (Battalion 1) nor a majority of the other personnel operating at the incident recognized that the firefighters from Engines 26 and 10 had been trapped by the rapid extension of fire from the Basement to Floor 1 (see Figure 4).

While at their apparatus getting a ladder to access the roof from Side B, Truck 4B observed the rapid fire development in the basement and pulled a 350′ 1-1/2″ (107 m 38 mm) line from Engine 12 to Side C, backing up Engine 17.

Figure 4. Location of Firefighters on Floor 1


Note: Adapted from Report from the Reconstruction Committee: Fire at 3146 Cherry Road NE, Washington DC, May 30, 1999, p. 18 & 20. District of Columbia Fire & EMS, 2000 and Simulation of the Dynamics of the Fire at 3146 Cherry Road NE, Washington D.C., May 30, 1999, p. 12-13, by Daniel Madrzykowski & Robert Vettori, 2000. Gaithersburg, MD: National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Engine 17 again contacted Command (Battalion 1) and requested permission to initiate an exterior attack from Side C. However, the officer of Engine 17 mistakenly advised Command that there was no basement entrance and that his crew was in position to attack the fire on Floor 1. Unable to contact Engines 10 and 26, Command denied this request due to concern for opposing hoselines. With conditions worsening, Command (Battalion 1) requested a Task Force Alarm at 00:29, adding another two engine companies, truck company, and battalion chief to the incident.

Firefighter Phillips (E-10) attempted to retreat from his untenable position at the open basement door. He was only able to travel a short distance before he collapsed. Firefighter Morgan (E-26) heard a loud scream to his left and then a thud as if someone had fallen to the floor (possibly Firefighter Mathews (E-26)). Firefighter Morgan found the attack line and opened the nozzle on a straight stream, penciling the ceiling twice before following the hoseline out of the building (to Side A). Firefighter Morgan exited the building at approximately 00:30.

Rescue 1B entered the structure on Floor 1, Side A to perform a primary search. They crawled down the hallway on Floor 1 towards Side C until they reached the living room and attempted to close the open basement door but were unable to do so. Rescue 1 B did not see or hear Firefighters Mathews (E-26) and Phillips (E-10) while working on Floor 1. Rescue 1B noted that the floor in the living room was spongy. The Rescue 1 Officer ordered his B Team to exit, but instead they returned to the front door and then attempted to search Floor 2, but were unable to because of extremely high temperature.

Unaware that Firefighter Phillips (E-10) was missing, Command tasked Engine 10  and Rescue 1A, with conducting a search for Firefighter Mathews (E-26). The Engine 10 officer entered Floor 1 to conduct the search (alone) while instructing another of his firefighters to remain at the door. Rescue 1A followed Engine 26’s 1-1/2″ (38 mm) hoseline to Floor 1 Slide C. Rescue 1B relocated to Side B to search the basement for the missing firefighter.

The Engine 26 Officer again advised Command (Battalion 1) that Firefighter Mathews was missing. Engine 17 made a final request to attack the fire from Side C. Given that a firefighter was missing and believing that the fire had extended to Floor 1, Command instructed Engine 17 to attack the fire with a straight stream (to avoid pushing the fire onto crews working on Floor 1). At approximately 00:33, Battalion 2 reported (from Side C) that the fire was darkening down. Engine 14 arrived and staged on Bladensburg Road.

Command ordered a second alarm assignment at 00:34 hours. At 00:36, Command ordered Battalion 2 (on Side C) to have Engine 17 and Truck 4 search for Firefighter Mathews in the Basement. Engine 10’s officer heard a shrill sound from a personal alert safety system (PASS) and quickly located Firefighter Phillips (E-10). Firefighter Phillips was unconscious, lying on the floor (see Figure 4) with his facepiece and hood removed. Unable to remove Firefighter Phillips by himself, the officer from Engine 10 unsuccessfully attempted to contact Command (Battalion 1) and then returned to Side A to request assistance.

Command received a priority traffic message at 00:37, possibly attempting to report the location of a missing firefighter. However, the message was unreadable.

