Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on December 29, 2014.

TO SOME, DAN MADRZYKOWSKI'S FIRE SCIENCE RESEARCH is groundbreaking, while to others it’s somewhat less exciting. Madrzykowski likes to tell a story of a fire chief from Iowa who gushed to his wife that the new research was revolutionizing how the fire service does its job, and was possibly the best new information he’d heard in 40 years.

“So his wife asks him, ‘Well, what’s the big change?’” recalls Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “The chief says, ‘They’re telling us to get water on the fire as soon as possible.’ His wife gives him this bewildered look and asks, ‘What have you been doing?’”

Madrzykowski, who wears thin-rimmed glasses, short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, and a matching horseshoe mustache, laughs heartily at the story, which he says shows how far removed from science some of today’s firefighting tactics have become. One of his favorite quips is, “The fire forgot to read the firefighting manual.”

NIST and UL Fire Behavior Research: (7) Video Lecture Series


For more than a decade, Madrzykowski and his research partner, Stephen Kerber, the director of the Firefighter Safety Research Institute (FSRI) at Underwriters Laboratories (UL), have been working together to change that, and to bring hard science back to the fire ground. In recent years, UL and NIST have combined to conduct more than 200 structural fire experiments to measure how fire responds to different variables and modes of attack. The work represents the most extensive scientific look in decades at firefighting tactics and is uncovering what the researchers say are serious flaws in how today’s fires are fought. According to Madrzykowski and Kerber, techniques accepted as gospel have been shown to be potentially deadly in modern fires, which tend to burn hotter and faster than they did just a few decades ago.

While their research has led to several revelations, three main ideas have received the most attention: flowing water onto a structure fire from the outside, or “hitting it hard from the yard,” is often the best option and can save the lives of civilians and firefighters; venting is not always a life saver and, in fact, can quickly turn deadly; and water cannot push fire into other parts of a structure.

All of those ideas run contrary to the conventional wisdom of many fire departments, which for decades have utilized venting and aggressive interior attacks, moving from the unburned to the burned side of a structure to avoid pushing smoke and fire further into the building.

Together and separately, Kerber and Madrzykowski spent upwards of 150 days on the road last year spreading this message, presenting at seemingly every fire organization gathering in the country, and often leaving a room of disciples in their wake. The buzz surrounding their work appears to be reaching a tipping point, and is a topic of discussion for fire chiefs from Des Moines to Daytona.

The information is also driving some of the most significant tactical changes the fire service has seen in decades. Last year, an addendum including these suggestions was published in Jones & Bartlett’s Fundamentals of Fire Fighter Skills, third edition, one of the nation’s most popular firefighter training manuals. This year, with funding from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program, instructors from the International Society of Fire Service Instructors will hold two workshops in each of the 50 states to train firefighters on the new tactics. Last September, the Urban Fire Forum, an annual meeting hosted by the Metro Chiefs membership section of NFPA, brought together 25 fire chiefs from around the country who unanimously adopted a position paper encouraging fire departments to adopt the new tactics.

The research’s impact has been felt most strongly on the fire ground. Departments such as the Fire Department of New York, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and the Oklahoma City Fire Department have altered tactical procedures based on the findings. In Los Angeles County, for example, the new material is now taught in a partnership with College of the Canyons, is tested in promotional exams, and is addressed in training at all departmental levels.

Urban Fire Forum Paper

Urban Fire Forum's position statement on Fire Behavior and Tactical Considerations.. Read full statement.


In the eight months after the changes were made in L.A. County, firefighter injuries were down 45 percent and property loss was down 7 percent from the previous eight months, according to L.A. County Chief Daryl Osby. Just as important, fire officials felt they had a better sense of the science behind what they were experiencing on the job. “In my experience, when we lost a single-family house, we didn’t always understand why,” Osby says. “Now we understand the dynamics and are incorporating that into the field.”

That is exactly the aim, Kerber says, because that understanding may be more critical to life and death than ever before.

