Firefighters conduct series of fire dynamics experiments to test new training curriculum

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September 13, 2016

Traditional firefighting techniques have been passed down and taught from generation to generation. The question is: are these traditional techniques keeping up with the changes in buildings and infrastructure? These fields have demonstrated feats of innovation, but has firefighting evolved to adopt new strategies that reflect these changes?

The science of fire dynamics, the study of how fires start, spread, and develop, has improved over the years, and new light has been shed on the most effective and safest ways of fighting fire. Advances in science show that changes in building construction and the increased use of synthetic materials in homes have altered the modern day fire environment, increasing the heat release rate, leading to larger, hotter fires that spread much faster and produce more smoke. However, these insights haven’t always been reflected in the daily operations of firefighters. Some of these outdated methods and a lack of scientific understanding of fires can often put firefighters and the public at a higher risk during a fire.

“Up until the last few years, we’ve had completely different philosophies on how to fight fire. For example, we’ve been taught from day one that fighting fire from the outside will only make conditions worse inside. But science has shown that’s not the case if you do it the right way,” said Montreal Fire Services Division Chief Gordon Routley, who has been a firefighter for almost 50 years.

This is why it’s important that the day-to-day strategies and tactics used by firefighters, whether civilian or military, keep up with the modern science of fire dynamics. Recently, Canadian fire departments from Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax and Calgary joined forces to address this issue. They have developed a new, collaborative, evidence-based fire dynamics curriculum as part of a project funded through the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP), a federal program led by Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS), in partnership with Public Safety Canada.

The new curriculum will be incorporated into Canadian firefighting training certification standards and will be adopted by all fire services in Canada. This is to ensure that from now on firefighting practices will include the most up-to-date evidence-based knowledge to increase operational effectiveness and keep firefighters and the public safe.

“We believe that there’s a lot of new science and information that’s out there that isn’t accessible to firefighters. So the intent of this project is to take that information and knowledge and put it into practice through ways that firefighters can access it,” said Peter McBride, Ottawa Fire Services (OFS) Division Chief, Safety and Innovation and project manager.

OFS, Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Services, Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal and the Calgary Fire Department, as well as numerous national and international stakeholders, have been working since 2014 to gather the latest information on fire dynamics and using it to create new training tools for future firefighting operations.

An important phase of the project was to test out the practical applications of the curriculum in an environment that’s simulated, but as close to reality as possible. From June 6th to 9th, 2016, firefighters from Ottawa, Montreal, and Mirabel gathered in Mirabel, Québec to accomplish just that. The week involved a series of full-scale fire trials, largely supported by the City of Mirabel and Mirabel Fire Services, where real buildings were ignited, then extinguished using new approaches and tools, to trial the curriculum’s practical applications.

“Part of what we did is experimentation and gathering information, but mostly it’s a demonstration of different, more advanced, techniques of fighting fires in a very controlled and measured environment which is going to be used to teach firefighters the newest, more effective, and safest ways to fight fires,” said Routley.

One example of a new approach in firefighting that is safer and more effective is to apply a narrow stream of water into a house from the outside prior to entry, rather than going inside the house directly and fighting fire internally (which is the traditional approach). New fire dynamics research shows that a narrow, straight stream of water being applied from the outside drops interior temperatures, which makes it safer for firefighters when they enter. Another approach that was tested in Mirabel was the use of a new tool called the “PyroLance”, which uses high-pressure water and granite particles to cut through wood and steel (building envelope or building finishes) in a matter of seconds. It then introduces a fine water mist that maximizes the cooling efficiency of water to rapidly extinguish a fire in a compartment or void space.

Another approach that was tested during the experiments was the use of a large, gas-powered fan that clears smoke away so that firefighters can enter a structure safely. This technique forces smoke and heat out of the way, allowing the firefighters to get closer to the fire inside and attack it directly.

An important function of these experiments was to produce e-learning materials that will be incorporated into the curriculum. Pictures and videos were taken, and progress was tracked using a command board that streamed footage from cameras placed inside the buildings.

“Associated with different agencies, we were able to collect data during this week’s experiments and that data will help future firefighters in training and existing methods of fighting fires,” said Martin Corriveau, firefighter and member of Flash Formation, a private company participating in the project and supporting the trials on behalf of the project team.

Overall, the project has benefited from the widespread support of over 40 organizations from the Fire Services community in Canada and around the world. “This project’s collaborative, synergistic approach provides a cost effective means of addressing critical firefighting knowledge gaps and fire service priorities.  The outputs from this project will enhance fire literacy within fire services throughout Canada and internationally, supporting safer, more effective and more efficient firefighting operations. Ultimately the project goals are to reduce property losses, environmental impacts, and most importantly civilian and firefighter injuries and deaths resulting from fires,” concludes McBride.

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