The Hazmat Unit and Engine 6 arrived and staged on Bladensburg Road and a short time later were tasked by Command to assist with rescue of the downed firefighter on Floor 1. Firefighter Phillips (E-10) was removed from the building by the Engine 10 officer, Rescue 1A, Engine 6, and the Hazardous Materials Unit at 00:45. After Firefighter Phillips was removed to Side A, Command discovered that Firefighter Mathews (E-26) was still missing and ordered the incident safety officer to conduct an accountability check. Safety attempted to conduct a personnel accountability report (PAR) by radio, but none of the companies acknowledged his transmission.

The Deputy Chief of the Firefighting Division arrived at 00:43 and assumed Command, establishing a fixed command post at the Engine 26 apparatus. Battalion 4 arrived a short time later and was assigned to assist with rescue operations along with Engines 4 and 14.

Firefighter Mathews was located simultaneously by several firefighters. He was unconscious leaning over a couch on Side C of the living room (see Figure 4). Firefighter Mathews breathing apparatus was operational, but he had not activated his (non-integrated) personal alert safety system (PASS). Firefighter Mathews was removed from the building by Engine 4, Engine 14, and Hazardous Materials Unit at 00:49.

Command (Deputy Chief) ordered Battalions 2 and 4 to conduct a face-to-face personnel accountability report on Sides A and C at 00:53.


  1. Based on the information provided in the case to this point, answer the following questions:
  2. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Death in the Line of Duty Reports examining incidents involving extreme fire behavior often recommend close coordination of fire attack and ventilation.
  3. Did the fire behavior in this incident match the prediction you made after reading the previous post (Towhouse Fire: Washington DC-What Happened)?
  4. What type of extreme fire behavior occurred? Justify your answer?
  5. What event or action initiated the extreme fire behavior? Why do you believe that this is the case?
  6. How did building design and construction impact on fire behavior and tactical operations during this incident?
  7. How might a building pre-plan and/or 360o reconnaissance have impacted the outcome of this incident? Note that 360o reconnaissance does not necessarily mean one individual walking completely around the building, but requires communication and knowledge of conditions on all sides of the structure (e.g., two stories on Side A and three stories on Side C).
  8. How might the outcome of this incident have changed if Engine 17 had been in position and attacked the fire in the basement prior to Engines 26 and 10 committing to Floor 1?
  9. What strategies and tactics might have been used to mitigate the risk of extreme fire behavior during this incident?

More to Follow

This incident was one of the first instances where the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Fire Dynamics Simulator (FDS) was used in forensic fire scene reconstruction (Madrzykowski & Vettori, 2000). Modeling of the fire behavior in this incident helps illustrate what was likely to have happened in this incident. The next post in this series will examine and expand on the information provided by modeling of this incident.

Master Your Craft

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


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

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

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

Reading the Fire 9

Monday, August 24th, 2009

As discussed in prior Reading the Fire posts and the ongoing series examining fire behavior indicators (FBI) using the B-SAHF (Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame) organizing scheme, developing proficiency requires practice. This post provides an opportunity to exercise your skills using three video segments shot during a commercial fire. In addition to practicing your skill in reading the fire, use these video clips to help develop or refine your smoke indicators concept map (see Reading the Fire: Smoke Indicators).

Commercial Fire

The Lake Station (IN) Fire Department was dispatched to a reported structure fire in the vicinity of the American Legion Hall on Central Avenue. Responding companies found a commercial building with fire and smoke showing at the intersection of Central Avenue and Howard Street.

Download and the B-SAHF Worksheet.

While the video clip of this incident does not allow you to walk around the building and observe fire conditions, Google maps street view allows you to view all sides of the building. If you haven’t used street view, have a look at the following Google Street View Tutorial.

Perform a “walkaround” by clicking on the following link to view the building involved at this incident: 1691 Central Ave, Lake Station, IN. Note: Radio communication in the video clip identifies the Incident Commander as “Howard Command”. However, for this activity, I have identified Central Avenue as the A Side of the involved building. Click on the arrows to move east on Central Avenue and move and adjust the compass rose to look at Side D. Move back along Central Avenue and then go down Howard Street, again adjusting the compass rose to look at Sides B and C. After your “walk around”, complete the Building Factors segment of the B-SAHF Worksheet.

