Articles by Larry Anderson
Recruiting and training enough firefighters to meet community needs has been a continuing challenge for decades, especially in the case of volunteer firefighters, who make up 70% of the fire service in the United States. In some areas of the country, the problem has reached a critical stage. A recent report by a commission of lawmakers, city officials and emergency service personnel in Pennsylvania, for example, notes that the population of volunteer firefighters in the state has dwindled from 300,000 in the 1990s to fewer than 38,000. In Pennsylvania, around 90 percent of the state’s 2,400 fire companies are volunteer. Challenges Faced By Volunteers There are multiple challenges to supplying adequate personnel to the fire service. One is an aging population. About a third of small-town volunteer firefighters are over 50, and it’s not uncommon for rural firefighters to be in their 60s or 70s. Furthermore, economic challenges today require many households to have two incomes, and increased job and family responsibilities leave little time for volunteering. Commuting patterns make it less likely volunteers work in the local community, which makes them less available in case of a fire emergency. Nationwide calls to volunteer fire departments have tripled in the last three decades Also exacerbating the problem is that fire departments are facing more emergency calls than ever, including a variety of different kinds of calls. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) notes that volunteer firefighters are summoned to a wide array of emergencies across the country every day including fires, emergency medical incidents, terrorist events, natural disasters, hazardous materials incidents, water rescue emergencies, high-angle and confined space emergencies, and other general public service calls. The shortage of volunteer firefighters is being felt everywhere. Meanwhile, nationwide calls to volunteer fire departments have tripled in the last three decades. The problem is especially serious in small towns and rural areas, which are more likely to depend on volunteer firefighters. About a third of small-town volunteer firefighters are over 50, and it’s not uncommon for rural firefighters to be in their 60s or 70s Some Facts Of Interest From The NVFC Most volunteer firefighters (95%) are in departments that protect fewer than 25,000 people Of the estimated 29,727 fire departments in the U.S., 19,762 are all volunteer, and another 5,421 are mostly volunteer Nearly two-thirds (65%) of volunteer firefighters have more than five years of service Training costs are high, too. The NVFC estimates the cost to train and equip a firefighter at around $27,095. Volunteering can be costly for the volunteers, also, who drive personal cars to and from the station, for example. Even as the fire service embraces new technologies and approaches, the role of firefighters will remain essential Various measures are being undertaken to address the shortage of volunteer firefighters, including an increase in recruiting and marketing efforts to make volunteering more attractive. Given the aging firefighter population, it’s important to make entering the fire service a more desirable option for Millennials. Promotional efforts in Pennsylvania include marketing campaigns, recruitment centers, billboards, commercials in movie theaters and mailers. Need For Trained Personnel Incentives to join the fire service might include high school or college credit to volunteers or even free tuition to community colleges and state universities. Some states provide financial incentives such as property tax breaks or local income tax credits to fire volunteers. Departments are also changing to accommodate the lack of sufficient personnel. Some departments are centralising or consolidating. Others are transitioning to more full-time or paid-on-call firefighters. Even as the fire service embraces new technologies and approaches, the role of firefighters will remain essential. The role may evolve, but the need for trained personnel is a constant. Fulfilling that need will be an ongoing challenge for departments and local jurisdictions.