“When a firefighter gets hurt or killed, the desire for change comes up,” he says. “One of the potential consequences of this job is death, which shows the importance of applying tactics the right way.”

Bigger, stronger, faster

Fires today can develop more aggressively and potentially pose more dangers than just a few decades ago. That’s largely because the contents and construction materials in modern houses can be much more volatile than they used to be.

Previously, furniture was made with hardwoods; today the predominant material is fast-burning non-hardwoods, including particleboard. Mattresses and couches once stuffed with cotton are today filled with synthetic materials, including energy-rich, highly combustible substances such as polyethylene foam. “Pound for pound, the energy rate has increased three or four times,” Madrzykowski says of modern furnishings. “It makes it likely that firefighters will encounter a fuel-rich load when they get on the scene.”

The introduction of new lightweight construction materials in residential homes, which can fail much faster under fire conditions than traditional solid wood beams, has added to the problem. Taken together, modern homes and their contents can burn eight times faster than homes of decades ago, according to UL.

UL test: Legacy home contents and new content fires


In one particularly striking video in their presentation, Madrzykowski and Kerber present a split screen showing two living rooms. One room contains “legacy furniture”—chairs and side tables made of hardwoods, and a couch with cotton-filled cushions—and another room containing modern furniture constructed of foam and particleboard. The couches are set on fire. The room with the older furniture burns slowly and deliberately, growing steadily; it takes nearly 30 minutes for the room to reach flashover. The furniture in the modern room burns much more aggressively, and the room reaches flashover in just 3 minutes, 40 seconds. According to a recent NFPA study, from 2007 to 2011, the national average response time for fire departments to home structure fires was close to six minutes.

One construction characteristic of modern homes, however, can actually have a damping effect on a fire’s volatility. Modern homes tend to be well-insulated, Madrzykowski says, often with double-paned windows and tight construction envelopes. As a result, “fires start and quickly become ventilation limited—the oxygen in the house that the fire needs for combustion is consumed,” he says. In that environment, a fire will burn very inefficiently, producing thick black smoke consisting of unburned hydrocarbons—gaseous fuels unable to ignite because of the oxygen-starved conditions. But if a door or window is opened, oxygen rushes in and the fire can erupt violently. “In a small home, it could go from nothing but smoke to flashover in 30 seconds, and in a larger home maybe in two or three minutes,” Madrzykowski says.

This understanding of airflow is central to the message Madrzykowski and Kerber are communicating. Their presentation includes dozens of videos that demonstrate this process at work in structure fires. In one video of a residential fire, smoke billows out of a ground-floor window of a single-family home. Firefighters break windows to ventilate the house, with the goal of removing deadly fumes and cooling the blaze. Fresh air flows into the new openings, and in seconds the fire grows dramatically. The firefighters retreat and hit the blaze with water, and within minutes it’s knocked down and extinguished.

An outside observer might consider this a success, Kerber says, but it’s not. “I guarantee you these guys are high-fiving each other still,” he says. “But if it had not been vented, that fire would've remained a one-room basement fire.”

Another video of a test burn shows a raging house fire; the home’s front door is open, but when firefighters close the door, sensors show that the temperature inside the burning house drops 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit in less than a minute. The fire recedes, struggling due to the lack of oxygen.

Fire Behavior, Door Control


The message of the testing is clear: keeping a structure’s doors and windows closed until hose lines are ready to be deployed starves the fire of oxygen and keeps it small—a ventilation-limited fire. Conversely, opening windows and doors before hitting the fire with water can make the blaze quickly grow. Venting too soon, or in the wrong spots, can also cause the fire to rapidly spread to other parts of the structure. Venting is still critical, the researchers say, but only after the fire has been hit with water.

