Dispelling Fire Service Mythology

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The fire service is steeped in tradition. This tradition makes the profession great, but it also holds us
back. The histories of the Maltese cross, challenge coins, and dalmatians are important to us. As a
younger firefighter, you looked up to the veterans, and depended on them to impart their wisdom upon you. You listened to everything they said, took it to heart, and applied it to your career and
development. But when it came to tactics, how much of it was true? Did you ever politely ask “why?”
“How do you know that to be true?” Clearly, those exact words probably won’t elicit the best response from your veterans, but the intent remains valid. If you’re a veteran, how much tactical knowledge have you passed on without any understanding of how you know that information to be true? There are a lot of statements that we pass on to our younger firefighters that are, frankly, not true. We need to ask “why” more often. Ask it of yourself before you teach. How do you know what you’re passing on is accurate?

Here are some tidbits that I was taught as a new recruit:
Don’t flow water until you’re at the seat of the fire
The reasons for not flowing water vary to some extent, but tend to revolve around one or more of the
following reasons:
*We don’t want to do any unnecessary damage to the drywall/interior/furniture
*You’ll invert the thermal balance and burn everyone
Unnecessary damage? All that drywall and furniture is going to be replaced if any smoke has touched it.

You can’t clean that stuff off. Everything the smoke touches is getting replaced, so you’re not causing
any additional damage. As far as the thermal balance is concerned, you are capable of inverting it if you spray a fog pattern into the ceiling. So……. don’t do that. A smooth bore or straight stream will not invert the layering because you are minimizing the amount of air that is en-trained with the water
stream. Based on what we know about smoke and its effects on the structure, it is critical to keep the
box cool as a means of preventing flash-over, so flow that water. Keep the box cool. Prevent flash-over, and enable your crews to perform an aggressive search for victims. Enable the victims to survive until they are found. Again, for emphasis – Keep the box cool.

White smoke means plastics are burning, black smoke means hydrocarbons!
This is one of the more frustrating statements out there. It’s just plain false. One of my previous articles discussed smoke color at length, so I won’t burden you with going through it again. Bottom line, smoke color indicates the stage of heating, not the product that’s burning. Additionally, there is an asterisk to that observation, as smoke is filtered both by distance and through resistance. White smoke does not always mean an early-stage burn. It could be late stage, and the smoke is being filtered before you see it. It is critical to understand smoke and how it behaves. Make sure you understand how to properly read smoke! That skill is a critical fire-ground ability.

A fire doubles in size every 30/60/90/120 seconds
There is no gentle way to put this – that statement is made up. Entirely fictional. Don’t believe me?
Think about it – does every fuel burn with the same speed? Is every occupancy furnished with the same fuel load? Of course not! There are so many variables at play. In truth, this statement was created as a means to teach the public (kids, specifically) about how dangerous fire is. Research has showed us that a fire is capable to growing up to 200 times its size in 2 seconds. That’s called flash-over. If we were to define the growth potential of an incipient stage fire, we would have to acknowledge that fuel load/type/composition and ventilation all play significant roles in a fire’s growth rate. It’s much more complicated than breaking it down to a defined window of time.

You will feel tremendous heat through your gear as a warning sign prior to flash-over.
Your bunker gear is better than the gear of yesteryear. Today’s average gear, when new, has a TPP
rating of 35. I can expound on what that rating means, but for the sake of brevity, that means that your gear will can protect you from about 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit for 15-20 seconds before you experience 2nd degree burns. There are, of course, a bunch of asterisks with that – how worn/dirty your gear is, how much vapor space exists between the three layers of material (ever notice how your joints or shoulders get warm first? There’s less vapor space there due to your SCBA and body movement), and a number of other factors. But let’s assume that the numbers hold true for you in this hypothetical scenario. Smoke is capable of auto-ignition at temperatures as low as 450 degrees. If the smoke ignites, you’re caught in a flash-over, period. You’re probably not going to feel 450 degrees in your gear, no matter how old it is. Don’t think that you’re safe until it’s unbearably hot. You’re getting way too close to “too late” if that is your red flag. With today’s gear, in today’s fires, you likely may not feel any heat before a flash-over is triggered. That being true, what should you expect if you can feel moderate or extreme heat through your gear as you crawl down a hallway???

Some unsolicited advice for the fire service: New guys, continue to ask “Why.” Old guys, don’t get
offended when you’re asked to defend your assertion. They just want to learn. Perhaps more
importantly, they just want to understand. Take some time to mold the future. Take some time to
question if the wisdom you’re passing on is still (or ever was….) valid and true. We will all be better for it!




Rob Backer is a 16-year fire service veteran and currently serves as a Captain for Thornton Fire Department in Thornton, Colorado. He is an instructor for The Art of Reading Smoke and The Art of the First Due, and is available to teach nationally. He can be reached at robbacker.fdi@gmail.com

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