Published on March 1, 2016.

Editor’s note: The following letter was received in response to a recent “First Responder” column [“Concerns Heard,” January/February] by Ken Willette, division manager for Public Fire Protection at NFPA. The column focused on possible changes to NFPA standards that address fire hoses, discussions that began following a 2014 fire in Boston where a fire hose failed. Two Boston firefighters died in the fire. The letter was written by Kathy Crosby–Bell, the mother of Michael Kennedy, one of the firefighters who died. Crosby–Bell’s letter was sent to NFPA in an email with the subject line “Please publish as written.” The letter appears here in its original, unedited form. Additional coverage of the fire and subsequent events can be found on the NFPA Today blog.

To the editor:

I’ve struggled with the response to the article published by the NFPA Journal for many reasons, not the least of which is, Ken Willette wrote it. It brings back the emotional disbelief I felt when I watched the Channel 5, Kathy Curran interview, of Ken Willette, regarding the NFPA’s position on fire attack hose. So closely following the deaths of Michael and LT. Ed Walsh, Ken Willett condescendingly declared more firefighters (all of whom like Michael and Ed train rigorously to the equipment they are provided) might be killed if fire attack hose were improved. To my admittedly biased ear, it was an unforgettable and shocking “blame the victim” moment. Ken Willett now taking the liberty of describing me as “concerned” when in fact he knows me to be absolutely livid is stirring the pot. The number of misleading and manipulated statements in that article inflamed my anger again. Notably, the article was sent to me too late to challenge prior to publication.

I speak for myself here. The NFPA has taken the position that “the process” must be adhered to, despite the clear and compelling evidence that fire hose compliance standards are endangering and/or killing fire victims and firefighters. Common sense plays no role in the NFPA “process”.

Contrary to the misleading statements in the NFPA article, the study at WPI Fire Protection Engineering was conceived of, requested and funded by Last Call Foundation in memory of my son Michael Kennedy. The NFPA and hose manufacturers who sat on the NFPA 1961 technical committee did not, to my knowledge, fund any portion of that study. In fact hose manufacturers playing any role, even through the NFPA would compromise the integrity of the study.

WPI Professor Kathy Notarianni and her team, initially eager to accept the $ 75,000 funding and begin work on the project gave an interview to the Boston Herald, shortly after beginning. In part, it read as follows.
“Fire Hose Failure Uncovered; Boston fire fuels study of attack lines nationwide A leading fire safety researcher is sounding the alarm over faulty fire hoses, warning that the popular lightweight version — similar to the one that burned in a Beacon Street blaze that killed two Boston firefighters — are failing nationwide.” When we started this project, our goal was to produce a safer, next generation hose. What we have uncovered is a nation-wide catastrophe lurking just under the radar. The current national standards for hose manufacture only require that the hose meet a certain burst pressure under non-fire conditions. This single criteria has allowed for production of “lightweight” hose, i.e., made with significantly less jacketing material, typically overseas. Since the lightweight hose is stamped as code compliant, and is lighter to carry and easier to fold this hose is being widely purchased by the fire service. Only now, as this new lightweight hose is being used on the fire ground are we seeing a wide range of hose failure due to burn through of the lighter jacket.” She went on to note a hole that developed in a fire attack hose in her town during fire ground operation the previous week.

Sadly communications seem to have failed between WPI and Last Call Foundation, almost immediately following that publication. WPI Study Team took on a very different and confidential tone. Last Call Foundation Board members had a long-standing invitation to WPI to review progress, after several weather related delays, last spring we finally met. Visitors and study participants alike were required to sign confidentiality agreements. I of course refused. A member of the press following the fire attack hose burn through story contacted the University requesting to be included and or to be on campus to interview me following the meeting. The interim Dean’s reaction was offensive; he called and shouted at me. He adamantly refused to allow the press access.

I, like the NFPA, am well aware in light of the initial research, and the “Attack Fire Hose Burn Through Data Base”, established as part of the LCF study by WPI, that catastrophic hose failure is not limited to that hose or that fire. Fire attack hose failure is widespread; 96 hose failures from September 2014 to September 2015 were voluntarily reported and verified, all the information is sitting in a database built by WPI (which I was initially told the fire service would have access to as soon as 100 reports were verified).

WPI reported at last Falls NFPA 1961 Technical Committee meeting, that there has been no thermal improvements to fire hose in more than 100 years!

I maintain that it is a moral imperative that a deadline be established by NFPA for Compliance Standards to be vastly improved. Significantly more rigorous thermal compliance standards, reflective of real fire ground conditions, with detailed and timed failure results and circumstances, reported to the fire service. I believe it’s unethical to do less and in view of the vast improvements made to PPE, the firefighters complementary safety equipment, absent requirements for corresponding improvements to fire attack hose is obviously negligent.

Immediately updating NFPA 1961 with a reasonably rigorous compliance test deadline… Fire resistant hose in 2 years, followed by a flameproof compliance standard in 5-years. Abolish lightweight hose except for high rise fires. This would accomplish the NFPA stated goal to “drive innovation” rather than maintain for any period at all, the low standard that NFPA 1961 represents, which has enabled inferior products to be introduced to the market and endanger lives.

Thermal engineers long ago enabled spaceships to meet the temperature extremes of space. They can most certainly design a safer fire attack hose. Manufacturers failing to update and apply current thermal technologies to a critical piece of fire equipment, which they represent that they design and sell to be relied upon for life saving water, under the dire hostile conditions firefighters face daily is scandalous.

