Controlling extreme fire behavior is part of the mission of the fire service. Preventing flashover — that moment when the combustible material in an enclosed area reaches its maximum ability to absorb heat energy and ignites nearly all at once — counts among those extreme behaviors.
Joe Starnes, former chief of the Sandy Ridge Fire Department and current public information officer in Oak Grove, N.C., believes there’s a method for preventing this type of rapid fire advancement.
During his more than 40 years in the volunteer fire service, experience is what first began to lead Starnes to look more closely at the factors leading up to flashover. That research, and some related topics, also arose over lunch one day in 2011 with Shaun Oke, chief of the Ablemarle, N.C., department.
“We got to talking safety; he had two sons going into the fire service, and we brought up some of the things that we saw as gaps in safety: for instance, (the limited use of ) foams,” Starnes said.
Th e men left determined to “go after the myths.” Under the mantra of “We test, we demonstrate, you decide,” they’ve spent the past four years writing hypotheses and testing them during once-yearly, non-NFPA1403 test burns that include typical home furniture, a high-release fuel.
For testing purposes, extreme fire behavior is defined as any fire or thermal threat to a suppression crew’s PPE.
Doing the actual testing was important to both of them.
“We aren’t science people; we’re the applied people,” said Starnes. “We ask questions about each decision made. What if you don’t add air? What if you do — then what happens? What if you break the door? What if you don’t break the door? Do we care about where the air is coming from in this scenario?” They ask firefighters to critically evaluate each individual situation based on such variables — “think on your feet,” in other words — and adjust procedure accordingly, after advising command.
“It’s truly transformational thinking when responders evaluate each fire scene on the details of the structure and situational factors,” said Starnes. “It’s theory inside of thinking. Thinking is based on theory, and the theory is simply not being taught.”
The learning portion comes after a burn, when participants and observers discuss what came out of the experience. Among the post-burn questions that are important to ask in order to evaluate the procedure is, “Did the fire grow or die because of what you did?”
Then carefully recorded video of the burn is shared. Lastly, the experience and information interfaces with higher education via Fire Behavior University. Starnes, Oke and their colleagues package their efforts into a concept of identifying, defending and/or killing extreme fire behavior, thereby reducing the opportunity for injury to interior fire crews. They call it “Project Kill the Flashover.” KTF is based on the science behind fire behavior and not just what has been observed. A bar stool image visualizes the approach. The legs of the stool are air management, enhanced water streams and thermal data. Live fire tests conducted over the past several years confirm its viability as a risk model.
One general but key difference that has developed between KTF and other RFA techniques is how water is put on the room’s contents.
“If we enter a room and there’s a sofa in it, and the fire’s behind it, why don’t we address the sofa? Because it’s not on fire. But if we wet it anyway, then I turn down the valve on the available fuel in that room, and we just bought ourselves time,” Starnes explained. Because many of today’s home furnishings are made with petroleum products, they contribute more quickly to a potential flashover or backdraft than similar items did 50 years ago. Th at crucial difference illustrates why firefighters need to be permitted to independently evaluate and react to the variables present at each fire-ground.
The fact that most basic fire service training includes a scant four hours of fire science education is another reason why KTF colleagues put stock in their hypothesize-test-evaluate learning method.
“We all have a theory about what’s going to make it go out. Give this some thought and see how it fits in to your theory” is what Starnes and Fire Behavior University advocate. The goal is to learn what prevents thermal injury to firefighters.
The new normal in staffing levels, especially in the volunteer fire service, prompted KTF to use only minimum staffing during its test burns.
“Right now we only do residential testing, and we typically don’t operate with more than 18 people because you’re lucky to reach that number in a lot of smaller departments,” Starnes said.
For testing purposes, KTF’s definition of extreme fire behavior follows the standard definition: “any fire or thermal threat to a suppression crew’s PPE.” During the burns, high-release test fuels are used.
To view video and photos from the test burns, visit killtheflashover.com.
For more information about KTF Fire Behavior University, visit killtheflashover.com.