Fighting modern fires requires a different approach than in the past

By Katelyn Sattler
Staff Writer

Photos courtesy of the Hamilton Township Fire Dept.
Hamilton Township Firefighter Tyler Vorhees flows water through the front door to control fire spread during a recent training session.

Firefighters must practice fighting modern fires and not the legacy fires of the past.

With this in mind, Hamilton Township firefighters recently participated in a training burn at Wilburn farm.

“Modern fires burn black, hot, and very fast,” said Lt. Rafe Britton, a firefighter/paramedic for Hamilton Township Fire Department.

He said legacy fires were fueled by natural products compared to the substances in modern fires in houses.

“Most stuff today is petroleum based,” said Britton. “So fires from petroleum based products – such as plastics and neoprene – when they burn, they burn black, they burn hot, and they burn fast.”

He said in the past, if you had a fire in your house, you had about 17 minutes on average to get out if you did not do anything to stop the fire.

“When I first started, we were running into people going in and out of their house, getting stuff as we were coming in and we fought fire differently,” said Britton.

Today you have three to five minutes to get out of your house until everything in the rooms combust all at once and the whole place is on fire.

House fire training
“We don’t fight as many fires as we used to, so firefighters are not getting the necessary fire experience,” said Britton. “So when we get a structure like this (at Wilburn farm) for live burns, we try to make the fires as close as possible to real life because we want the younger guys to experience the heat, the black smoke, and what it feels like inside. Some of these guys have never seen fire. There’ll be a point where everything combusts at once. That usually happens in three to five minutes. If you’re a firefighter, you need to recognize those conditions.”

The firefighters’ gear protects them up to about 500 degrees. The heat can get up to 1,100 degrees and hotter.

“That’s why I always tell my guys, when in doubt, flow water. I’m not worried about water damage. I’m worried about your life,” said Britton.

He said thermal imaging cameras help firefighters “see” in a fire.

“You can’t see anything in fires now,” said Britton. “We used to crawl in under the smoke on our backs with the fire hose nozzle on our belts. We would push ourselves with our feet back to the fire because those fires didn’t put out near as much smoke as modern fires will. The TIC can look through the smoke. And some TICs are made to where it changes color. We want to see orange. Orange is fire, orange is bad. If I see red, that’s 800 to 1,000 degrees. If I see orange, that’s 500 to 800 degrees.”

Fighting fire with foam
Fire trucks have 30 gallons of foam, which firefighters call “wet water.”

“It breaks down the surface tension of the water and makes the water more effective. It makes it sticky,” said Britton. “A lot of times fires like this (training burn) don’t need foam. Good old water’s about the best thing you can have because it takes the heat out, and it’ll create the steam.”

He said 30 gallons of foam added to 750 gallons of water and makes it 2,100 gallons of water.

“It makes the water more effective,” said Britton. “I have the same amount of water, but the foam is three times more effective. I know a lot of times volunteer departments don’t have money to buy new trucks with foam systems. So they do a poor man’s foam by taking five gallons of Dawn dishwashing liquid and pouring it in the tank.”

Hamilton Township firefighters take a break after a busy morning filled with training under live fire conditions.

“When you have fire blowing out a second floor window, you’ve got to think to yourself what gets water on the fire the fastest,” said Britton “So when I get my hose charged I take the front door, find the stairs, get to the top of the stairs and make a turn into that room faster than if I just hit it hard from outside and bounce the water off the ceiling. This is a transitional attack.”

This slows down the fire.

“So the transitional is you hit it, you get a change with your smoke, shut it off,” said Britton. “Go get it. If I had fire coming out the front door, the fastest way to that fire is hitting it right in the mouth. I’m going to go right in, right where it’s coming out. I’m going to go get it cause that’s where it’s at. I’m going to hit it. Used to be they taught you to fight fire from the unburnt side. I don’t care if it’s burnt or unburnt, wherever the fire’s at, that’s where I’m going.”

He said you do not want the fire behind you, below you, or above you. He said a fellow firefighter will watch the conditions and let other firefighters know where the fire is.

“We’re brothers. I always say brothers above all others,” said Britton. “When we’re in there, it’s about the guy to my side, the guy at my back.”

After the fire
Once the fire is out it’s time to pack up equipment and clean up.

“We’ll get everything in order,” said Britton. “Everybody will take a 20 minute hot shower. The reason we do that is it opens your pores up. So any of the carcinogens we have on us, it’ll open your pores up and you wash it all off. Studies show about 20 minutes for a good hot shower. Some departments that have a lot of money, they bought saunas. And after the fires, the guys will go into saunas. And it sweats it all out of them.”

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