Another key finding of the research is that hitting the fire with water from outside the structure for just a few moments prior to entering cools the entire structure dramatically, and increases survivability for victims and firefighters. For decades, Madrzykowski says, the fire service has been taught not to flow water from the outside, fearful it could harm potential victims trapped inside with steam or by pushing smoke and fire in their direction. It’s also widely believed that attacking a fire from the burned side will push the fire into the unburned parts of the structure. The research concludes just the opposite—water cannot push fire, but does dramatically drop the temperature inside. In other words, Madrzykowski says, hitting the fire with water as soon as possible has many advantages.

“I would not consider this to be revolutionary,” says Madrzykowski. “I just consider this the pendulum of firefighting tactics coming back to center. You look at the firefighter attack of 1950s and 1960s, and they were doing almost exactly what we’re talking about now. Even training books of the 1800s talk about controlling the door and being aware of the draft. The fire service, unfortunately, lost some of its fire behavior knowledge over time, and we’re trying to put that back.”

A bridge to the fire service

A confluence of events over the last 40 years led the fire service to adopt aggressive interior-attack tactics. That approach focused on getting the attack crew as close to the fire as possible before flowing water, with the priority being locating and removing trapped civilians.

In the 1970s, a rise in new firefighter technologies, such as self-contained breathing apparatus and more advanced turnout gear, allowed firefighters to get closer to fires than ever before. Additionally, events like the publication of the landmark 1973 document “America Burning,” undertaken by The National Commission on Fire Prevention, led to important new developments, including the creation of the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy. But it also directed research away from fire tactics and fire dynamics in structures, Kerber says, and toward fire prevention and ways to make buildings more fire-resistant. That work helped lead to dramatic decreases in the number of fires over the past four decades, and in the corresponding deaths, injuries, and property loss. Even as those numbers fell, though, the per-fire rates of injury and death for firefighters remained constant.

The fire service, now better-protected against smoke and heat, began adopting much more aggressive interior tactics for fighting residential fires. Those tactics in some cases were dramatically different from the techniques that had been the norm for more than a century; previously, attacking a fire from the outside was not just a tactical decision, it was the only option available. By the 1980s, though, “fire departments were not so concerned about whether they had water on the fire as they were doing a rescue search—they could withstand the additional heat and toxic gas,” Madrzykowski says. “But the changing fire environment caught up to that level of protection. Now it can overwhelm it very easily, and that’s what we’re seeing today in line-of-duty deaths.”

In the 1970s, an average of 1.8 firefighters per 100,000 fires died while operating inside a structure, according to data compiled by NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division. By the 2000s, though, the average number of firefighter deaths occurring inside a burning structure had jumped to three per 100,000 fires. According to NFPA data, interior operations on average account for about 13 firefighter deaths annually, of the roughly 80 firefighter deaths reported overall each year.

The fire service began paying attention to the problem in the 1990s, when airflow and wind-driven fires began killing firefighters at a higher rate. In 1999, two firefighters were killed in a residential fire in Washington, D.C., an event that became known as the Cherry Road fire. Scientists at NIST studied the fire and ran computer simulations of the blaze; they understood that airflow was a significant factor in such events, but they needed hard data to back it up. A NIST report published in 2000 revealed that the “the opening of the basement sliding glass doors provided outside air (oxygen) to a pre-heated, under-ventilated fire compartment, which then developed into a post-flashover fire within 60 seconds.”

NIST shared the results with fire departments through a webpage and by distributing a DVD. “The firefighters loved it, because they could take this and easily use it for training drills,” Madrzykowski says. “For me, that’s when the light bulb went off. I thought, ‘we’ve got to build that bridge and reach out to the fire service, because this information is news to them.’”

In 2001, NIST formed its Fire Fighting Technology group. That same year, Congress created the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, a step that was highly beneficial for fire-science research, Kerber says. In 2007, with the help of an AFG grant, the Fire Protection Research Foundation held a workshop on wind-driven fire and sponsored lab testing at NIST to study a structure fire’s response to wind. In early 2008, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) received a grant to conduct a series of wind-driven fire experiments in a seven-story building on Governors Island in New York City with NIST. Within 18 months of those experiments, FDNY had developed new policies, tactics, and equipment to deal with wind-driven high-rise fires.