For the NFPA to continue to approve this is unforgivable.

Leaving firefighter and fire victims at the mercy of the current inferior products is in my opinion criminal.

Please, don’t ever again make the mistake of patronizing me.

Kathy Crosby-Bell,
Fallen Firefighter Michael Kennedy’s mother – YES
, their NFPA 1961 compliant
Lightweight fire attack hose burned through. Their last call was for water.

Building a House for the WUI

To the editor:

As an NFPA member primarily active in the National Electrical Code® (NEC®) areas of photovoltaic power systems for many years, I thoroughly read every NFPA Journal. I read with interest Lucian Deaton’s recent column “Lessons Unlearned?” [Wildfire Watch, January/February], about the debate in El Paso County, Colorado, over whether to relax fire safety requirements to encourage rebuilding following a wildfire.

The author states that, “to meet the wildland/urban interface threat, we must share a collective conviction to support comprehensive rebuilding plans that reflect those lessons and balance redevelopment with the assurance of a resilient WUI future.” NFPA’s Firewise program addresses those concerns at the homeowner level, and my own home is an example of the kinds of steps homeowners need to take if they want to create a Firewise-friendly home in the WUI.

A number of years ago, I decided to design and build my own retirement home. We purchased a 2.1-acre parcel in a WUI community at 5,400 feet of elevation near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The area is a high desert plain, with scrub oak and rangeland grass that present a fire hazard nearly year round. Our small community of about 20 houses is two miles from a volunteer fire department and about seven miles from a full-time fire department. Community water is available, but access to fire hydrants may be questionable.

I designed and built the house over a 10-year period, from 2003 to 2013, working mostly on weekends. The 4,300-square-foot home has three bedrooms and three baths, and includes a 1,300-square-foot workshop/garage/exercise area. It also includes a number of Firewise features:

Siting. A 3,500-acre grass fire only three miles away prompted the design and installation of a perimeter water sprinkler system on two sides of the property. The manually controlled impact water sprinklers have a 30-foot radius and are spaced 30 feet apart. A separate sprinkler system allows small trees and bushes in an arroyo on the property to be covered with water if necessary. A 10-foot band on the outside of the property line was cleared of brush, small trees, and other combustible materials. A 30-foot unpaved street protects the two remaining sides of the property.

Thinned vegetation around WUI home

Thinned vegetation around the author's WUI home. Photograph: John Wiles.

The community water system has a 20,000-gallon storage tank located at a higher elevation and delivers gravity-fed water at a line pressure at 93 psi to the house. A 1,700-gallon buried cistern provides additional water storage in emergencies and is filled by either the community water supply or rain gutters on the house.

Landscaping is mostly xeriscaping with large pine trees planted more than 50 feet from the house. All exterior landscaping plants are provided with irrigation water to minimize potential fire hazards and insect infestations.

Construction materials. Most of the exterior walls are constructed with 14-inch- thick insulated concrete forms that have a UL classified fire rating of four hours and are essentially noncombustible. The firewall between the house and the garage is a 10-inch-thick wall of the same material. An enclosed sun porch and a raised four-foot section in the center of the house are framed with two-by-eights filled with borate-treated, dense-pack cellulose. Framed wall sheathing and roof decking are a high-density oriented strand board. Synthetic stucco with a half-inch cement base coat covers the entire house. All walls have approximately an R23 rating.

Workers pump concrete into insulated concrete forms that make up the exterior walls of the home   A standing-seam metal roof 

Workers pump concrete into insulated concrete forms that make up the exterior walls of the home, which also features a standing-seam metal roof. Photograph: John Wiles.

The low-slope roof is standing-seam metal with soffit and roof vents that are fully screened and have openings less than an eighth of an inch. Ceiling insulation is R60 borate-treated cellulose.

Interior features. The garage has an automatic ventilation system that provides a negative pressure in the garage with respect to the house. The system is activated for 10 minutes whenever the garage doors are opened or closed. The door between the garage and the house is listed with a 90-minute fire rating.

All interior walls and ceilings are sheathed with five-eighths-inch drywall. Most of the interior walls are framed with either two-by-six or two-by-eight construction, and several are filled with borate-treated dense-pack cellulose for sound reduction. Eighty percent of the floors are tiled.

The entire house, including the garage, has a residential fire sprinkler system using a separate wet pipe system with recessed sprinkler heads. The smoke alarm system uses dual-sensing alarms and is ac coupled with a battery backup. It also includes a carbon monoxide detector and has strobe lights in key areas to address my wife’s hearing disability. The smoke alarm system is interconnected with the fire sprinkler alarm so that if either system alerts, the other system also alerts. All alerts/alarms are local only.

The home is powered by a utility-interconnected 8.5 kW photovoltaic power system, with a whole-house battery backup system provided by sealed, valve-regulated lead-acid batteries, the energy storage system least likely to pose acid leaks or self-ignition. A 10 kW generator fueled with natural gas provides backup power in extreme weather situations. Excess energy is fed to the utility every month.

I have signed up for the Wildfire Response Program offered by Wildfire Defense Systems and my insurance company, USAA.

These are the kinds of steps homeowners need to take to avoid the house-to-house WUI conflagration that occurred in El Paso County during the Black Forest Fire in 2013. As Lucian Deaton writes, “we cannot afford to miss critical lessons that can help us shape a workable WUI landscape.”

John Wiles
Las Cruces, New Mexico