The Future of Fire: Research Renaissance?
A critical mass of important new research promises to revolutionize how the fire service does its job.
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2009
By Casey C. Grant, P.E.
It’s an overcast spring day sometime in the near future, and heavy smoke billows from the top-floor windows of a three-story brick industrial building. Arriving firefighters immediately deploy to their specific assignments. But these firefighters have a few technological advantages over today’s crews. Gone is the single-bottle, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) used by their predecessors. Instead, these firefighters use flat, flexible backpack-style units that are half the size of the old bottle units, but hold twice as much air.
They use sophisticated electronic equipment that is lightweight and durable. In addition to two-way radios, their electronics communicate real-time data on the environmental conditions inside the building, the location and physiological status of each host firefighter, and even a three-dimensional blueprint of the building based on the paths the firefighters travel. All this information is relayed to a team working with the incident commander (IC). This scenario isn’t as far off as you might think. All this technology exists today, with prototypes under development that represent a spectrum of potentially dazzling new technologies that could benefit the U.S. fire service and other emergency responders.
Research funded through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other sources is part of an ongoing process that promises important improvements in firefighting equipment, fireground tactics, and firefighter safety and health. As the results from these research initiatives are completed, delivered, and implemented over the coming years, they are expected to spark a technological and intellectual rebirth of the modern fire service.
One important player behind this technology initiative is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has been part of DHS since 2003. “I had pushed the DHS science and technology department to invest in fire service technology,” says Dave Paulison, former U.S. Fire Administrator and FEMA Administrator, and current senior partner at Global Emergency Solutions, a fire and rescue services consulting firm. “Although this has been an uphill battle, the department has responded with millions of dollars in research.”
These research dollars have resulted in breakthroughs in SCBA and firefighter locator systems that will save lives and reduce injuries of firefighters, Paulison says.
Revolutionary advances for the fire service are arguably few and far between. Most noteworthy advancements, such as two-way radio communication and SCBA, are now decades old, and more recent improvements, such as personal alert safety systems (PASS) and improved personal protective equipment (PPE), do not rise to the same measure of historical significance. Compounding this issue is the fact that the fire service is deeply rooted in tradition. While this brings a certain stability to the profession, it can also mean that the fire service is sometimes slow to embrace improvements.
However, even the most old-school skeptics would have a hard time denying the promise of many of the projects currently in development. That work is part of a rich knowledge transfer cycle between the worlds of science and practice, stimulating back-and-forth dialogue involving multiple research and fire service partnerships. “This research is an important investment in the future of the fire service, and the safety of the women and men who work in it,” says Brian Cowan, director of FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program. “It is truer than ever that the ‘future is now.’”
The makings of a research boom
A host of events have resulted in new funding for this work, including policy shifts in the aftermaths of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Certain trends are also helping create an environment for change, such as the increase in fires involving the wildland-urban interface, which have grown in magnitude and frequency in recent years. But it’s not just disasters fueling this change. Advances in communication and incident-command technologies, some of which are already being used by the military and other agencies, also show promise for the fire service.
Perhaps no influence, however, is greater than the funding initiatives generated in the past decade by DHS through FEMA’s AFG. When it was instituted in 2000, the AFG office that administers the funds was part of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). With the creation of DHS in 2003, AFG was no longer linked with USFA, although the two units continue to work closely together.
With more than $4 billion awarded since its inception, the AFG today is a multipart effort. AFG, also referred to as Fire Grants, devotes the vast majority of its resources to helping U.S fire departments meet their equipment and training needs. In 2008, the AFG office received 21,015 applications from fire departments nationwide for $560 million in grants.
Also part of AFG is the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, program, which strives to increase the availability of trained frontline firefighters. Last year, a total of 1,314 applications requested $190 million in SAFER grants.
The AFG component most directly responsible for the current research renaissance is the Fire Prevention and Safety Grants (FP&S) program. FP&S originally emphasized prevention and safety programs, but research and development (R&D) studies were added to its portfolio in 2004 to fund clinical and behavioral studies, database systems, and technology and product development that researchers hope will reduce morbidity and mortality among firefighters. In 2007, when numbers were last available, FP&S had provided $34 million in grants, with the R&D component receiving $11.6 million, or less than 2 percent of the AFG’s overall annual total.
Although the first reaction from some fire service personnel when they hear that $11.6 million has gone to research is to argue that the money should instead be used to buy more equipment, others recognize the significant long-term value of this research. Among them is Russ Sanders, secretary for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC)/NFPA Metro Chiefs, who says that the more the fire service learns about this research, the more it appreciates the need for R&D activities to improve firefighter safety. “The virtues of R&D investment in the fire service will ultimately become obvious, much like we’ve already witnessed in military and other applications that have strong parallels with the fire service,” Sanders says.
Clinical and behavioral breakthroughs
FP&S research falls into two basic groupings: clinical and behavioral studies, and technology and tactical studies (see www.firegrantsupport.com/fps). A number of clinically and physiologically oriented projects directly address topics of specific interest to the fire service and involve some of the world’s top medical researchers. This type of research is critically important because it directly addresses health and safety issues related to firefighter deaths and injuries. It is also of a long-term nature, and it will take time for its impact to be felt and fully understood. This information is providing valuable input to documents such as NFPA 1582, Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments.
