Our fire service has been around a while and for those that would suggest that not much has changed since our inception, this article will likely hurt your feelings. In 2018, the fire department I belong to responded to 9,131 calls for service. Like most departments, only 122 of those calls for service were structure fires. If you do the math, you will find that structure fires represented 1.3% of our total call volume. So, let’s look at the busiest fire department in the land.
The mighty FDNY ran 2,127,510 calls for service in 2018, but only 27,053 were structure fires. The math again reflects that FDNY’s structure fires represent 1.3% of their total call volume. Put aside the fact that FDNY ran my department’s total annual call volume in 37 hours and 26 minutes, and you will see that we are not much different. In fact, fire departments nationwide are experiencing similar trends. What has caused this nationwide decline in structure fires? It is our fire prevention efforts. So, are we saying that we have fire prevented ourselves out of a job? Certainly not and for a number of reasons. First, it is not just us.
The Five E’s
The five E’s of prevention are: Education, Enforcement, Engineering, Economic Incentive, and Emergency Response. Our education efforts have saved an immeasurable number of lives but are often reactive. We tend to focus on what to do if a fire breaks out in your home and we provide that education mostly to our target groups — especially the very young and very old.
We tend not to place as much emphasis on how to prevent fires, which is likely an opportunity for improvement. Under enforcement, our inspector types do an excellent job of ensuring that public buildings are compliant with fire and life safety codes; however, they do not normally inspect private buildings. While it is possible to find a fire hazard in a private building, the hazard is not always corrected. This makes enforcement not the sole activity responsible for our declining structure fire numbers.
Engineering is very robust. For example, it can reach appliances in private homes as well as fire suppression systems in public buildings. Economic incentive is where our insurance companies charge us lower premiums if our house is protected with a monitored fire alarm system. This is also how we get to the fire when it is still just a room and contents, thus saving the insurance company money (and more importantly the people, pets, pictures and pills). Finally, emergency response is the last line of defense and requires that we arrive quickly and intervene effectively.
So, if you have read this far and think that the only thing that has changed in the fire service in the last 50 years is the number of structure fires we run annually, you are mistaken. Answer this: How many of you reading this practice starting IV’s or taking a blood glucose level as part of your monthly continuing education? I suspect the number is very low (maybe even zero). You do not practice these skills because you are doing them so frequently as part of your day to day responses, that they have become second nature to you. They are the opposite of what structure fires have become. So, what do we do with those high risk, low frequency incidents (hazmat, technical rescue)? We have to train for them to the mastery level because we do not get much exposure to them as part of our day to day responses. Let’s come back to that in a minute.
We Are Still the Fire Department
Many of us have experienced increased call volumes despite our decrease in fires. This is possible because many of us have taken on additional responsibilities, either voluntarily or by popular demand. These additional responsibilities may take the form of auto extrication, technical rescue, hazmat response and pre-hospital medical response. Despite our responses to all of these different types of calls, we are still the fire department, right? RIGHT! We know that “Fire” is still our middle name because when a fire occurs, there is no one else to call other than us and to be sure, our structure fire situation is dire.
In the last couple of decades, someone has started putting fuel packages with higher heat release rates than has ever been witnessed in history, inside energy efficient construction designed to prevent temperature exchange with the outside environment underneath roofs that are often glued together. How do we respond to this change? We need to recognize the importance of training on these increased hazards for those operating within these environments as well as those that are commanding these types of incidents. The training level needs to be improved due to these increased hazards, not relaxed due to the decreased volumes.
In the U.S. military, there are likely few that complete more advanced training than our Navy Seals. But as Battalion Chief Anthony Kastros (Sacramento Metro Fire District) illustrates, “Ask the Navy Seals if they would go into battle in five minutes from a dead sleep, to an unknown battlefield, facing an unknown enemy, for an unknown target, with little to no intel, with other soldiers they may not know. They would say, ‘That’s crazy,’ yet we do it every day. We go from our dorm at two in the morning, to code 3 in three minutes to a fire in a building that we have not been in before, to face an enemy whose whereabouts are likely unknown. We do this not knowing what companies will be with us at the moment. And to top it off, many in the battle have little to no experience. If this does not motivate you to train today, nothing will.”