The immense scope and scale of this month’s California wildfires are a timely reminder of a “new normal” that includes a catastrophic toll in human tragedy and presents new challenges for fire service professionals. Some have pointed to the increased frequency of wildfires as a consequence of global warming, and the resulting higher temperatures, less humidity and changing wind and rainfall patterns. President Trump has blamed “poor forest management” (an assertion the president of California Professional Firefighters has called “dangerously wrong.”) Other theories include population shifts and the proximity of residences near wildlands. There has been talk of a need for better long-term fire prevention. But whatever the cause, the results are eye-opening. Historically, all but one of California’s biggest-ever wildfires have occurred in the last 10 years Rapid Increase In Wildfires In California California’s Camp Fire has been called the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. Fast-moving and unpredictable, the fire totally destroyed the town of Paradise. At the same time, the Woolsey Fire continued for 10 days and consumed an estimated 96,949 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Historically, all but one of California’s biggest-ever wildfires have occurred in the last 10 years, whether measured in terms of area impacted, loss of life or damage to property, all suggesting a troubling acceleration. In fact, an increase in wildfires is causing destruction around the world. Firefighters Combating Wildfires Effectively For firefighters, the experience and environment have been compared to working in a war zone, reflected by terms such as “aerial assaults” and “boots on the ground.” Burned-out cars on the side of the road, residents fleeing from their homes and whole areas totally annihilated reflect a level of destruction that is unusual in a peaceful society. Tent cities of displaced residents are reminiscent of war refugees. For the recent California fires, firefighter teams traveled from 17 states to battle the wildfires The California wildfires also bring out the best in humanity. There are tales of neighbor helping neighbor and examples of heroism among residents and firefighters, who also share a feeling of brotherhood and kinship forged in extremely adverse conditions. It’s a job that demands bravery and resilience. For the recent California fires, firefighter teams traveled from 17 states to battle the wildfires, from as far away as Alaska and Georgia. There were around 200 firefighters from Texas, 300 from Oregon, and 144 from Arizona among the extra manpower deployed to fight the fires. Protecting Firefighters From Wildfire Danger Fighting wildfires requires a specific approach and offers new challenges. Water can be difficult to find in an already drought-ridden state. Fires that spring up in wooded areas present difficult terrain for fire-fighting vehicles. Higher heat and smoke levels challenge the best methods of protecting firefighters from injury. As the accelerated pace and larger scale of wildfires continue, the fire service will need to expand its strategies, and fire equipment industry will need to enhance its toolbox to meet tomorrow’s continuing horrific realities. If there is a lesson in this month’s wildfires in California, perhaps it is this: More to come.
From a dozen or more perspectives, the tragic fire at London’s Grenfell Tower was a wakeup call. The shear scope of the tragedy – 72 deaths, 70 injuries in the worst United Kingdom residential fire since World War II – is a stark reminder of the importance of fire prevention, and the catastrophic consequences of its failure. There are additional lessons to be learned from the fire service response to the blaze, which burned for 60 hours and involved 250 London Fire Brigade firefighters and 70 fire engines from stations across London. A stark reminder of the importance of fire prevention, and the catastrophic consequences of its failure In short, the Grenfell fire is the kind of colossal event that shakes aside any complacency that stems from a decades-long trend of decreasing deaths from fire. It takes a tragedy of such monumental proportions to get the full attention of government, regulators, fire professionals, and the general public. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the challenge is to focus that attention in ways that can have a real impact on preventing future tragedies. Building Regulations And Designs A torrent of questions and second-guessing have emerged from the Grenfell experience. How should building regulations change, including the use of aluminum composite material panels that contributed to the rapid spread of the fire? What about building designs? Grenfell Tower had one central stairwell and one exit. Are more sprinkler systems needed in residential buildings, and what obstacles must be overcome to make it happen? Related to the response to the fire, how did officials who advised residents to “stay put” for two hours as the fire was spreading contribute to the death toll? How should practices change, given that “stay put” is often the advice to residents in a high-rise building fire likely to be easily contained? Every action taken in response to the fire is being scrutinised. Will useful new best practices emerge? Are more sprinkler systems needed in residential buildings, and what obstacles must be overcome to make it happen? Sufficiency of firefighting equipment is another concern. In the Grenfell fire, how was the firefighting effort impacted when a tall ladder did not arrive for more than 30 minutes? What was the role of low water pressure? Were there problems with radio communication? The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, ordered by Prime Minister Theresa May on the day after the fire, is examining every detail. The inquiry’s chairman has promised that “no stone will be left unturned.” Meanwhile, it behooves all of us to ponder what lessons we can learn from the tragedy, and to ask how we can apply those lessons to prevent future tragedies.