The NFPA Angle

Researchers see the possibility of an NFPA tactical guide as a ‘game changer’ document for the fire service.
  • In light of the research being conducted at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and at Underwriters Laboratories, researchers there are pushing for NFPA to develop a new standard on fire tactics, as reported in NFPA Journal.

Read more on the possibilities the researchers are looking into.

“While we were working with FDNY on this issue, what they came to realize was that wind-driven fire is just an extreme case of uncoordinated ventilation,” Madrzykowski says. “The reality was they didn’t fully understand the impact of ventilation, and as a result weren’t doing ventilation correctly. That’s when the ball really got rolling.”

UL began building and running full-scale tests on 3,200-square-foot colonial-style houses and 1,200-square-foot ranch houses inside its test facility near Chicago. Armed with another AFG grant, NIST burned 12 abandoned single-family houses in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 2013 and 2014, performing multiple experiments on each.

“We collaborate on everything. Dan and I coordinate every project to make sure we are getting the fire service the best bang for our buck,” Kerber says. “The research usually raises more questions. The more we learn, the more we want to know. Between the questions we raise together and the questions the fire service asks us to answer, we have a lot to do.”

The answers seem to be coming fast these days. Asked if he agrees, Kerber says, “Before, nothing was
going on, so everything seems fast.”

Differing approaches

In the fire world, the work done by Madrzykowski and Kerber either makes them rock stars or heretics, depending on whom you ask. A Facebook group called “Just Because I Don’t Agree With UL/FSRI Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Person” had 167 members as of November.

One member of that group is John Salka, a 33-year veteran retired FDNY battalion chief. Salka, the author of three books including The Engine Company, which looks at engine company tactics and operations throughout the U.S., is critical of some of the research. Salka observes that the researchers are able to set up every experimental variable, set the fire in a location of their choosing, and maintain total control over the proceedings.

Next Steps

UL project to study positive pressure ventilation.
  • NFPA Journal looks at what’s ahead for UL’s fire dynamics research. UL is studying positive pressure ventilation at its facilities near Chicago, starting in January.

Read more on what is next for UL.

He’s especially critical of the claim that smoke or fire cannot be pushed onto victims on the opposite side of the hose line. “I’ve been to thousands of fires, inside and outside, and my experience does not tell me what they are telling me,” he says. “I have been in a building where someone opened up a hose line outside in the wrong direction. It’s like a bolt of lightning—a sudden big burst of steam, smoke, and fire comes at you. It has a large negative impact on the exit side of the room.”

Longtime Seattle firefighter Aaron Fields, founder of Nozzle Forward, a training program for engine companies that trains about 2,000 firefighters each year around the country, believes the science and test results being put forward by Madrzykowski and Kerber. But he also says the realities on the fire ground can be different from those of the test ground. If UL and NIST methods aren’t followed precisely, or if optimal conditions do not exist—such as in a dense urban area where firefighters may not be able to get an exterior hose line into the proper position—things can go very wrong, Fields says.

Like Salka, Fields questions the research finding that suggests smoke and flame cannot be moved by an exterior water flow. Resulting steam from an exterior attack can also be deadly, Fields says, which is an area NIST has not fully researched. “The reason you go inside is not for the fire, it’s to rescue civilians,” Fields says. “Fire gases kill people before flames. If I go in, my job is to move the byproducts of combustion out and extinguish them.”

In his classes, Fields teaches that, for most fires, an aggressive interior attack using hose lines to extinguish the fire and drive out toxic gases is the most effective way of saving lives. Flowing water from the outside should be reserved, he says, for a defensive attack, or for situations where there is a significant delay in getting hand lines deployed. “Overall, I’m not in opposition to the research results,” Fields says. “All I’m saying is that the study is not complete.”

