Interior Firefighting is Becoming Obsolete—We Just Don’t Know It

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

This post originally appeared here in December 2015, and with the recent story by NBC News about cancer being the #1 cause of firefighter deaths, I believe this post has only grown in relevance to the discussion.

I’m sure many of you have heard the story about how you can’t boil a frog by throwing it into a pot of boiling water boiling frog(It will just right back out), but you can by putting the frog into a pot of room temperature water and then slowly turning up the heat. The frog doesn’t perceive the danger until it is too late.

The American fire service is currently sitting in the pot of water and the water continues to get hotter. The “pot” is interior structural firefighting in residential dwellings and the “heat” is coming from multiple sources that include, but are not limited to:

  • Building designers, architects, and builders who have revolutionized the construction industry with lightweight construction materials and construction designs that have reduced the mass of lumber used in construction. This new construction does its primary job—resisting gravity—very well, but burns hotter and faster and is subject to degradation of its “gravity resistance” faster than housing built with full-dimension lumber before 1970.
  • That same group has created floor plans with larger rooms with larger open spaces that facilitate the transfer of heat, smoke and toxic gases more quickly through the structure.
  • The designers and manufacturers of interior furnishings, e.g., cabinets, furniture, floor and wall coverings, etc., have replace wood and other natural fibers with synthetic materials and polymers many of which are petroleum-based. This increased the fuel load in the typical residential structure substantially as well as increasing the number of known and unknown chemical compounds that are released into the structure during combustion.

So, we have structures being built that cannot stand up to fires like those of the past; interior floor designs that promote rapid fire growth and movement of the fire and products of combustion throughout the structure; fuel loads that burn 3-5 times hotter than those found in legacy housing; and those same fuel loads creating a “toxic soup” of hazardous materials during combustion.

Then those same building professionals, through their professional associations and lobbyists, pay lawmakers at the state and federal levels to pass legislation prohibiting local governments from adopting residential fire sprinkler systems, the one tool in modern fire protection that should be used to our advantage.

See Related: Why Do Home Builders Oppose Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems?

FD Budget cutsBut before the building industry takes the whole “rap”, let us not forget that our local governments have been “adding fuel to the fire”, so to speak, through budget cuts that have stripped personnel and equipment from fire departments. How many departments in the USA, especially volunteer-staffed organizations, are rolling the trucks to an emergency with less than three qualified personnel on board?

So what are we (the frog) doing? Designing better ways to put firefighters into harm’s way: better turnout gear, better SCBA, etc. Working on strategies to reduce the “almighty” response time because that’s the expectation we’ve developed in our communities (The average citizen not knowing, or if they do know not caring, that four firefighters arriving on three trucks is not going to do much to fix the problem). All of which are designed to keep firefighters going into an environment that everyone else is working to make deadlier (Not intentionally so, but more dangerous nonetheless).

21051228_firefighter-training-videoSixteenByNine1050How many fire training courses for entry-level firefighters are still teaching new firefighters to move in fast, get close to the seat of the fire before delivering a fire stream, and without controlling the flow path? How many departments place the greatest emphasis on those same characteristics of fire attack in their daily operations? How many departments are not addressing the chemical contamination hazards that their firefighters are exposed to every time they conduct an interior fire attack?

I’m not saying that firefighting as a whole is becoming obsolete, but I am proposing that we need to get out of the “pot” before we become boiled. Our approach to interior structural firefighting needs some serious restructuring lest we will only see more firefighters encountering flashovers upon arrival, structures weakened to their collapse point before firefighters arrive, and firefighters developing cancers more frequently from airborne and skin exposure hazards.

Military historians universally attribute the horrendous numbers of battlefield deaths and injuries incurred by both 20151228_cannonfiringartillerysides in the U.S. Civil War to one technological advance: the rifling of muskets and cannon. The rifling of firearms greatly increased both the effective distance that a round of ammunition could be delivered along with its accuracy.

20151228_frontal assaultThe commanding officers in both Northern and Southern armies, most of whom were veterans of the Mexican-American War, never really did come to grips with the significance of this development. Those commanders never modified their battlefield tactics to meet the new challenges presented by rifled firearms and cannon. Both sides continued to launch frontal assaults against fortified defensive positions throughout the war with the terrible battlefield casualty numbers to prove it.

In years to come, will fire service historians be saying the same thing about us?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.
  • John Terence OBryan

    I was a volunteer fire chief for six years. I preached to my people to implement an exterior attack until enough resources arrived on the scene to go in safely with necessary back up.

