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I spent a very interesting day on Wednesday at the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) fire research lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The mission of NIST is to conduct basic and applied research for the purpose of understanding fire behavior and hopefully reduce losses from fire. NIST was founded by the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974.

At NIST are all kinds of extremely talented and highly educated fire service and science-oriented researchers who are constantly looking at building construction, building materials, and fire behavior. Tests are conducted on an almost daily basis on every kind of material and setting you can imagine. When it came to the World Trade Center, NIST got involved to tell us what really happened. When it comes to why Mrs. Smith's kitchen burns the way it burns, you can bet NIST is involved in helping us understand how.

Wednesday NIST researchers were presenting information from recent and previous studies they had done. We were extremely lucky to have two of my close friends and leading experts in fire behavior, Daniel Madrzykowski and Steve Kerber, share with us their most recent work regarding fire behavior and the use of positive pressure ventilation in high-rise fires.

When we think about studying fire behavior, you would think that we would spend an extraordinary amount of time and trying to understand our enemy. However, when we look at fire behavior training in the fire service today, we discover that only three hours of firefighter behavior study is required for Firefighter I. No fire behavior at all is required for Firefighter II or Fire Officer I and II. What are we teaching in these programs if not fire behavior?

Much of the research presented was the result of some recent testing done in Toledo, Ohio through the efforts of Skip Coleman, Jerry Tracey, Steve, and Dan. Beginning in Toledo, live fire high-rise experiments began a little over two years ago using acquired structures. Under the direction of NIST, dozens of fires were set and measured. During this time firefighters from Chicago, Illinois also became involved after the Cook County building fire . The Chicago (IL) Fire Department, from the commissioner to probationary firefighters, stepped up to the plate with a second location for additional testing. Testing then moved to New York City, where the FDNY conducted a series of tests along with NIST and all of the other departments and personnel who had been participating.

Under FDNY Battalion Chief Jerry Tracey's direction and leadership, wind-driven flames fronts were studied with greater depth than ever before. Combining the expertise of the FDNY and the scientific know-how and research capabilities of NIST, data was collected to be released in the near future in a comprehensive, landmark report.

The final set of tests came home to Toledo: A school building was used to determine how best to use fans to clear smoke and to contain fire in large structures. The gymnasium yielded incredible results regarding fire behavior, smoke movement, and fire growth and development.

As the fire service moves forward, we have to realize that our problems continue to evolve as technology continues to produce new materials and new configurations for buildings, thereby create new challenges to be studied. The evolution of our tactical capability will only be enhanced by the evolution of our mental agility. We have many questions to still answer about positive pressure and there are many concerns. NIST is beginning testing on the use of this tool in residential settings. The use of positive pressure residential fires is not without controversy and clearly not the choice for ventilation and every fire. Like every other tool, however, it has its appropriate time and place.

By working with our partners at NIST and UL and the other research facilities, we will find better and more effective ways to do our work, thereby minimizing the amount of risk and danger that we have to accept in the performance of our duties. Not all answers will be technological, and not all answers will be easy, but easy never prevented the fire service from doing its job.

Look for Dan and Steve to be presenting more information from NIST at this year's FDIC. And remember, be careful out there.

posted by Bobby Halton
9/05/2008 06:05:00 PM

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