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NIST study reveals importance of crew sizes and arrival times in successful firefighting operations

Risk of fire damage grows up due to delay in arrival of firefighters
A new study shows residential fires cause much damage to life and property 

A landmark study issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) shows that the size of firefighting crews has a substantial effect on the fire service's ability to protect lives and property in residential fires.

Performed by a broad coalition in the scientific, firefighting and public-safety communities, the study found that four-person firefighting crews were able to complete 22 essential firefighting and rescue tasks in a typical residential structure 30 percent faster than two-person crews and 25 percent faster than three-person crews. The report is the first to quantify the effects of crew sizes and arrival times on the fire service's lifesaving and firefighting operations for residential fires. Until now, little scientific data have been available.

"The results from this rigorous scientific study on the most common and deadly fires in the country-those in single-family residences-provide quantitative data to fire chiefs and public officials responsible for determining safe staffing levels, station locations and appropriate funding for community and firefighter safety," said NIST's Jason Averill, one of the study's principal investigators.

The four-person crews were able to deliver water to a similar-sized fire 15 percent faster than the two-person crews and 6 percent faster than three-person crews, steps that help to reduce property damage and lower danger to the firefighters.

"Fire risks grow exponentially. Each minute of delay is critical to the safety of the occupants and firefighters, and is directly related to property damage," said Averill, who leads NIST's Engineered Fire Safety Group within its Building and Fire Research Laboratory.

"Our experiments directly address two primary objectives of the fire service: extinguishing the fire and rescuing occupants," said Lori Moore-Merrell of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and a principal investigator on the study.

More than 60 controlled experiments were conducted by NIST to determine the effects of crew size and arrival time on extinguishing fires

The four-person crews were able to complete search and rescue 30 percent faster than two-person crews and 5 percent faster than three-person crews, Moore-Merrell explained. Five-person crews were faster than four-person crews in several key tasks. The benefits of five-person crews have also been documented by other researchers for fires in medium- and high-hazard structures, such as high-rise buildings, commercial properties, factories and warehouses.

This study explored fires in a residential structure, where the vast majority of fatal fires occur. The researchers built a "low-hazard" structure as described in National Fire Protection Association Standard 1710 (NFPA 1710), a consensus standard that provides guidance on the deployment of career firefighters. The two-story, 2000-square-foot test facility was constructed at the Montgomery County Public Safety Training Academy in Rockville, Md. Fire crews from Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va., responded to live fires within this facility.

NIST researchers and their collaborators conducted more than 60 controlled fire experiments to determine the relative effects of crew size, the arrival time of the first fire crews, and the "stagger," or spacing, between the arrivals of successive waves of firefighting apparatus (vehicles and equipment). The stagger time simulates the typically later arrival of crews from more distant stations as compared to crews from more nearby stations.

Crews of two, three, four and five firefighters were timed as they performed 22 standard firefighting and rescue tasks to extinguish a live fire in the test facility. Those standard tasks included occupant search and rescue, time to put water on fire, and laddering and ventilation. Apparatus arrival time, the stagger between apparatus, and crew sizes were varied.

The United States Fire Administration reported that 403,000 residential structure fires killed close to 3,000 people in 2008-accounting for approximately 84 percent of all fire deaths-and injured about 13,500. Direct costs from these fires were about $8.5 billion. Annually, firefighter deaths have remained steady at around 100, while tens of thousands more are injured.

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