Kerber and Madrzykowski have heard these criticisms before, and are quick to acknowledge that they are not advocating a one-size-fits-all approach to firefighting. “Nobody is saying you can only hit the fire from the outside—we’re saying it’s a valid option and it should be in your playbook,” Madrzykowski says. “You have to size up every fire and decide what to do. If it’s a small fire, go in and get it. We’re really talking about adjustments to things the fire service is doing already.”

Despite the concerns, praise for the work being done by Kerber and Madrzykowski is coming from some of the highest ranks of the fire service. “We need to speed up the education and implementation,” Ernest Mitchell Jr., the U.S. Fire Administrator, said at the recent Urban Fire Forum. “The question is, how do we get the word out so this science is not just saving lives in New York, L.A. County, and Oklahoma City, but everywhere?”

 The International Association of Firefighters(IAFF), the largest firefighter union in North America, also supports the tactical changes and has developed a curriculum based on the research. Lori Moore-Merrell, the assistant to the general president at IAFF, said at September’s Urban Fire Forum that the number of hours dedicated to training recruits on fire behavior has to increase, but also recognized the challenges associated with that kind of change, describing it as a “paradigm shift” for many and urging the fire service to “get past the shock.”

Chiefs in Los Angeles County and New York said cultural hurdles within the fire service were the toughest to clear in implementing the new procedures. Deputy Chief Cecil Clay of the Oklahoma City Fire Department, who spearheaded adoption and personally trained about 1,000 firefighters in the new tactics, said many of his fellow officers were initially skeptical. “Some have 20-plus years of firefighting experience, and now you’re trying to teach them another way. They say, ‘Hey, I know I’m doing it right because this is how I’ve always done it,’” Clay says. “But once we started doing this, I didn’t have to sell it anymore. The results have been remarkable.”

a NIST burn in Chicago

The work conducted by NIST and UL has included more than 200 full-scale residential burns.

PHOTO: Underwriters Laboratories

Clay describes the tactical changes in Oklahoma City as “a full 180-degree shift” from what the department had done just two years ago. “Like a lot of other departments, we took an aggressive interior approach,” he says. “Our tactics were to go from the unburned side [through the house] to the burned side. The theory was we’d be pushing the fire out. We also never applied water to the exterior in an offensive attack—we thought we'd push fire onto a victim. Through research and science we found out that both are totally false.”

Firefighters in Oklahoma City are now taught to conduct a 360-degree size-up of a structure to see where the fire is venting to decide where water should be applied. If smoke is venting on side A, they hit it with water through a window on side A before venting or searching. Thermal imaging at fires in Oklahoma City has shown that hitting the ceiling with water and letting it bounce down on the fire like a sprinkler—a technique found by NIST and UL tests to be most effective—cools the room from about 1,500 degrees to 300 degrees in just seconds. “That gives us an amazing amount of security” when firefighters enter the structure, Clay says.

While it may be safer for firefighters, such tactics have come up against another cultural hurdle. For many firefighters, flowing water from the safety of the exterior while potential victims could be threatened inside just doesn’t feel right. “There’s this idea that you’re not a real fireman unless you’re rushing into burning buildings,” says Kerber. “I hear guys say, ‘I didn’t sign up to shoot water through a window.’”

Clay says he’s been quick to stand up to the skeptics in his department. “Now we have the research—this is actual scientific proof about what’s happening and how we can best combat fire and protect people,” he says. “The macho part, the thrill of the fight where you come out of the building with your coat smoking, that’s taken away somewhat. But I tell my guys this is not about us—it’s about how we protect people and property and how quickly we take this threat away.”

Helping fire departments break away from old dogma and embrace the science that could save lives is what keeps Madrzykowski and Kerber motivated as they travel from stage to stage, airport to airport. “Some folks say it takes generations for a fire department to change,” Madrzykowski says. “I don’t agree with that at all.”

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer at NFPA Journal.