During the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, the gunman activated a manual fire alarm and shot at students as they left the building. The alarm promoted confusion during the calamity, in part because there had been a fire drill earlier in the day. It's not the first time a fire alarm has played a role in an active shooter scenario. Twenty years ago, a similar tactic was used at the Westside Middle School shooting in Jonesborough, Ark. A fire alarm also was pulled at Columbine High School during the 1998 massacre. The concern is not new. Alternatives To Manual-Pull Fire Alarms Manual pull fire alarms also present other problems, especially nuisance alarms. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has addressed the problem for more than a decade in its Life Safety Standards, which allow for the elimination of manual pull alarms as long as there are other measures that provide the same benefits. “We have had a provision to relieve schools from having to install pull boxes in common areas for 12 to 15 years,” says Robert Solomon, Director for Building Fire Protection and Systems at NFPA. “Many school administrators don’t realize we have given them alternatives.”Many school administrators don’t realize we have given them alternatives” Alternatives include use of smoke detectors, automatic sprinklers, and/or locating pull stations in school administration or office areas. NFPA Life Safety Code The NFPA Life Safety Code was created in 1911 and has been updated every three years since then. Committees that include architects, engineers, code consultants, manufacturers, testing labs, and universities meet periodically to discuss what changes are needed. In fact, the committees are meeting this summer in Minneapolis to discuss the next version of the Life Safety Code. NFPA manages the code but has no authority to enforce it. State policy makers and legislative bodies (and some municipalities) adopt various versions of the code as local requirements. Which version of the NFPA Life Safety Code has been adopted in a locality determines how much flexibility there is to eliminate pull station alarms. Allowances to eliminate them have been included since 2006. However, some localities are still using earlier versions of the code, in which case a change in the law would be required to provide the additional flexibilities. The 2018 Life Safety Code allows the elimination of manual pull stations in some circumstances NFPA And Manual-Pull Fire Alarms Sections in the code address issues and concerns related to new construction (Chapter 14) and existing occupancy (Chapter 15). In the case of existing facilities, a school administrator could act to phase out manual pull stations in common areas as long as the move is allowed under the code version (year) that the jurisdiction has adopted. For example, a jurisdiction still operating under the 2000 code could not eliminate pull stations unless the local jurisdiction adopted a more recent version of the code. The 2018 Life Safety Code allows the elimination of manual pull stations if: Interior corridors are protected by smoke detectors in accordance with the code; Auditoriums, cafeterias, and gymnasiums are protected by heat-detection devices or other approved detection devices; Workshops and laboratories with dust and vapor are protected by heat-detection devices or other approved detection devices; and There is a provision at a central point to manually activate the evacuation signal or to evacuate only affected areas. Manual pull alarms can also be eliminated if there is a sprinkler system with a pressure sensor that activates an alarm when the water starts to flow.No student has died in a school fire in the United States since 1958 Another measure schools can adopt is to install a cover for the pull station that sounds a local horn if it is lifted to gain access to the manual fire alarm box. This approach is a deterrent and alerts local personnel before a full-blown fire alarm is activated. A security camera installed near an alarm can also be activated when the alarm is pulled. School Fire Risk No student has died in a school fire in the United States since 1958 when the Our Lady of Angels School fire in Chicago claimed 92 fatalities. (Chicago did not use the NFPA Life Safety Code at the time.) The tragic fire was a wakeup call to pay more attention to school fire risks. Since 1958, the level of planning, training and systems that have been installed in schools (including use of the NFPA Life Safety Code) has paid dividends in student safety. Today, it is more likely a student will die at the hands of an active shooter than in a fire. That reality has driven the need to adapt provisions of the Life Safety Code. For example, door-locking options need to allow for school lockdowns while still enabling safe exit during a fire. Some door-locking or barricade devices on the market do not adhere to code requirements. A section on “classroom door locking to prevent entry” is included in the 2018 edition of the code. Raising Awareness Of Life Safety Codes Awareness is a challenge for NFPA. While code officials or architect/engineers may be familiar with Life Safety Code requirements, that awareness may not extend to busy school administrators. NFPA is working to communicate code requirements to this group, including development of one-page executive summaries that make complex code requirements more digestible. “Policy makers should understand they have an obligation to review code provisions and work toward staying more current on codes,” says Solomon. Alarms activated during an active shooter event are a variation on a problem that has plagued pull-station alarms for years – the issue of nuisance alarms. It’s a scary and potentially deadly new angle on an age-old problem, but one the NFPA Life Safety Code has already been addressing.