Recognizing that cardiovascular disease is a primary cause of firefighter fatalities, several independent studies are underway at the Harvard School of Public Health, Indiana University, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, the University of Illinois, and the University of Pittsburgh. Medical researchers at the University of Arizona, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Illinois have also begun new projects addressing factors involved in cardiovascular disease, including behavioral risk factors.
Other clinical and behavioral topics range from a study of fatigue and shift work, conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, to a study that looks at ways to reduce occupational hearing loss, led by the University of California at San Francisco. Other clinical studies include a project at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health that examines the health and safety of volunteer firefighters and a study by researchers at Skidmore College that aims to determine how different types of fitness—aerobic versus strength training—support physiological recovery from firefighting activities.
Greatly enhancing the potential impact of these AFG-supported studies is the fact that they are all undertaken by teams of scientists and members of the fire service, says Dr. Ellen Sogolow, AFG research specialist. “By working as a team, [we make sure that] the studies stay relevant to the priority needs of the fire service,” Sogolow said at the 2008 FEMA/AFG R&D annual meeting. “And when results show success, interventions will be feasible for departments to adopt and implement.”
R&D teams will deliver findings to the fire service using presentations, news reports, and other venues. For example, Dr. Dave Hostler of the University of Pittsburgh will present an educational program on fireground rehab for the Company Officer Leadership Symposium, to be held in conjunction with Fire Rescue International 2009 from August 25 to 29 in Dallas, Texas. And the Skidmore team plans to produce recommendations for best practices in fire service physical fitness training programs to mitigate the risks of sudden cardiac death.
Some of the clinically oriented studies include a database component and take into account factors such as health history, exercise and activity levels, and other influencing conditions. University of Maryland researchers are addressing the original Wellness-Fitness Initiative programs with the intent of developing a Web-based data system that will help answer questions about health concerns including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and back injuries.
These clinical studies illustrate how R&D activities are focusing on a range of underlying causes of fatalities and injuries, with concomitant development and testing of interventions to reduce threats to firefighters’ health and safety. Not surprisingly, the fire service is welcoming these efforts.
“Across the country, firefighters tell us they are excited to participate in these studies because they know their health is at risk and they have questions about their long-term well-being,” says Sogolow. “It is exciting to see the R&D work being undertaken that can be expected to answer those questions.”
Advancing tactics and strategy
Other projects will ultimately allow firefighters to improve their tactics and strategies, and provide helpful information for ICs and others on the fire ground. These projects are expected to provide useful information that will assist with revisions to documents such as NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, and NFPA 1670, Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents.
One ongoing project already embraced by the mainstream fire service is the National Fire Incident Near-Miss Reporting System (please see www.firefighternearmiss.com). This Web-based initiative, administered by the IAFC and the Drexel University School of Public Health, provides an extensive database of near-miss case studies alerting firefighters to line-of-duty hazards. The program has become highly popular among firefighters because it replicates on a broad scale the stories shared around every firehouse kitchen table.
Two separate but related projects address firefighter line-of-duty deaths in structure fires where wind was a factor. The Polytechnic Institute of New York University is working with the Fire Department of New York and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to provide updated tactical and training information based on positive-pressure ventilation fans, high-rise nozzles, and wind-control devices such as fire curtains and fire blankets, with a focus on wind-driven, high-rise fires. Their work included full-scale burn tests in abandoned high-rise buildings on Governors Island in New York City harbor in February 2008, and dovetails with another project conducted by the Fire Protection Research Foundation and NIST, which involved laboratory full-scale burns that provided valuable data for computer models used to predict these hazardous conditions.
Another project, led by Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. in partnership with the IAFC, the Chicago Fire Department, and Michigan State University, addresses questions related to engineered lumber and time to structural collapse. Tests have been conducted on roof and floor assemblies using current and traditional construction materials and methods to predict and calculate the anticipated time to a catastrophic structural collapse.
Several more projects focus on new technologies that researchers hope will prove revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, for the fire service. Three independent projects undertaken by separate teams from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the University of Maryland, and the University of California at Irvine focus on global positioning systems. These projects are developing new three-dimensional, real-time tracking systems with eye-catching features, such as precise spatial location, firefighter posture identification and physiological condition, and building environmental conditions. One project can also “construct” walls, floors, and other building features based on the paths traveled by firefighters.
One particular technological innovation that may soon appear is a smaller, lighter, more flexible, and longer-lasting SCBA. While the name of the device has not yet been determined, it’s typically referred to as the “flatpack” or “firepack.” This effort, led by the International Association of Fire Fighters, uses advanced pressurized container technology that meets or exceeds turnout gear standards and will potentially have revolutionary implications for the fire service.
While the ultimate benefit to the fire service of all this research is difficult to predict, we are clearly positioning ourselves to take important strides forward. If the opportunity presents itself, we must be ready to speak in support of the currently available resources, or the potential progress will be short-lived. “It’s just a start,” says former FEMA Administrator Dave Paulison, of the current research efforts. “We must continue funding this type of research if we are truly committed to ‘Everyone goes home.’”
Casey C. Grant, P.E., is program director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.