Once upon a time, the tough guys in the movies were content just to dodge arrows and bullets with superhuman ability. Thanks to the wonders of computer generated images, big screen action heroes today routinely outrun massive, billowing fireballs, usually in slow motion.
Not to be a killjoy, but anybody that close to a roiling pressure fire would be cooked by the radiant heat in an instant. Unfortunately, real life firefighters seem to be losing sight of that reality. Modern fire gear is so good at insulating against the harsh environment that instead of hugging the floor responders stroll through it like a warm day at the beach.
In the last quarter century fires have changed in some incredibly dangerous ways. Remember the good old days when fires smoldered and creeped instead of racing out of control within minutes. The window of time in which firefighters can take effective action against spreading flames has closed to a few precious minutes, mere seconds if you factor in response times.
Explaining it involves simple chemistry. Our parents and grandparents grew up in homes built and decorated with basic materials. Furniture was wood. Drapes were cotton. But today fires feed on ambiance that began life as hydrocarbons such as propane and butane. Heat rapidly vaporizes these items back into its original composition as flammable gas.
As the vaporization increases, the fire spreads faster and faster. Too soon, the flames are spreading across the ceiling. The chance that firefighters can arrive in time to alter these hostile dynamics with a little foam and water is remote.
The fire service is facing hard decisions on when and where it is even appropriate to make the attempt. Cities such as Houston that have a reputation for aggressive fire fighting have learned some hard lessons. Five dead firefighters in seven years is certainly cause to reflect. Is it time to restrict responders to outside operations only if water does not show immediate results?
What if there are people trapped? Or, perhaps, only the suspicion that people are trapped? Can firefighters find the self restraint to say, “Sorry, but the new rule book says let it burn”?
Fire was scary enough back in the 1960s and 1970s when I rode the tailboard. But at least experience gave you the confidence that you had enough time to use a pike pole against the sheet rock and get at the fire behind it. If you watch the smoke and read the fire correctly you would not fall victim to a potential flashover.
But as the fires grew faster and hotter in recent years, the solution offered by the experts has been to make the firefighters as invulnerable as possible. Instead of trusting the firefighters to use their best judgement regarding life threatening conditions, the foolproof option is to put as many layers of insulation between them and the flames as possible.
Of course, the problem with modern bunker gear is that failure is not gradual, but tragically sudden. The firefighter is either 100 percent protected or 100 percent vulnerable. If one component such as the SCBA face mask fails, the entire ensemble is rendered useless.
Completely isolated from the rising heat, the firefighter may not be aware he has pushed his protective gear beyond its ultimate tolerance. The firefighter has no chance to exercise his personal judgement and probably little direct experience on which to base that judgement.
Sure, we want our firefighters to have the best protection possible. But overconfidence that the bunker gear can stand up to the worst radiant heat fueled by man-made materials puts firefighters at risk.
No firefighter needs to be ordered into a situation that would test his PPE to the extreme. What puts out more fires — personal courage or good fire ground tactics? Or are we reaching a point in modern fire fighting where calculating any risk automatically goes against the firefighter?
My recommendation? Think beyond PPE. Start using Class A foam on every fire. No one can deny it helps water do a better job. Any edge on the fire is better than none.