The dangers of firefighting make it unfriendly to the concept of the learning curve. Before they put their lives on the line, firefighters should have knowledge and experience. But gaining knowledge and experience in the firefighting environment presents its own dangers. Virtual reality (VR) is an emerging tool for training in the fire service. Recreating the firefighting experience realistically in a virtual world is a useful – and safer – alternative to on-the-job training. It is also less expensive than some other training options, such as recreation of realistic fire rescue scenarios. “For a situation when someone’s life would be in danger, a virtual reality experience can enable them to practice in the safety of their own environments,” says Michael Schreiner, Senior Director of Content for Target Solutions, which is developing VR training for firefighters. “In real life, the building would be on fire and they would have to make life-or-death decisions. With virtual reality, firefighters can make a mistake about how to attack a fire without putting themselves in danger.”With virtual reality, firefighters can make a mistake about how to attack a fire without putting themselves in danger.” Virtual Reality Firefighter Training Target Solutions, a brand of Vector Solutions, Tampa, Florida, has partnered with Pasco County (Fla.) Fire Rescue to develop a lifelike 360-degree VR “smoke reading” training course. Creating the course involved a 360-degree Virtual Reality video shoot using drone technology to film actual firefighters training in real-life simulations. The video was created with expert help from consultants and field insights from subject matter experts, fire service instructors, and paramedics. Learners using the course wear VR goggles and are immersed in a virtual environment where they will receive instruction on how to read smoke and to decide how to attack a fire based on what the smoke tells them. Reading smoke involves judging the color, volume, density and rate of rise. For example, the seat of a fire tends to produce smoke that is thick and dark and has a high rate of rise; in contrast, smoke elsewhere is a burning building might be light and wispy. Firefighters have to make split-second decisions based on the appearance of smoke, and deciding wrong can have dire consequences. Another benefit of virtual reality in firefighter training is lower costs Making Better Decisions The 12-minute-or-so smoke reading “micro-course” uses a story-based approach to emphasize the emotional elements of decision-making. Schreiner says people learn best when emotions are tied into the learning. Elements of the training scenario include exposition, rising action, a crisis and a resolution. Unrelenting “heartbeat” sounds promote a sense of urgency. The course then evaluates whether a learner made the right decision. The course can be practiced over and over. The idea is for firefighters to develop “muscle memory” to make better decisions under pressure in a real fire rescue situation. Vector Solutions chose shooting a video for a real-world effect over computer-generated graphics, which are more expensive but less realistic. For the video training, smoke graphic effects were added in post-production. Lower Training Costs The idea is for firefighters to develop “muscle memory” to make better decisions under pressure in a real situation Another benefit of virtual reality in firefighter training is lower costs. The training session used to shoot the 360-degree video cost around $20,000, which is typical of similar training exercises. Mobilizing a ladder truck, two fire trucks, a fire rescue truck and commander’s vehicles are all part of the costs, as are the costs (including overtime) of 13 firefighters taking part in the exercise. VR is a relatively new learning tool, and Schreiner says feedback from the market will make it clear how effective it is. “We can immerse a person in a situation and it’s a safe environment, but we have to let our learners tell us how effective it is,” he says. “We will get feedback from learners and training administration. It’s another tool in the toolbox, but it will not totally replace real-life training.” VR Training For Dangerous Professions Schreiner says VR is a huge training opportunity for any type of dangerous profession, whether construction workers operating on scaffolding, or educators in an active shooter situation. “Where safety is a risk, VR will really start taking off,” he says. Almost 6,000 clients across the United States use Target Solutions training products, including courses that are specific to the fire service, such as "Cancer Related Risks of Firefighting."