  • Jay

    What are some of the ideas on how to restructure the approach to interior structural firefighting? I agree with what most of this article has to say and I feel like my training has been consistent with the idea of only employing interior operations for certain circumstances and also the views on the building industry and governments. However I’m curious as to what the ideas are when a fire incident meets the criteria necessary now for interior operations to put the fire out because it threatens life, property, etc.

    • Robert Avsec

      Jay, thanks for the contribution to the conversation and the question. I think we can continue to conduct interior fire operations ONLY if we embrace the “transitional fire attack”, aka, “hit it hard from the yard”, to reset the interior heat conditions AND employ the SLICERS acronym for initial tactical operations. http://modernfirebehavior.com/s-l-i-c-e-r-s/

      But so long as there are departments that continue to “push in” to the seat of the fire without first cooling the interior atmosphere and who ventilate before applying water to the fire, firefighters will continue to get injured and killed and eventually interior fire operations will go the way of the dodo bird.

      • Jay

        Hi Robert. Thanks so much for taking time to respond to my comment. I took a look at the research done on SLICE-RS and found that it makes sense to me as well. It was fascinating to read. I also read how this has been influenced by findings from NIST based on tactics some overseas departments are conducting successfully. Am I correct in that the “transitional fire attack” is closely related to the “C” in SLICE-RS? I also wonder if there would be any ill effect of focusing on this acronym if there is not an opportunity for a transitional attack or cooling from an outside location. Or perhaps expecting too much from the transitional attack and having an unexpected rebound of the fire. Understanding smoke seems to be very important in implementing SLICE-RS or any methodology I suppose. Comparing this to how I was trained I believe this still isn’t a far departure. It seems to me that there is simply a very justified amplified focus on the transitional attack and “C” as part of an attack and if necessary, an interior attack. Lastly, I believe the theme of getting water on the fire as a focus in SLICE-RS is smart as well as your view on the consequences of pushing in and incorrect ventilation. Thanks so much for taking your time to share your years of experience and expertise on your blog and in the comments.

      • Robert Little

        If i hear hit it hard from the yard one more time i am gonna puke. You know what just fire all the fireman and raise your insurance. This way we let the house burn down and the insurance company will write you a check for a new one. People like you are messing with the minds of our probes. After hearing your dribble we have to explain to them that if there are victims in the structure you pretty much have given them her chance of survivability. A good aggressive interior attack will never go the way of the Dodo bird but your kind will. Come sit at our kitchen table and will see how well your argument holds up.

        • Robert Avsec

          Robert, I always appreciate contributions to the conversation like yours because they give me an opportunity to inform and educate others (I’m thinking your mind is pretty much closed to new ideas, am I right?)

          If we take a good look at the quality research that’s been done by NIST, UL, and USFA, we see clearly that the data shows that cooling the atmosphere with the exterior stream and controlling the flowpath dramatically INCREASES the degree of survivability for any occupants inside. Anyone who tells probies otherwise is selling them “junk science.”

          On another note, people like me and Dr. Burt Clark, and Chief Alan Brunnaci and many others before us fought criticism and naysayers and because of that you and everyone else have SCBA, LDH, TIC and all of the other tools of modern firefighting.

          The need for Courage in the fire service isn’t confined to the fire ground. It’s also needed in forums like this, policy meetings, code development and standard writing processes.

  • TFDslingblade

    If your department has decided that interior firefighting is “obsolete”, just make sure to let your city residents know that. Let them know that if they are trapped inside a burning building, your department is NOT coming in to get them. See how that goes over and if they still feel your department deserves their tax dollars, or if they may as well pay DPW to “hit it hard from the hard”.

  • TFDslingblade

    http://www.fdtraining.com/entry/searching-without-a-line

    Who gets to tell the parents “we’re sorry, but interior firefighting, our job, is obsolete”?

    Training is great, and all departments should embrace it. Science is good, and all departments should utilize it. Doing your G** d*** job is best, and all departments should do it.

  • Pingback: Resistance to Change in the Fire Service - Fire & EMS Leader Pro()

  • Shawn Donovan

    “Increased survivability” is thrown around quite frequently when discussing SLICERS. Can you tell me what criteria was used to determine “survivability”?
    The UL study monitored temperature changes, not atmosphere. The NFPA reports a vast majority of civilian deaths are from smoke inhalation, almost 2:1 vs burn deaths. Hall, NFPA 2011. When I asked ISFSI about this they wrung their hands and never answered my question. The only thing close to an answer I heard was “it makes sense that survivability would be increased if temperatures go down”
    Makes sense? Did the UL and the Feds spend millions of dollars collecting data just to guess?
    Where does it come from?
    And if nobody knows when or who added the term should it really be used when science is supposed to be the core of SLICERS?
    After all that here is my question;
    What was used as the parameters for “Survivability” during the UL studies?