Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on September 1, 2012.

Dual Purpose
Why advances in firefighter safety can also affect the overall fire problem

NFPA Journal®, September/October 2012 

Nearly four decades have passed since the release of America Burning, the landmark report from 1973 that clarified the critical nature of the nation’s fire problem and provided strong recommendations for corrective actions. Among the report’s recommendations was the need to increase research for the fire service and to provide the most effective resources for firefighters to do their jobs. The report wisely acknowledged the parallel between improving firefighter safety and reducing our overall fire problem. Better trained and better equipped firefighters can more effectively accomplish their duties, which ultimately leads to fewer civilian casualties and less property loss.


Fire Protection Research Foundation director Casey Grant gives a detailed account of a recent study into wind-driven fires. This is just one example the 'research renaissance' to improve firefighter safety and reduce the America's overall fire problem.

Today’s fire service is in the midst of a research renaissance, in part because of important funding programs, such as the Assistance to Firefighter Grants handled through FEMA. While some of this research is clearly aimed at improving firefighter safety, much of it also shares a parallel goal of addressing the overall fire problem.

One example was a set of recent studies on wind-driven structural fires. Firefighter line-of-duty deaths had raised serious questions about this hazard, especially in high-rise buildings where wind was often a factor. One project, conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology through the Fire Protection Research Foundation, was able to replicate conditions in which temperatures rose thousands of degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of seconds. The extreme danger was clearly documented and supported parallel research to develop new fire ground tactical approaches, which, in turn, help improve civilian safety.


July - August 2012
How far the Foundation has come in helping NFPA confront emerging issues

May - June 2012
The ongoing research effort behind the codes and standards process 

March - April 2012
Assessing electrical safety hazards in emerging energy-saving technologies

January - February 2012
A project reveals new-product entry barriers in residential construction

November - December 2011
Understanding the hazards posed by lithium ion battery storage

September - October 2011
Is the teaching of codes and standards redundant or out of date?

Another example is the area of furnishings and fuel load. Projects such as Underwriters Laboratories’ “Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction” have found that today’s fires burn more intensely and reach flashover faster than they did three or four decades ago, largely due to the materials used in furniture. Concerns about the fuel characteristics and fire performance of engineered wood construction also factor into these observations. Among other things, this means that firefighters are exposed to more rapid heat development and intense thermal conditions. Firefighter personal protective equipment has improved to provide overall thermal protection, allowing fire crews to remain in adverse conditions longer.

Work in this area continues. A recently proposed research project would study the optimum materials for self-contained breathing apparatus facepiece lenses, another example of properly equipping firefighters to perform their tasks.

We’re making progress. A report recently released by NFPA, “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States, 2011,” found that 61 firefighters were fatally injured while on duty last year, marking the third consecutive year in which on-duty fatalities have decreased significantly. This trend is promising, but we must remain dedicated to our efforts or risk losing these gains. We must continue to search for ways to improve firefighter equipment and methods, which translates directly into fewer firefighter injuries and fatalities and plays a crucial role in mitigating the overall fire problem.

America Burning, with its visionary foresight, recognized this when it stated that “a firefighter better protected against injury to himself is, of course, better equipped to suppress fires and rescue people.” It is with this central idea in mind that the Fire Protection Research Foundation continues its involvement in firefighter safety research, and we are confident that this work will result in a higher degree of safety not just for the fire service, but for the entire nation.

Casey Grant, P.E., FSFPE, is research director at the Fire Protection Research Foundation.