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Leadership: The point of no return

Advances in technology have allowed a firefighter’s duty gear or turnout gear to withstand heat and hostile environments that were not possible years ago. The NFPA 1971 has set a high standard for flame resistance and thermal protection. But has this extra protection led to unsafe fireground practices, and does today’s firefighter understand when they have reached the “point of no return?”

December 13, 2007
By Barry Bouwsema

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Advances in technology have allowed a firefighter’s duty gear or turnout gear to withstand heat and hostile environments that were not possible years ago. The NFPA 1971 has set a high standard for flame resistance and thermal protection. But has this extra protection led to unsafe fireground practices, and does today’s firefighter understand when they have reached the “point of no return?”

The “point of no return” is a measure of how far a firefighter can advance into a hostile environment and still retreat to safety when the situation requires such an action. Several factors, such as individual fitness level and the type of PPE (personal protective equipment) worn, will determine where the point of no return exists for any given situation. However, there is one accepted standard measurement of how far a firefighter can advance into a room, which appears to be on the brink of flashover, and still allow for the firefighter to successfully retreat to safety. 

Through research, this standard has been set at 1.5 metres or five feet. This distance of roughly one body length may be far less than most firefighters might assume. This distance was obtained by evaluating several factors. These factors include:
•    Flashover temperatures can reach 1,093 degrees C within seconds.
•    At 40 degrees C, skin begins to feel hot. Damage to the skin begins at 48 degrees C (first degree burn injury). At 59 degrees C, skin will blister within five seconds. Instantaneous, irreversible skin destruction occurs at 78 degrees C.
•  The average person moves 0.76 metres (2.5 feet) per second when walking.
•  The thermal protection provided by protective garments is subject to a multitude of variables that will affect its performance in any given situation.

By the time the firefighter can react to a flashover, temperatures will already have risen dramatically. If the firefighter is 1.5 metres inside a room that has just flashed over, and has to crawl back to the doorway at 0.76 m (2.5 feet) per second, he or she will be exposed to temperatures up to 1,093 degrees C for two seconds in duty gear that may already be reaching the limits of heat stress reduction. At three metres (10 feet), he or she will be exposed for four seconds – in this situation, the chances are that the firefighter won’t make it to the door.

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The time necessary for entry, work, and exit from a hostile environment varies for each individual. The factors that will help you to determine your individual point of no return are as follows:
•   Entry point
•   Physical condition
•   Size of the individual
•   Work being performed
•   Environment where the  work is being performed
•   Amount of air available when entering the environment
•   Other stresses (e.g., people trapped, difficult access, outside temperatures)
•   Type of protective clothing used
•   Training

Technological advances in PPE have allowed firefighters to “push in” further and “stay a little longer” during firefighting operations.

The understanding of modern firefighting techniques will go far in protecting your life, and the life of the rookie firefighter on the hoseline behind you.

Stay safe!

Barry Bouwsema is a 20-year veteran with the fire service and works as a company officer/paramedic for Strathcona County Emergency Services in Sherwood Park, Alberta.


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