Both the European and North American fire services would benefit greatly from a unified approach to firefighting for a very simple and straightforward reason: the former is well-schooled in the theories of fire dynamics, while the latter is expert on fireground tactics. So said John Chubb, a battalion chief for the Dublin Fire Brigade, who spoke on the topic last month at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) held in Indianapolis.
Indeed, many sound North American tactics — such as technical rescue, hazmat response, positive pressure ventilation, tactical ventilation and forcible entry techniques, particularly the use of the Halligan tool — largely are being ignored by European fire departments, according to Chubb. “There is a level of ignorance towards the way in which North American departments operate, and even a level of arrogance,” Chubb said. “People in Europe feel that we have superior firefighting technology and a superior [knowledge of] firefighting science in the average firefighter. But I would suggest that such a belief is very close-minded.”
Chubb added that such beliefs are fueled by misconceptions about the number of line-of-duty deaths in North America, particularly in the United States, which at first glance are considerably higher than they are in Europe. “When you drill down into the American statistics, however, you find that they are taken from a much broader spectrum of deaths than the European statistics, particularly the United Kingdom,” he said.
“In other words, if you went home from work [in the U.S.] and 12 hours later you had a cardiac event, that would be associated with your job. That wouldn’t happen in the U.K.”
Chubb cited a couple of examples during the session where an application of North American tactics might have saved lives. In one, a fire started on the 14th floor of an apartment building in the U.K., when a tea light that had been left burning on top of a television set in a bedroom had burned through its container. One of the occupants awoke to the smell of smoke and raced to the kitchen to get a towel, thinking that he could somehow smother the fire. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get back to the bedroom where he had left his girlfriend because the smoke and heat was too oppressive. By this time, he also couldn’t find his way to the front door of the apartment, so he opened a window to call for help. Passerby placed the emergency call.
Two pumpers arrived to the incident about three minutes after the call was received, Chubb said. What they found when they arrived was a building that had no sprinkler system. It did have a hydrant/standpipe, but that was padlocked because of previous vandalism. Unfortunately, neither of the pumpers was equipped with a bolt cutter. Two firefighters raced to the 14th floor and kicked in the door of the apartment. When they were told that the girlfriend still was inside the unit, they decided to perform a rescue — despite having no water.
What they didn’t know was that the bedroom already was in flashover, and that the bedroom window was about to blow out. When it did just moments later, air rushed into the apartment and created a blow-torch effect that incinerated the firefighters and the boyfriend, Chubb said. Temperatures in the apartment at the time of the flashover were estimated at 1,600°F. It took all of 10 seconds for this to transpire after the firefighters entered the apartment, Chubb said.
Chubb suggested that the window failed because this was a wind-driven fire, a phenomenon about which European departments know little about. “The [National Institute of Science and Technology] has done a lot of great research on this — and none of the information has made it across the Atlantic,” he said.
After recounting the events of the incident and pointing out that Europe is far behind North America when it comes to high-rise fighting tactics, Chubb asked attendees what they thought went wrong. Beyond the obvious—locked hydrant/standpipe, no bolt cutter and no sprinkler system — one attendee said that there weren’t enough personnel at the scene, claiming that 40 to 60 firefighters and officers would have responded to a similar fire in the U.S. “Right from the get-go, this was a gong show,” he said.
Another attendee said that American firefighters are more disciplined and less prone to freelancing. “We’re taught time and time again not to freelance,” the attendee said, adding that without such instruction, a firefighter’s natural instinct would take over in a rescue situation. “We’re like a dog with a bone — when we see one, we want it,” he said.
In another example, a tenement building in Dundee, the fourth-largest city in Scotland, caught fire one night. The 100-year-old, 4-story structure had two apartments on each floor. But it didn’t have a fire escape. Also, the common stairwell was not protected in any way, according to Chubb. “There was nothing to stop the smoke from spreading,” he said.
Two pumpers and an aerial were dispatched to the scene. Unfortunately, dispatchers neglected to inform the crews that people were trapped inside the building, nor did they provide any advice to the victims, Chubb said. When the crews arrived, the building’s first floor was fully involved and smoke was billowing out the front door. Despite all of this, the fire was knocked down in about 14 minutes and all of the victims were rescued. Or so they thought. As things turned out, about 40 minutes after they thought things were under control, firefighters found a woman dead in her unit.
“Incident management is lacking in Europe,” Chubb said. “There is no formal structure for conducting searches. In this instance, no secondary search had been conducted.”
Chubb succinctly summarized the situation by pointing out that a lot of work has been done in Europe on theory, while a similar body of work has been completed in North America on tactics. “So why aren’t we talking? We need to start talking. No man is an island,” he said.
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