Flashover training is set up to save firefighters lives
BY: Felice E. Krycia-associate editor | October 31, 2012
When is it time for a firefighter to stop fighting a fire and get out of the building?
That was the question put to over a 100 volunteer firefighters this past weekend (Oct. 26 through Oct. 28) during a training exercise with members of the Oakland Fire Training Institute from Oakland Community College in Auburn Hills, Mich.
“Firefighters fight fires, that’s what they do,” said Oakland Fire Trainer Ron Roosevelt, who has been with the school since 1998. “What they sometimes don’t do, is recognize the warning signals of when it is time to stop fighting the fire and get out.”
One of the more dangerous situations firefighters can find themselves in is the situation of a flashover – when the temperature inside the room or compartment on fire, rises so rapidly that all the combustible materials reach their ignition point at the same time. This is a life-threatening event and firefighters need to know how to handle this before they are in the situation.
Which is why a very large black trailer, known as the Phase I Flashover Unit belong to OCC, was parked in the lot of the Hamburg Fire Department on Friday.
The trailer is actually a rolling laboratory used to create flashback fires in a “controlled” environment.
There are different levels inside the trailer. The firefighters are in a lower area, several feet below where the fire is actual set, since heat rises and this gives the firefighters a bit of protection from the severe heat.
The trainees are broken into relatively small groups before entering the trailer with an OCC trainer, allowing them several rotations within the exercise.
First off a fire is started, usually fueled by items that would be in a home, particle board, lumber, paper, all within a metal barrel.
“In today’s buildings, rooms are much tighter than before, because of insulation and other energy saving devices,” Roosevelt said. “This means that the heat from a fire is reflected back into the room, driving the temperatures higher at a faster rate.
“With the enclosed trailer, we reproduce that and the firefighters watch all the phases of the fire, from when it is set, to when it is life-threatening.”
Within minutes of the fire being set, dense, dark roiling smoke can be seen venting from the trailer.
According to Roosevelt, that type of smoke is one of the warning signs that the heat is building to a dangerous level within the compartment. Thick, dark smoke means fuels are present that are giving off vapors that will burn when exposed to high heat.
“As the materials burn, carbon monoxide is released into the air and as more is released, the area close to the ceiling begins to get orange sections in it,” Roosevelt said.
That is a major warning signal to firefighters, one that can not be ignored.
“If you see these orange ‘fingers,’ that should set off a yellow flag in your head, telling you that these pockets of gas are igniting and will set off other pockets. Temperatures are now intense, heading to the critical 1,100 degrees, which could ignite the entire room, from ceiling to floor.
“Once there is an orange glow along the ceiling that is a ‘red flag’ and you only have seconds to get out of there.
“At that point, everything in that room is a combustible item, including the firefighter,” Roosevelt said.
According to OCC Trainer Lt. Ken Chesnut, today’s fires are hotter than what they were a decade or so ago.
“Our gear is not designed to protect us from that type of heat,” Chesnut said.
As an example, the firefighters breathing apparatus can only withstand temperatures into the mid-400 degrees, before there is concern they will begin to melt or malfunction. Even with a heat shield, the masks can not withstand that type of heat.
“Were is the mask? It’s on our heads and what is up high in the hotter temperatures, going first into the fire?” Roosevelt said. “That’s another reason for this type of training. You need to know what your equipment can handle.”
Before they enter the trailer, the firefighters spend two hours in classroom instruction learning what a flashover is, the warning signals, what the equipment can handle and what to do to save their lives in that situation.
“Firefighters are taught ‘Hit the red with the wet’ but in this case, that could be fatal,” Roosevelt said.
According to Roosevelt, if you hit this intense heat with gallons of water, you create a huge amount of very hot steam, which will then settle on the firefighters causing sever burning, if not death.
“Instead, put only pints of water into the hot atmosphere, to try and cool it down enough so you can get out. At that point that is all you can do,” Roosevelt said.
During the training, each of the participants are given several opportunities to practice with the hose, to try and cool the atmosphere, preventing the flashover from occurring.
Following several rotations, the trainees then leave the trailer, it is ventilated and the fire is extinguished.
The group then goes back for a review/discussion of their experience with other OCC trainers.
“Recognize the warning signs for the flashover,” OCC Trainer Zac McKee told the group. “A fire talks to you, listen to it.
“Realize that if you are in a fire and you see those warning signs of a flashover, there is no-one left alive to rescue and you need to get out, now,” McKee said.
When asked, the participants in the group were very pleased with the experience and some wanted to go again.
Tom Moses, 16, of the Hamburg Junior Firefighters, was able to observe the training with his father, First Assistant Chief Tim Moses.
“It was the first time for me to ever be inside a real fire,” Tom Moses said. “It was unbelievably impressive and it was something to see how quickly a fire can ignite its surroundings.”
“By far, this is the best training we’ve ever had and I’m glad so many departments were able to come out and be a part of this,” Tim Moses said.
Those participating were: Hamburg, Armor, Newton Abbott, Lake Shore, Lake View, Scranton, Eden, Lawtons, North Collins, Collins, Seneca Hose, Orchard Park, Hillcrest, Windom, Colesville, Clarence Center, Main & Transit, Rapids (Town of Lockport), Kenmore, South Wales and Winchester (West Seneca).
For more information on OCC training, visit www.oaklandcc.edu/Fire.