The video clip of this incident begins with the view of Side B from the A/B Corner prior to the arrival of the first engine company. Watch the first 60 seconds of Video Segment 1. Consider the information provided in this segment of the video clip. First, describe what you observe in terms of the Building (add to what you have done so far), Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame Indicators and then answer the following five standard questions:

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

Watch the next three minutes of the video and identify if, and how conditions change from the beginning of the clip until the first line is placed in operation (at approximately 04:00).

Watch the next 2 minutes 30 seconds until the firefighters make entry through the door on Side A (at approximately 06:30).

  1. What conditions would you expect to find inside this part of the building?
  2. How would you expect the fire to develop over the next two to three minutes?

Watch the remainder of the video clip.

Important: While not related to Reading the Fire, you likely heard the Personal Alert Safety System (PASS) device sounding through much of the incident. While PASS devices can (and often are) accidentally activated, continuous sounding of a PASS indicates a firefighter in distress. While this was not the case in this incident, failure to silence PASS devices that are accidentally activated desensitizes firefighters to this important audible signal.

Remember the Past

August 1994 saw the loss of two company officers and a firefighter in three separate incidents involving extreme fire behavior. Rapidly changing fire conditions are a threat to firefighters working in career staffed, urban fire departments and volunteer departments serving small communities.

August 7, 1994
Captain Wayne Smith
Fire Department of the City of New York, New York

On August 7, Captain Wayne Smith of the New York City Fire Department was critically injured while conducting search and rescue operations on an upper floor of a building when he was trapped by high heat and heavy smoke conditions. Captain Smith was burned over 40 percent of his body and received severe smoke inhalation injuries to his lungs. He died on October 4 from his injuries. Fourteen other firefighters were injured in the blaze. Initial operations were hampered by a faulty fire hydrant across the street from the building.

August 8, 1994
Sergeant Craig Drury
Highview Fire District, Kentucky

On August 8, Sergeant Craig Drury of the Highview (KY) Fire District was caught in a flashover while making entry into a single story house. Sgt. Drury suffered severe burns to his lungs that eventually caused his death. The fire was started by an arsonist.

August 27, 1994
Firefighter Paul MacMurray
Hudson Falls Volunteer Fire Department, New York

On August 27, Firefighter Paul MacMurray of the Hudson Falls (NY) Volunteer Fire Department responded as part of an engine company to a fire on the first floor of in a three story hotel. Assigned to search for and rescue occupants on the second floor, MacMurray and another firefighter successfully evacuated several victims while attempts to extinguish the fire were initiated below them. Upon their return to continue the search, conditions quickly changed from a light haze of smoke to black smoke with high heat conditions. MacMurray and his partner became separated in their attempt to locate the stairwell and get out of the building. The other firefighter made several efforts to locate MacMurray, but was forced to retreat due to untenable conditions. Several rescue efforts were made but heavy fire conditions eventually forced the evacuation of all fire personnel to defensive positions as the entire structure burned. MacMurray’s body was recovered the following day. The fire was of incendiary origin.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFIreE, CFO

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 ½ 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

Wind Driven Fires: Tactical Problem

Monday, March 16th, 2009

My last post examined National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) tests of wind control devices to mitigate hazards presented during wind driven compartment fires (Fire Fighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions). Heat release rate (HRR)  data from Experiment 1 (baseline test with no wind) and Experiment 3 (wind driven) illustrates the dramatic influence of increasing ventilation to a ventilation controlled fire and even more dramatic impact when increased ventilation is coupled with wind (see Figure 1). This post posed several questions related to the HRR data from these experiments.

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

hrr_experiment3Note: Adapted from Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions.


Examine the HRR curves in Figure 1 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?

Answers: Application of the wind control device rapidly decreased heat release rate from approximately 19 MW to 5 MW. With the window covered, the fire lacked sufficient oxygen to maintain the higher rate of HRR. As oxygen was quickly consumed (and oxygen concentration was decreased) by the large volume of flaming combustion in the compartments, heat release rate was rapidly reduced.

