Searching in the Modern Environment
When given the task of search and rescue one of the first thoughts that comes into your mind as you begin the process of mounting an aggressive search for potential victims on the incident scene is “where’s the victim(s)?”. One may ask why you are processing the task in this manner. It is pretty simple when you analyze fires fifty years ago verses today. The environments are very different. These differences range from building contents to construction. So why are we concerned with searching in the modern day environment? Just what makes it so different?
We respond to many different types of incidents, not just fires. We could find ourselves working in an explosion aftermath, terrorism event, structural collapse or natural disaster. Every incident we respond to could be considered a potential hazardous materials incident, due to type of event, effects that are generated by the incident, the toxic byproducts that are produced during the combustion process and materials in the structure. Not only do we concern ourselves `with this concept but we must open our eyes to the “Window of the Wider World” looking at the totality of the scene. We must utilize knowledge of modern emergency incident operational concepts and realities of what theses scene may hold in disguise. Toxins and crimes are two of these realisms we must consider. Working incidents in Methamphetamine Labs are potential as the likelihood of drug trafficking continues to rise. Exposure to these products can prove fatal as they have in the past at working incidents. An example of one of these incidents is Danville, Virginia with two firefighter line of duty deaths from toxic exposure. Terrorism has proven to be increasing each year. We must always have the awareness of that potential. We must recognize that these situations exist and begin to train for them. However, we cannot forget that fires are not routine due to the changing materials used in the construction of structures and furnishings.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) death and injury survey shows that the number of fire deaths has declined as a result in the reduced number of fire responses. A second point is made with a higher number of firefighter deaths as a direct result of precipitant fire development phenomena. Between 1980-1989, forty-four firefighters lost their lives as a result of rapid fire development phenomena. Just what could be causing this phenomenon? If we look at the building contents we see that they have changed from natural products to man made materials which has accelerants built in as they are made from petrochemicals.
The fire loading in residential structures, measured in pounds per foot, has more than doubled in the past fifty years. These furnishings produce quantities of heat exceeding those of ordinary combustibles. The smoke is more toxic, blinding and builds quicker than ordinary combustibles smoke. Flashovers are becoming more common and at LOWER temperatures. This has been proven by the Under Writers Laboratory as they have created flashovers in there lab testing units outfitted with modern day furnishings. These flashovers are occurring at a much lower temperature than ever before. There are documented tests where temperatures at the seven hundred fifty degree mark created a flashover. Confusing? Do we not generally see ceiling temperatures reach well over a thousand degrees? Probably. All of this makes since when you analyze the big picture. What really is on fire in structures today? Answer…chemicals. Petrochemicals are made up of hydrogen-carbon molecular chains. The same chains that make gasoline, diesel fuel and other petroleum products. Simply put, accelerants. This explains the phenomenon of why the fire growth is faster and larger than in the past.
The concern with the modern day environments search is multi-fold. How deep can we go, what is the environment we are going in and how quickly we can get into trouble. The main concern in modern environments is the potential for a flashover and exposure to toxins. The potential for a flashover is exacerbated by the synthetic furnishings. The amount of time it takes to reach flashover is drastically less and is occurring at much lower temperatures. The building construction features are a synergist for this phenomenon. As we make these buildings more energy efficient, we allow for heat to remain trapped, thus affecting the radiant feedback, which directly is proportional to the increase in pyrolysis. End result is more fire faster. With the increase in pyrolysis and the types of materials used to construct furnishings the ignition temperature is reach faster and is much lower temperature than ordinary materials like wood and jute. These same synthetics also produce some of the very toxins we are concerned with.
Construction features, building materials, furnishing and hazardous atmospheres do play a large role in what tactics we deploy in our searches. However, there is more that must be considered. As I mentioned earlier we must accept that our responses to incidents are just not routine. The personal protective equipment we wear is great but, it doesn’t protect us fully from the toxins that may exist in a fire. These toxins from methamphetamine labs, formaldehydes, cyanides, organophosphates, and many more can cause permanent health damage or death to firefighters.
As we enter into these structures with the latest and greatest equipment we are protected more than ever before. This protection allows us to push much deeper and be in modern day flashover temperatures comfortably. All of this due to the personal protective equipment (PPE) we wear. However, personal protective clothing only provides a few seconds of protection and those temperatures are reduced if the gear is contaminated with smoke particles or hydrocarbons, the very product most of the modern furnishings are made of. PPE that firefighters wear are designed to protect us from thermal elements not toxic elements. Self Contained Breathing Apparatus afford maximum respiratory protection. But chemicals can enter into the body other than through the respiratory system. Absorption and injection are two ways that toxins can enter our body that turn out gear affords little protection from.
So what else do we consider? We have yet to really look at what is in the structure other than the furnishings and construction features. What other goods may be there? If you really want to know what is involved in incidents you respond to, take a walk through your own home, through a major commercial department store like Wal-Mart, through local establishments and your community. You will be amazed at what you find that is harmful and the quantities they are stored in.
Many firefighters and officers make the mistake of going beyond the point of no return in the search for victims who COULD NOT possibly have survived. Reality Check!!! The only piece of equipment that can save us is our brains! Combining basic firefighting tactics, knowledge of fire behavior, search techniques and the environment we work in is essential.
Searching in the modern environment is a new avenue that we must concur through knowledge and training. This program will cover just that. Come see how the old meets the new and the new meets the next generation. You will not want to miss this informative power packed program as we look deeper into the problems we face in modern environment searches along with techniques that will enhance and expedite your searches providing for safer and more efficient efforts.