The suppression portion of SUPDET 2016 kicked off yesterday with a keynote on the "History of Fire" by Dick Gann from NIST. He began with the idea that “fire safety is a benefit provided by a society using tactics, including fire suppression, whose nature reflects the cultural priorities of the era rather than being a force by itself.”
For the first hominids, the preservation of fire would have been a priority. They recognized both its destructive power and its benefits, but without the ability to start fires, they had to preserve those they found in order to maintain their power. Later they learned to start fires and to harness them to clear land, work metal, and bake clay.
As civilization grew, along with more tightly packed communities, the priority became not to preserve fire, but to “preserve community.” Ancient Rome brought us the first formal, written building codes and the first fire brigades. We mastered steam, the invented steam-driven perforated pipe system, fire pumps, and finally the self-propelled fire engine to bring water to fires more efficiently.
The beginning of the 20th century heralded a desire to preserve both property and people. We began to experiment with chlorine, halon, and powders as fire suppressants. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, we began to realize the environmental effects of our use of these chemicals. Migration and environmental persistence of compounds contributed to ozone depletion, groundwater pollution and toxicity issues. Our view had to move from a global to a local one.
Where are we now? Our current goal, Dick says, is to “preserve fire safety.” It must be viewed as a pervasive global problem with a global magnitude. Our best tools are performance based codes, integrated information alert/actuation systems, and new fire technologies.