As with the change in HRR when the window was vented, removal of the wind control device resulted in an extremely rapid increase in HRR as additional oxygen was provided to the ventilation controlled fire inside the structure. In this case, the increase was even more significant with the peak HRR reaching approximately 32 MW. Examination of the oxygen concentration curve provides a hint of why this might have been the case (see Figure 2). The oxygen concentration was higher before the window was vented than when the wind control device was removed. The more rapid and greater rise in HRR is likely a result of the extent to which the fire was ventilation controlled and the available concentration of gas phase fuel. After the wind control device was removed, note that the oxygen concentration increased sharply (which relates to the rapid increase in HRR), followed by a rapid decrease as ventilation was inadequate to maintain that rate of combustion.

Figure 2. Oxygen Concentration in the Bedroom


Note: Adapted from Firefighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions.

Practical Application

The results of the NIST research are extremely interesting to students of fire behavior. However, it is essential that we be able to transform this information into knowledge that has practical application. This gives rise to three fundamental questions:

  • How do changes in ventilation influence fire behavior? Note that this is always a concern, not just under wind conditions!
  • What impact will wind have if the ventilation profile changes?
  • What tactical options will be effective in mitigating hazards presented by extreme fire behavior under wind driven conditions?

It is important to consider air track and the flow path from inlet to exhaust opening and the potential consequences of introducing air under pressure without (or with an inadequate) exhaust opening. Both can have severe consequences!

Tactical Problem

One good way to wrestle with the influence of wind on compartment fire behavior is to put it into a realistic context. In the following tactical problem you will be presented with an incident scenario and a series of questions. Apply what you have learned and consider how you would approach this incident.

Resources: You have what you have! Use your normal apparatus assignment and staffing levels when working through this tactical problem.

Weather Information: Conditions are clear with a temperature of 20o C (68o F) and a 24 kph (15 mph) wind out of the Northwest.

Dispatch Information: You have been dispatched to a residential fire at 0700 on a Sunday morning. The caller reported seeing smoke from a house at 1237 Lakeview Drive. After companies go enroute, the dispatcher provides an update that she is receiving multiple calls for a fire at this location.

Conditions on Arrival: Approaching the incident location you observe a moderate volume of medium gray smoke from a wood frame, single family dwelling (most structures in this area are of lightweight construction). Smoke is blowing towards the A/D corner of the structure. As illustrated in Figure 3, smoke is visible from the front entry (window and door) of the house and it appears that smoke is showing from Side C as well. On closer examination, you observe that the upper level of the windows on Side A are stained with condensed pyrolysis products, but are intact.

Figure 3. View from Side A


360o Reconnaissance: Moving down Side B, you observe a substantial body of fire in the center of the house. Smoke is pushing from around several sliding glass doors on Side B (see Figure 4) and flames are visible in the upper layer. The glass in the sliding doors is blackened and cracked, but is still intact. Smoke is also visible from around a large window on Side B Floor 2. Smoke discharge on Side B is swirling and being pushed up over the roof by the wind.

Figure 4. View from the BC Corner


Proceeding around the structure to Sides C and D, you observe a small amount of smoke pushing out from around the windows on Side D.

Questions: The first set of questions deals with size-up and development of an initial plan of action.

  • What B-SAHF indicators do you observe in Figures 2 and 3?
  • What stage(s) of fire development is (are) likely to exist in the structure?
  • What burning regime is the fire in?
  • How is the fire likely to develop in the time that it will take to develop and implement your incident action plan?
  • Would you have given orders to your crew (or would they have taken pre-planned standard actions) based on your observation of conditions on Side A (Figure 1)? If so what would have been done? Why?
  • Would your action plan have changed based on your observations from the B/C corner? What would you do differently? Why?
  • What is your action plan at this point? Do you have sufficient resources? What orders would you give the first alarm companies? What actions would you have your crew take? Why?

Your action plan is dependent on size-up and assessment of incident conditions.  Variation in conditions may result in a change in the priority or sequence of tactical action. Would your action plan have been different if the dispatcher had indicated that the caller was trapped in the house? If it would have, what would you have done differently? Why?

Things to Think About

This tactical problem presents a number of challenges. Click on the link to examine the Floor Plan and then consider the following questions:

  • What conditions would firefighters have encountered if they made entry through the door on Side A (front door)? Why?
  • How would these conditions have changed if glass in one or more of the sliding doors on Side B had failed after firefighters had made entry? Why?
  • What conditions would have resulted if the glass in one or more of the sliding doors on Side B had failed and the door on Side A was not open? Why?
  • What options for fire attack and tactical ventilation would have been effective in this situation? Would your choice fire attack and tactical ventilation location, sequence, and coordination have varied based on the report of occupants? Why?
  • How did your knowledge of the results of the NIST tests on wind driven fires impact your understanding of this incident? How did this understanding influence your tactical decision-making?

It is important to practice strategic and tactical decision-making. However, it is also important to think about how and why we make these decisions. This meta-learning (learning about our learning) has a significant impact on our professional development and ability to learn our craft.

Remember the Past

As discussed in previous posts, it is important to honor the sacrifices of firefighters who have died in the line of duty and not lose lessons learned as time passes. The following narratives were taken from the United States Fire Administration (USFA) reports on Firefighter Line of Duty Deaths (1994 and 2004).

March 29, 1994
Captain John Drennan, 49, Career
Firefighter James Young, 31, Career
Firefighter Christopher Seidenburg, 25, Career
Fire Department of the City of New York, New York

On March 29, three firefighters trapped in the stairwell of a brownstone were burned when they were enveloped in fire while attempting to force their way through a heavy steel door to a second floor apartment. Captain John Drennan, Firefighter James Young, and Firefighter Christopher Seidenburg of the New York City Fire Department were conducting a search when the hot air and toxic gases that collected in the stairwell erupted into flames as other fire crews forced entry into the first floor apartment where the fire had originated. The fire exhibited characteristics of both a backdraft and a flashover. Firefighter Young, in the bottom position on the stairs, was burned and died at the scene. Firefighter Seidenberg and Captain Drennan were rescued by other firefighters. They were transported to a burn unit with third and fourth degree burns over 50 of their bodies. Seidenburg died the next day. Drennan passed away several weeks later. The fire cause was determined to be a plastic bag left by the residents on top of the stove of the floor apartment.

For additional information on this incident see:

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

March 21, 2003 – 0850
Firefighter Oscar “Ozzie” Armstrong, III, Age 25, Career
Cincinnati Fire Department, Ohio

Firefighter Armstrong and the members of his fire company responded to the report of a fire in a two-story residence. The first fire department unit on the scene, a command officer, reported a working fire.

Firefighter Armstrong assisted with the deployment of a 350-foot, 1-3/4-inch handline to the front door of the residence. Once the door was forced open, firefighters advanced to the interior. The handline was dry as firefighters advanced; the hose had become tangled in a bush.

As the line was straightened and water began to flow to the nozzle, a flashover occurred. The firefighters on the handline left the building and were assisted by other firefighters on the front porch of the residence. All firefighters were ordered from the building, air horns were sounded to signal a move from offensive to defensive operations.

Several firefighters saw Firefighter Armstrong trapped in the interior by rapid fire progress. These firefighters advanced handlines to the interior and removed Firefighter Armstrong. A rapid intervention team assisted with the rescue.

Firefighter Armstrong was severely burned. He was transported by fire department ambulance to the hos­pital where he later died.

The origin of the fire was determined to be a pan of oil on the stove.

For additional information on this incident see:

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2005). Death in the line of duty report F2003-12. Retrieved March 14, 2009 from

Laidlaw Investigation Committee. (2004)Line of duty death enhanced report Oscar Armstrong III March 21, 2004. Retrieved March 14, 2009  from

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;;;

United States Fire Administration (USFA). (1995) Analysis report on firefighter fatalities in the United States in 1994. Retrieved March 14, 2009 from

United States Fire Administration (USFA). (2005). Frefighter fatalities in the United States in 2004. Retrieved March 14, 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