Drones are an important new tool for the fire service and have already proven their ability to save lives. Willingness to embrace drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs]) for fire applications varies widely by department, and it’s not just larger departments that are making the investment. Some smaller departments are investing in drones in a big way, even as some larger departments are reticent. Firefighting Drone Programs Departments may start with a small drone just to “try it out” and to prove its usefulness to upper management. Other departments start with a budgeted amount for their drone program and go from there. According to Matt Sloane, CEO of Skyfire Consulting, the average drone program is around $35,000 to $40,000, which provides drones, thermal imaging, cameras, operation costs – all of it. Drone programs are not covered by Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) grants, however. As little as $1,500 can buy an “eye in the sky” drone (without thermal functionality). Sloane says the top question he used to get asked by potential customers was “How do I use this thing?” Now the top question is “How do I sell it to my chief?” Sloane has done hundreds of demonstrations of drone technology to fire departments and has never heard anyone say “I don’t see how that would be useful.” In fact, cost justification of drones is easy if you compare the cost with operating a helicopter, the closest alternative to provide comparable information. Sloane says implementing a drone program is equivalent in cost to “between 40 and 50 hours” of operating a helicopter. “There is still a misperception that drones are toys,” says Sloane. “But people’s lives are being saved so we’re past that stage.” He compares the reception to drones in the fire service to initial resistance to the use of thermal cameras. “Now everyone has one,” he says. A drone can provide a 360-degree view of a single-family house fire within seconds Effectiveness Of Drones In Fire Applications Education is an important element in spreading the word about the effectiveness of drones for fire applications, says Sloane. A fire department might choose to implement a drone program after they experience a situation in which a drone would have been a useful asset. Drones can be helpful for hazardous materials protection, search-and-rescue, and wildfire applications. The value of a drone boils down to providing better information for decision-making. In the case of a hazardous material spill, for example, a drone can provide information much faster than it would take personnel to don hazmat garments to approach an area safely; there is also no risk to life. A drone can provide a 360-degree view of a single-family house fire within seconds. A thermal imaging camera mounted on a drone can provide instant feedback on hot spots and where the fire is moving. Some drones can drop payloads; for example, they can drop a life jacket to a swimmer or a radio to someone who is trapped. Drones can also be helpful in training, providing high-level views to document activity for evaluation after the fact. Communication with a drone is localized between the drone and the remote control. A smart phone or tablet can be plugged into the drone’s remote to communicate images across the Internet. The remote’s HDMI output also allows a drone’s image to be displayed on a TV monitor. How To Start A Drone Program Skyfire Consulting provides a “one-stop shop” for fire and police departments seeking to start a drone program. The company helps with choosing the right equipment, performs on-site training, guides the department to obtain the needed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorizations, and aids with developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) and policies. Implementation of the average drone program takes three to six months. FAA authorization to fly drones comes in two varieties. Drones can be flown under Part 107 rules for commercial use and for video production. The authorization merely requires passing a 60-question written test with a 70 percent score. The certification is good for two years and allows an operator to fly drones up to 400 feet in line-of-site, and within Class G (uncontrolled) air space. A downside is that the permit assigns liability to the operator (and a waiver may or may not be granted). Departments are buying a variety of drones in combinations of large and small Obtaining A Certificate Of Authorization The second variety of FAA authorization is a COA (Certificate of Authorization), which assigns liability to the department operating the drones. It also allows the department to self-certify their operators, perform training, and operate in some controlled air space if a waiver is granted. Earning a COA is more complicated, but offers benefits, including the ability to train new operators in a department that has turnover. Line-of-site operation is a requirement for flying any drones. Line-of-site is typically three-fourths of a mile, and drones are equipped with bright lights and anti-collision lights (visible for three nautical miles). Sloane says the FAA is generally very positive about public safety uses of drones and works with departments to get their drone programs in place. Choosing Between Small And Large Drones A popular drone manufacturer is DJI Technology, which has a dominant share of the consumer drone market. A popular model is the DJI Phantom drones, which provide 35 minutes of flight time and a good camera. For other sensors, something larger is needed. Departments are buying a variety of drones in combinations of large and small. Small drones perform tactical missions and can fly through a window, while larger drones can be equipped with thermal and/or zoom cameras. The price tags on individual drones range from $500 to $30,000 or more. Larry Anderson Editor TheBigRedGuide.com