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Fire Risk Reduction in Communities Program


This program reduces community fire risk by 1) increasing the fire resilience of wildland-urban interface (WUI) communities and 2) enhancing the safety and effectiveness of fire fighters. In the United States, there are over 46 million structures located in 70,000 communities that are either co-located or abut wildland vegetation and forests. WUI communities are especially susceptible to destruction from wildland fires. The 1991 Oakland and 2007 Witch Creek fires in California resulted in property losses of $2.7B and $1.5B, respectively.[i] This program combines lab- and field-scale experiments with computer fire models to characterize the WUI fire exposure in order to develop science-based standards, codes, and practices for fire resistant communities. This program is also working to reduce community fire risk by improving the safety and effectiveness of fire fighters. In 2017, the fire departments in the United States responded to more than 500,000 [ii] structure fires. These fires resulted in approximately 2,815 civilian fatalities, 12,000 injuries and property losses of approximately $10.7B.[ii], not including the losses in the 2017 Northern California Wildfires, estimated to be $10B. In terms of tactics, most fire ground actions are driven by tradition and experience and are not based on an understanding of fire dynamics and fire science. Fire fighters rely on electronic and personal protective equipment to enhance their safety and effectiveness. Current test methods and standards do not fully characterize the performance of equipment under the extreme fire fighting environments in which they are operated. This program addresses the need to develop performance based metrics and standards for equipment and science-based approaches for tactics.


NIST's Firebrand Generator generates burning embers (or firebrands) that are major sources of ignition of house fires during blazes at the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Photo credit: NIST

To develop and deploy advances in measurement science to improve the resilience of communities and structures to unwanted fires through innovative fire protection and response technologies and tactics.

What is the new technical idea?
There are two new technical ideas, using measurement science to promote: 1) the resiliency of WUI communities by addressing large-scale and infrequent WUI fires and 2) fire fighting safety and effectiveness. For WUI fire resilience, the new technical idea is to implement a mitigation framework for both individual structures and communities. The mitigation framework features three components, a) characterizing potential exposures, b) understanding the response of the structure, sub-division, and community, and c) designing the structure, sub-division, and community to withstand potential exposures. Characterizing the exposure requires understanding the impact of fuel type and configuration, wind, moisture, and terrain. This needs a coordinated effort comprised of targeted lab experiments, field measurements, post-WUI fire analysis, and a range of models including vegetation and structure fire models. Combining the exposure with the response of the structure and community enables the development of measurement science-based tools for improved fire-resistant design and forms the basis for improved WUI fire building test methods, standards, and codes.

The new technical idea for fire fighter safety and effectiveness is to incorporate cyber-physical systems and to develop performance metrics and standard test methods that directly relate to the operating environment and fire fighters’ tasks. If relevant performance data is available for existing equipment or tactics, then a meaningful performance metric can be developed, but too often the necessary data is not readily available. For protective clothing, there is a significant amount of data for new protective clothing, but very little data on used or soiled clothing. There is very limited data available on the performance of radios under typical fire conditions. Lab- and full-scale tests will provide the necessary data to generate comprehensive metrics for existing equipment. For emerging technologies, industry often has little understanding of the operating environment or requirements of the fire service. Lab- and full-scale tests in combination with science-based metrics will allow industry to evaluate and improve their own products and develop new technology. Cyber-physical systems offer new opportunities in situational awareness, to enable robotic intervention in fires, and ultimately, to improve fire fighter safety and effectiveness.

What is the research plan?
The research plan includes three thrusts 1) improve fire resilience of wildland urban interface communities, 2) improve the safety and effectiveness of fire fighters, and 3) cross cutting research through Fire Research Grants.

The first research thrust improves the resiliency of communities to infrequent, but large-scale adverse WUI fires incidents and includes three elements: 1) reduce fire spread among structures within a community, 2) reduce the ignition of structures, and 3) incorporate research results into wildland-urban interface (WUI) building, fire codes, and standards. Building upon the characterization of flame spread on individual components such as decks or fences in the previous phase, this phase of WUI fire spread element will assess the vulnerabilities to fire spread as several components are combined into structure assemblies. The current phase will examine how decks or fences cause a fire to spread to structures, as well as how wind, moisture, and terrain affect the fire spread. This effort will characterize the fire exposure through collection, analysis, archiving post-fire data in NIST Disaster and Failure Studies Program database, and incorporating wind into the Fire Dynamics Simulator (FDS) for WUI applications [xiii]. An emphasis is place on examining how structures ignite. The current work will characterize how roof shingle or landscaping mulch ignition can lead to attic or exterior siding ignition. This will need an integrated science-based effort comprised of targeted laboratory experiments and a range of models including vegetation and structure fire models. A Guide for implementing technical solutions and beginning to develop science-based performance metrics for mitigation of WUI ignition and fire spread will build on the August 2012 WUI Building and Fire Codes Technical Solutions Implementation Workshop.

The work will involve transferring the improved characterization of exposure and response of structures and communities to building and fire code, and standards committees.

The second research thrust improves the resiliency of communities and includes three elements, which enhance the safety and effectiveness of fire fighters through improved equipment and operational tactics. Expanding upon the high temperature performance of respirator results obtained previously, the current effort will address the high temperature performance of fire fighter electronic equipment including radios and fire fighter locators, and fire fighter protective clothing. Test methods will be developed to assess the performance of fire fighter equipment under realistic high temperature, rough duty, environments. The current phase of the tactics work will build upon the understanding of fire behavior that was gained previously on ventilation tactics. There are no national fire fighting standard operating procedures or tactics. Instead, tactics are developed locally and influenced by tradition and experience, not necessarily fire science. Measurements are needed to determine the capabilities and limitations of fire suppression techniques in real scale structures to provide a basis for science-informed tactics. Advances in cyber-physical systems will be exploited through development of performance standards for firefighting equipment, apparatus, and robotics.

A third thrust involves cross-cutting research that addresses key aspects of the national fire problem and supports the strategic objectives of the fire programs within EL’s Disaster-Resilient Buildings, Infrastructure, and Communities Goal. Several continuing and new cooperative agreements will support researchers external to NIST on a range of topics, including characterization of ignition in the WUI, fire modeling, and improved understanding of the thermal performance of self-contained breathing apparatus for use by structural fire fighters.

Major Accomplishments

Some recent accomplishments in the area of Emergency Response Robots include:

  • The development of a suite of standards for response robot for the ASTM International Standards Committee on Homeland Security Applications and a suite of aerial maneuver tests and operator credentialing for small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS).
  • A finalist for the 2021 Service to America Medal in the category of Safety, Security, and International Affairs for developing sophisticated testing standards to ensure ground, underwater and aerial robots have the capability to help emergency responders and the military handle disasters and other dangerous situations.
  • Received Presidential Gears of Government Award (2020) for developing the first ever comprehensive suite of emergency response robot test methods and data collection tools to evaluate and improve bomb-disposal robots and operators.
  • Received Homeland Security Today Award MVP: Drones (2020) for the development of the NIST Standard Test Methods for Small Unmanned Aircraft System that can be used to train and measure proficiency for public safety remote pilots.
  • Received Secretary Ron Brown Excellence in Innovation Award (2019), the most prestigious singular honor given by the U.S. Department of Commerce, for developing and disseminating more than 30 performance tests that quantitatively measure and compare ground robot capabilities, leading to improvements that enable emergency responders to perform extremely hazardous missions from safer standoff distances.
  • Received Gold Medal Award (2019), the highest award given by the U.S. Department of Commerce, for extraordinary scientific contributions that impact key mission objectives.

Some recent accomplishments in the area of Enhanced Effectiveness of Fire Fighting Tactics include:

  • The development of high temperature performance requirements and test methods for NFPA 1802: Standard on Two-Way, Portable RF Voice Communications Devices for Use by Emergency Services Personnel in the Hazard Zone.
  • The development of a wireless sensor network to measure water flow in a fire hose for smart fire fighting.
  • The development of P-Flash – a machine learning (ML) based flashover prediction model to enable smart fire fighting for compartment fires.

Some recent accomplishments in the area of Reduced Ignition of Building Components and Ember Exposure in Wildland Urban Interface Fires include:

  • The development of an emberometer, a device that can be used to measure firebrand velocities, sizes, and fluxes to characterize ember exposure in wildland-urban interface fires.

Some recent accomplishments in the area of Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Fire Data Collection and Parcel Vulnerabilities included:

  • The completion of Camp Fire timeline reconstruction report (NIST TN 2135).
  • The development of FireSCREEN, a simple compact reusable ember enclosure net, that can be used as a barrier to mitigate firebrand attack and lofting.
Created October 31, 2011, Updated July 12, 2021