FDNY Prepares to Test Fire Science and Firefighter Procedures
Fighting a fire today is very different than it was just 30 years ago.

In the 1980s, a fire could flashover – which, like the name suggests, is the near-simultaneous ignition of items in an enclosed area – after about 20 minutes. Today, it takes a mere four minutes.

Fires today also can increase in temperature from 250 to 1,500 degrees in as little as 10 seconds, more than twice as fast as in years past.

So to protect the safety of firefighters and civilians, the FDNY recognized that small enhancements must be made to protocol. And the best way to do that would be to understand the science behind today’s fires.

Thus members of the FDNY partnered with representatives from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Preservation and Trust for Governors Island to learn more in an effort to not only protect property, but the lives of firefighters and civilians.

“We’re studying our tactics and procedures, and how efficient they are,” Battalion Chief George Healy, Battalion 51, said. “We want to know how they effect the movement of the fire and how fires grow.”

The two-weeks of tests – which will be the most complete series of fire-related studies ever conducted – will begin on Governors Island on July 2. The buildings in Brick Village, which include 20 wood-frame townhouses with brick exteriors built in the 1980s, were slated to be demolished. They were given access to the buildings by the Trust.

Representatives from NIST and UL, who have worked with the FDNY on more than 100 full-size building burns together, including the extensive wind-driven fire study in 2006, set up sensors, cameras and other equipment in each building to collect more than 100 data points during 20 different tests.

“We want to learn more about the changing fire dynamics and how they grow and spread,” Battalion Chief James Kane, Battalion 49, said.

The data collectors include heat-flux gauges, pressure sensors, bi-directional probes and thermal imaging cameras. Some of the sensors, like the heat gauges, were set up at different heights in each room, to test temperatures for someone laying on the ground, someone crawling, someone standing and the ceiling temperature (the highest in the room).

The experts said that they already know fires burn faster now than ever before because a home’s contents have changed. Everything from weatherproof windows and pressed-wood furniture to synthetic carpeting and high ceilings affect a fire’s ability to grow and move.

“We’re studying a fire from start to finish,” NIST Fire Protection Engineer Daniel Madrzykowski said. “We’re taking these buildings and turning them into laboratories.”

Researchers purchased furniture from a hotel surplus store in Connecticut, to make sure they got numerous pieces that were all exactly the same. They then weighed and measured each piece of furniture to understand its makeup.

Therefore the furniture – referred to by researchers as the fuel – will be the constant, and they will be able to make subtle differences in other factors, such as coordination and communication on the fire ground and building construction, to see how the fire is affected.

They plan to start the fires remotely and test response to fires in basements, on the second floor and in an attic, and how everything from door control to a home’s layout will change a fire’s response.

“Every time you change one thing you need a different test,” said Engineer Steve Kerber from UL.

He noted that representatives from other fire departments will be observers for some or all of the testing.

“Fire departments from around the world look to the FDNY and will change their tactics based on what the FDNY is doing,” he said.
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