July 6, 2012, Winnipeg - I’m a research geek, I admit it. I’m completely new at it, and rookie does not even describe my lack of experience as I have only ever been apart of one major research project, and I’m still chipping away at my own thesis to complete graduate school.
So when I read a re-tweet from the Kitchener Professional Firefighter Association about the FDNY starting a major research initiative in conjunction with Underwriters Laboratory Inc. and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, it was, my immediate reaction was to stop what I was doing and read the article.
The FDNY is taking 20 vacant houses and burning them down, in the name of research. The hypothesis is that firefighting tactics, including those we use here in Canada, are not keeping up to the ever-evolving fire-science literature. This is due to the increase in plastics used in everything from furniture and electronics to the synthetic building materials we now find everywhere.
According the press release and the article, the FDNY believes that ventilation practices are not working as well as they should, even if they are executed perfectly. The initial evidence suggests that content fires inside dwellings are burning even hotter than we understand, and react differently to ventilation techniques and water application. Apparently, some of the preliminary evidence suggests that even if the timing between ventilation teams and fire suppression activities is perfectly co-ordinated, there are still too many incidents of unexplained flashover, and super-heated gas/smoke conditions that have injured firefighters.
So the folks in New York are going to fill 20 vacant row homes with different types of contents and light them up! They will measure temperatures, pressure differences, ventilation effectiveness, and time differentials to determine what works best for putting out the fire. There is even talk of major changes in how we attack fires by making suppression a priority over rescue, since controlling fire has become increasingly difficult.
It is the same old chicken-or-egg argument in terms of how best to achieve survivability for victims. The data the researchers will collect will be a tremendous help in understanding what happens if even one extra window is taken out, or a bedroom door is left open. To be able to repeat the experiments over and over, and change vary small variables, is a scientist’s dream.
It’s exciting isn’t it! And you think I’m crazy, but remember that everything you do in the hall and off the truck in terms of strategy and tactics came from some form of heuristic research principle that has proven, to some extent, successful. Science surrounds us – its in our gear, on the apparatus, and in the design of what we do every day. I just wonder what policies will come from this 36 months from now?
On a lighter note I had mentioned I wanted to blog about a few travel destinations, which of course, are firefighter related. Have you ever wanted to know about firefighter exchanges to New Zealand and Australia? What about a mission to re-build homes for disaster survivors in a third-world country?
I’m putting it all together in the next edition of From the Floor, so e-mail me or comment below. I might even slip in a Disney trip if the boss allows it!
Jay Shaw is a 10-year member of the Winnipeg Fire Department who has worked in hospital emergency rooms, on rural ambulance services and with the Canadian Forces fire service. He is completing graduate studies in disaster and emergency management at Royal Roads University. Contact him at
or follow him on Twitter @911writer.