Fire Science vs. Reality

The irrational Great Debate with UL/NIST and Traditional Firefighting

A news story aired recently on Fox 6 News in Milwaukee last Sunday. (Watch it here) Trust me. You’ll want to see this.

We all know there is an internally heated debate within the fire service between the new NIST research findings & tactical suggestions and the way we’ve always fought fire throughout history. There are often heated debates within the fire service, and the public-at-large is typically none-the-wiser, nor should they be.

The fire service (department) is one of the last trusted government funded/backed agencies in the United States that still has the public’s trust. They know if they call us that we’re

An unidentified Quincy firefighter rescues a woman from a burning second-floor window after fire broke out Wednesday morning at 633 State in Quincy. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson) A dramatic scene unfolded late Wednesday morning after a fire broke out at at 633 State. One man was reportedly helped from the building by an unknown rescuer, and Quincy Fire Dept. Lt. Jack Ray rescued a second occupant from a second floor window. The following photographs detail Ray's rescue as it happened. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
(H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)

going to show up and do everything in our power to help them and not hurt them. Law Enforcement can’t even lay claim to that. Our fathers, grandfathers and forefathers shed sweat, blood, tears, and their lives earning that public trust. We ride their coat-tails and do the same.

As a service to our communities, we’ve made daring rescues, we’ve taken incredible risks, faced difficult odds, and have proven our worth. We have died preserving the heart and the intent of our service to humanity. Overall, we’ve represented our profession with honor and nobility.

In proper progressive fashion, we’re fortunate to have fire engineers and scientists on our side working hard to find a way to make our job just a bit safer. It’s noble work and much needed. We can learn from science, and we should be excited to see the data behind what we do. Used properly it should help us hone our tactics.

As soon as I watched the Fox News Milwaukee story titled “Researchers test new approach to fighting fires; critics say it could delay victim rescue”  I said out loud “Oh Shit.”
The internal fire service debate has gone public. A news story like this does nothing more than cast a web of doubt among the public about it’s fire service. Inserting the idea that we would EVER put ourselves before THEM damages our reputation as a service and dilutes public trust.

I digress.DTSNorwoodPark9Fire

Internal debate within the fire service can be a healthy thing to have. It’s how we grow as firefighters and learn our craft.  The great debate seems to lay between the hard-nosed traditionalists and the new guard.  Historically, the fire service was never a field that required a college degree; it was a labor job. Who needed a degree to spray water?  Today, the world and our profession are much different. We aren’t just pulling ceilings and spraying water anymore.  We’re an all-hazards response service.  We’ve taken on EMS, Hazmat, a myriad of Technical Rescue all with their own skill set, WMD/CBRNE and so on. We’re are better equipped and educated than our predecessors.

What’s the Breakdown?

The breakdown in this debate rests in a few places.

  1. The first breakdown resides in this nasty strain of fact-resistant firefighters that seems to be sweeping the nation. You know those guys that reject every provable fact or every single scientifically proven study? It’s a disease of ignorance and an aggressive form of laziness towards having to learn new things.
  2. The guys that are banking on it. There are some folks out there who are waving the flag of transitional attacks as if it’s going to replace firefighting and the old way is dangerous. Pump the brakes a bit. We’re all still learning. Teaching 1.3 million firefighters new science is a painstakingly slow process, generational really. Lets use a transitional attack for what it is. A new tactical option fit for some fires but maybe not all of them.


3. Science. The scientific method is based on measurable evidence that is subjected to specific principles of reasoning. It’s a pretty fool-proof way of figuring stuff out. As a fire service there is a lot we can learn from fire science and the UL/NIST studies. There are ways we can use that new knowledge to our benefit. Knowing is half the battle. (Caveat, fact-resistant firefighters have to be willing to accept scientific findings and be willing to learn.)

4. The Traditionalist, blatantly rejecting the science. Yes, we’ve always done it a certain way. Yes, we have an obligation to the citizens we serve. Yes, they should be put first in the pecking order. We’ve been fighting fires by what we’ve learned through experience and weak science for decades. It’s worked, and we’ve saved lives. However, building construction has changed, home furnishings have changed, houses are flashing over and construction materials are breaking down much quicker than the sturdy homes of the past. New construction practices and materials put us at an even greater risk. Chief Brannigan was right. The building is our enemy, and we must learn how to fight it. The enemy has changed.13226678_10209602189481491_5639367112288136214_n

Nobody is saying we’ve been doing it wrong. The NIST and UL findings do suggest ways we can fight fire better. SLICE-RS/DICE-RS offers an acronym reminder for a transitional attack. The “R” or Rescue

are considered actions of opportunity, meaning they are the priority if we are able to do so. It’s the trump card in the transitional attack.

The reality here is that change is hard. Heck, even the idea of change is difficult to digest. It means we all have to get off our ass and learn something new. It’s in our nature to fight change because we enjoy the comfort of wherever we are.

Am I endorsing the UL/NIST research?

No, not entirely. I believe we have a lot to learn, and I firmly believe in the scientific method. I believe that information is power, and I want to know as much as possible about the enemy we face. There are times when a transitional attack would be beneficial. It’s a useful tool for the box and a safe option for volunteer fire stations with minimal experience. It would help keep inexperienced firefighters heads above water.

Am I advocating for traditional tactics?

Yes and No, with new home construction materials it’s difficult to say reasonably we can fight residential fires the same way we always have. Back in the day, we could search an entire house twice before ever having to worry about the house collapsing. Today, the roof

Staff Photo by Dan Reiland
Photo by Dan Reiland

and floor joists are designed to be lightweight and are held together with glue. It’s clear we need to change the way we fight fires in newly constructed residences. They are falling apart faster and flashing over at about the time of our arrival. A transitional attack is a tactical option for an experienced incident commander to use after reading the structure and it’s integrity.


My HARD Suggestion?

Everyone needs to calm down a bit.  The reality here is that fire departments all over the world will be playing around and will be experimenting with the UL/NIST findings for years to come. We aren’t taking an about-face on everything we currently know or do. We aren’t going to wake up tomorrow mandated into performing transitional attacks knowing we have a viable rescue to make. Let us use some common sense and some outward emotional restraint. When there is a rescue to be made, almost all rules seem to go out the window.Screen-Shot-2014-08-06-at-12.28.52-PM  The UL police aren’t going to show up and arrest anyone for not making a transitional attack.

Let’s use this science for what it provides us. Information. Information that may help us do our jobs in an ever-evolving fire service. We can only benefit from new fact-based fire knowledge, and it can only help us learn more about what we do.

For the love of God, let’s keep this “great debate” an internal fire service one and leave the pubic out of it. We’re only protecting our reputation as a public service provider.

I recommend watching a few of the modern fire behavior videos on the UL YouTube channel HERE.  You’ll notice that it’s Firefighters, Fire Engineers, and Scientists working together.

Read the Rebuttal to this article here.