Two deadly fires underscore impact of air flow and necessity of home fire sprinklers

Blog Post created by freddurso Employee on Jan 6, 2016

Home fire
Two deadly fires that recently occurred in my home state of Missouri prompted this blog post.

The first incident, as I understand it, involved a fire in a non-sprinklered, four-story, eight-unit, wood-frame condo built around 1980. The fire began on the fourth floor in an open wooden stairway in the center of the units. Upon smelling smoke, a well-intentioned, untrained, unprotected customer of fire-suppression services (aka the occupant) opened his front door to discover a fire involving the wooden deck of the stairway and some vinyl siding. Leaving his door open, the occupant ran to his kitchen to get a pot of water. He threw the water on the fire but couldn’t control it. Again leaving the door open, the occupant returned to his kitchen for more water.

In the meantime, the condo began filling with smoke. The occupant opened the balcony door opposite the front door in an attempt to clear the smoke. He stepped onto the balcony to get some fresh air and rub his burning eyes. The fire in the condo developed rapidly, and the occupant turned his attention to the four children sleeping in two bedrooms. Unable to reenter the condo due to the intensifying heat and smoke, the occupant climbed down the balcony to escape.

The highly trained, well-equipped deliverers of fire-suppression services (aka the fire department) arrived within minutes. The team made an aggressive fire attack and search-and-rescue operation. They found the four children and two adults trapped in a unit. The children were treated and transported to the hospital, but unfortunately all four died.

The second incident involved a fire in a non-sprinklered, two-story, wood-frame, 3,200-square-foot, single-family dwelling built in 1994. The fire began on the first floor. Upon discovering the fire, a well-intentioned, untrained, unprotected customer of fire-suppression services (aka the occupant) opened both the front and back doors in an attempt to get the dogs out of the house. The fire developed quickly but the occupant escaped. However, a guest in the home that was reporting the fire to 911 died. 

The highly trained, well-equipped deliverers of fire-suppression services (aka the fire department) arrived in minutes to find the home 75 percent involved. They were unable to conduct an interior fire attack or primary search. The body of the guest trapped on the second floor was later recovered.

These two incidents and countless others like them got me to thinking about air flow, fire dynamics, human behavior, and fire sprinklers. Many have long understood the effects of air flow on fire development. My grandfather knew fresh air made an interior fire grow when, as a fire chief in the 1950s, he used to order his firefighters not to open anything in a home. Those of us who responded to home fires in the 1980s understood why this was important every time a police officer would arrive ahead of us and kick in the doors to search for occupants. There were no occupants most of the time, but there was a working fire to attack.

More recently, those researching fire have coined the term “flow path.” I love this term, as it clearly depicts the concept that fire development along the pathway of air flow increases significantly, rapidly, and (often) fatally. This problem is intensified when the flow path is affected by strong air currents, prompting the term, “wind-driven fires.” Flow paths can be created naturally when, for example, a window fails from the heat of the developing fire. Or they can be created manually, such as when a police officer opens a door or window.

Researchers are stressing the importance of fire suppression personnel understanding the impact of flow paths and impact on firefighting tactics and firefighter safety. So much so, that the tactical acronyms rooted in 60 years of firefighter training are now being changed to emphasize the importance of identifying and controlling flow paths.

Failure to identify and control flow paths is now being recognized as a main contributing factor in several line-of-duty firefighter deaths. That being stated, what is the most effective and safest manner to control fire development due to air flow?

One way is to control the air flow. Educating firefighters and civilians on flow paths is a good first step. They can consciously coordinate the opening and closing of doors, windows, and other ventilation features of a building during a fire. This method will have limitations, since civilians might not react accordingly during unexpected and stressful fires.

Another method is to control the fire before the air flow has a significant impact on its growth and spread. Fire sprinklers could achieve this task within minutes of ignition. Outcomes would not be significantly affected by the reaction of well-intentioned, untrained, unprotected customers of fire-suppression services (occupants). This would also be more effective and efficient than awaiting even the fastest response of highly trained, well-equipped deliverers of fire-suppression services (firefighters), even with our pre-connected hoselines.

We need to continue efforts to educate people on air flow and home fire sprinklers or we will continue to experience the same types of fire I’ve mentioned for decades to come.

This post was written by Rick Ennis, fire chief for the City of Cape Girardeau in Missouri and chair of the Missouri Fire Sprinkler Coalition. Read all of Ennis' blog posts written for NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative.