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Fire Fighting Research and Practice: From Lab to the Street

Thank you, Dan.

Good morning everyone, and welcome to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. We are so pleased that you are spending the day to learn about the work we are doing here at NIST with the aim of helping you do your jobs more effectively and more safely.

First, for those of you who are not as familiar with us (and please pardon if this is overly redundant)—five slides.

The firefighting and fire-protection community is our customer. We are your partners in reducing the nation's fire problem. We learn through our research, our test burns, our post-event studies, and our other behind-the-scenes efforts. And then we put what we learn to use for practical benefit.

That, of course, is what today is all about—providing you with the knowledge and information that our fire scientists and engineers have gained through their research—research that has been conducted not just for fire departments but WITH fire departments.

The NIST researchers you will meet and hear from today are truly devoted to the NIST mission to do science that advances the public interest. And if I may brag for a moment, they are top notch, as you will find out.

NIST is not new to fire research. We've been at it for more than a century.

An often cited example is the work we did to improve standardization and interoperability of fire hose couplings in the aftermath of the famous Baltimore Fire of 1904. Companies up and down the East Coast responded to help, but many sat idle while entire neighborhoods burned. Their hoses could not screw into Baltimore's hydrants.

Many decades later, in the early 1970s, NIST led the development of performance standards and placement recommendations for smoke detectors. Now, in about 94 percent of American homes, smoke detectors save thousands of lives every year, and half of all home fire deaths occur in the 6 percent of homes with no smoke alarms.

At about the same time, our work under the Flammable Fabrics Act led to the recognition that the fire hazards within our homes were changing due to the use of synthetic materials. But unfortunately, as you know all too well, the fire hazards in the home have continued to change and grow over time.

NIST's Fire Dynamics Simulator—or FDS—and its Smokeview software have done much to improve understanding of fire behavior. The software has been used to study a number of real events in which firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty, with the goal of improving firefighter tactics and safety.

For example, these tools were essential in NIST's study to determine the factors that led to the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers in the aftermath of the 911 terrorist attacks.

Findings from fire modeling studies and the insights they spark, pardon the pun, have to be tested—first in the laboratory, and then in the field. The laboratory side of these efforts are about to get a big boost. And today, you'll get a chance to see why, when you tour our new National Fire Research Laboratory.

Now undergoing commissioning, this lab will enable fire-testing capabilities beyond those available anywhere else in the world. It will, for example, allow us to measure the fire response of structural systems and components up to the point of collapse. And, it can accommodate blazes equivalent to a three-story townhouse fire, a bus or truck blazing in an underground tunnel, or other major fire scenarios.

The tactical implications of what our researchers learn under the controlled conditions of the laboratory are put to test in the field. And our partnerships with fire departments around the country—New York; Chicago; and Spartanburg, South Carolina; just to name a few—have allowed us to conduct real-world experiments. Through these controlled burns, NIST has been able to determine whether what works in theory really and truly works in practice. We are very grateful for these productive partnerships.

Our work also has benefited greatly from our collaborations with the National Fire Protection Association and the International Association of Fire Fighters, our co-sponsor of this event. These collaborations include our landmark studies of crew size effectiveness when responding to residential and high-rise fires. Such work keeps our research on target.

The young science of fire is undergoing a growth spurt. And this progress is paying dividends. As often has happened in other fields, what we're learning about fire is challenging the conventional wisdom. Should firefighters bang open the front door or automatically break windows upon arriving at a house fire?

Research has shown how the flow of air in a burning structure can dramatically influence how a fire grows in intensity and spreads. This has led to the new science-driven firefighting methods for strategically ventilating and isolating fires that will be discussed today.

But all firefighters are from Missouri. They all say, "Show me," and rightfully so. Show me that it works. Firefighters should be skeptical. It's your life that's on the line.

Our researchers have moved ever so deliberately along the path from lab to field to practice. The methods and tactics that they and their partners are recommending have been tested rigorously, many times. And methods and tactics are passing muster with an increasing number of fire departments across the country.

Today, you'll hear from representatives of two—Cleveland and Los Angeles. Others include New York, Chicago, and Houston.

We at NIST truly value our close working relationship with the firefighting community. We truly appreciate what you do and respect you for your public service commitment. Let's continue to work together to save lives and to prevent casualties and property losses.

Thank you, and have a very productive meeting.

Created September 2, 2015, Updated October 1, 2016