Training on interior fire suppression in the same Class A building provides us limited preparation. The layout of the next building fire that we run will likely be much different from our burn building. Moreover, the materials burning at our next building fire will likely not be hay and pallets. Therefore, we have to close the gap between the accessibility of our training props and the reality of what we will see at our next structure fire. This is of critical importance given that our structure fires have become low frequency, high risk incidents.
If you are a chief level officer, you should consider allocating sufficient resources to these incidents, where the dynamically changing environment meet a time compression that has the potential to cause deadly consequences. If you are a company level officer, it is your job to keep your crew focused on why structure fire suppression training is important. When a crew member says, “Why are we training on this, we don’t have structure fires anymore.” We must reply that our next fire may occur right now and will likely involve an unknown battlespace, with unknown enemies (the fire, the building, and the construction), alongside unknown firefighters with limited experience in an environment that is the most dangerous in the fire service’s history.
We’re Fighting the Same Battle
It’s probably not fair to say everything has changed, but it is fair to say a lot has. Add to the above that our personal protective equipment (PPE) allows us to penetrate deeper into buildings, and we can see that we are brewing a recipe for potential disaster. The way we avoid insult or injury is to remember the one thing that hasn’t changed. Our battles are still a matter of gallons per minute (GPM’s) versus British Thermal Units (BTUs). We must overcome the heat release rate of the fire (measured in BTUs) by applying enough water to absorb the heat at a faster rate (measured in GPMs).
Even in the large conflagrations that destroyed half of cities one hundred years ago, our fire service ancestors fought the same battle. Unfortunately, their GPMs did not permit them to overcome the BTUs and they were often forced to use fuel removal as their eventual fire suppression tactic (i.e. the fire burned until it ran out of fuel). So, today we have evolved to a controversial acronym — SLICERS (Size-up, Locate the Fire, Identify and Control Flow Path, Cool the Space from Safest Location, Extinguish the Fire, Rescue and Salvage).
Size-up is the first of the sequential actions and normally the step we take first before we get out of the apparatus and complete with a 360-degree walkaround of the building. During that time, we hope to locate the fire while closing exterior doors or otherwise identifying the flow path of the fire. Then we do what some disagree with: cool the fire from the safest location.
For urban departments that show up with 50 firefighters on the first alarm, this may seem silly as they likely have enough people on scene to put them all in the building and displace sufficient oxygen in the interior to extinguish the fire (that’s a joke). However, in most departments (particularly those with large geographical response areas), staffing may be an issue. Therefore, we simply need to ask the question, do we want to apply water to the interior from the exterior until adequate staffing arrives, or do we want to let the fire burn until we get enough folks on the scene to initiate an interior attack?
Remember that the fuel (the building) is the “reducing agent” and the longer the fire burns, the more the building is reducing. Another thing that has not changed throughout our sometimes-painful transition to new firefighting tactics is this: Everything gets better once you hit the fire. Even those that may be trapped inside are afforded a better environment if we have hit the fire from outside when our staffing does not permit an interior attack. Whether our fire was initially hit by an exterior stream or a sprinkler system, we still have to eventually extinguish the fire, which most often involves a trip to the interior with properly protected and trained firefighters. While all of these sequential steps are occurring, we use rescue and salvage as actions of opportunity. We extricate those that are trapped (R- rescue) and perform salvage (S- salvage) operations at any point in the SLICE sequence.
So, with all this talk about fire dynamics, building construction and SLICERS suggests that despite the decrease in their frequency, we should not forget about them. The bottom line is this: we are still the fire department. People still call us to deal with building fires. We should not let all of our other responsibilities and types of calls we are running distract us from the importance of understanding the changes in our building fires. If you add all of these acute dangers to the chronic carcinogenic effects of the toxic byproducts of combustion, it is easy to see how every building fire is becoming as high risk/low frequency as our technical rescues and hazardous materials incidents. In lieu of resigning ourselves to the “we don’t have fires anymore” attitude, we have to train to the mastery level and frequently refresh our skills so that we are properly prepared.
Be safe and do good.