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Know Your Enemy and Survive

by IvyFPS
Know Your Enemy and Survive

Know Your Enemy and Survive

As a veteran of Fire and Emergency Services I’m keenly aware of the many challenges that face the Firefighters today. My experience includes residential, industrial firefighting and fire investigation. For many years I was aware that Firefighters faced many risks. One being Firefighter cancer. We had legacy furniture and building construction during my early years and as a result the off gases from fires were not as toxic as today. Building construction then in my opinion was much more robust as in flooring, stairs and stairwells in residential housing. Versus today’s lightweight construction that fails much more easily in a fire. Exposing firefighters to much more risk of falling through building floors compromised due to fire, or water damage. One of my earliest exposures to toxic off gases due to vinyls and plastics involved in fire occurred at a residential occupancy. At the time I was at the entry way of the house and was not wearing SCBA. Thinking the smoke was minimal at this location I would be ok. However, my eyes, and nose began to run with water and mucous.

Our housing contents are chock full of plastics and synthetics that contribute much more to the toxicity of the off gassing from a fire. e.g. Your comfortable lazy boy chair or overstuffed couch has a high fuel load and a high heat release rate. Which then if on fire gives occupants much less time to evacuate (3-4 mins).

Each overstuffed chair or sofa has a fuel equivalency of approximately 5 gallons of petrol. As a note of interest, the foam stuffing of this furniture commonly has fire retardants built into the furniture. These retardants do nothing to “retard” the fire but instead contribute greatly to the toxicity of the gases and smoke produced when involved in a fire.

Firefighter cancer is a real enemy to firefighter health. A dear firefighter friend of mine had brain cancer. Over the length of a few years, he required brain surgery three times to remove a brain tumor. He was a real warrior. During his surgeries I had given him the nickname “Fearless” after reading a book of the same title written by Eric Blehm. And it stuck. It was over a coffee that my friend Mark showed me his gnarly huge red scar on his head from his latest surgery. “Wow” I said to mark “they even gave you a souvenir”. He laughed it off and said it made him look tougher. Sadly, Mark and another local young firefighter both lost their battles with brain cancer. A new enemy to firefighters involves PFAS exposure from new firefighter turnout gear.

Another risk that I have investigated and instructed other firefighters on is Intermodal Containers or as we call it Sea-Can containers. A young firefighter Captain in Canada lost his life when a Sea-Can exploded striking him with one of the 250 lb. doors. The sea can container was not involved in fire but was heated from a lumber producing factory on fire nearby. It is thought that the overheated contents turned the minimal amount of power tool fuel to vapour and self-ignited. Studying the after-action reports, white papers and investigations, I then instructed our firefighters on the dangers of Sea-Can containers on fire when used for storage. And how to lessen the risk when attacking this kind of fire.

Forward a few years after that incident. While away at a remote industrial site investigating a mechanical shop fire, I learned of another fire our fire department members had responded to at our main facility in my hometown. My interest was piqued when I learned that this fire also involved a Sea-Can container. However, when talking to one of our firefighters I was alarmed when he began to describe the particulars of this fire. He went on to tell me the IC had asked the owner of the sea can container that was fully involved if it contained any dangerous goods. The owner responded that it did not. Two firefighters (brothers) opened the doors to the container and began an interior attack. The fire was successfully extinguished. Upon my return to our main industrial site, I investigated this fire. During my investigation and digging through the debris was alarmed to find a 20 lb. Liquified propane gas LPG container that had been involved in the fire. The pressure relief valve had been operating preventing a bleve (boiling liquid expanding vapour cloud explosion). Next to the LPG tank was a pallet of liquid industrial oxidizers used to produce a resin. When I explained my findings to the young firefighter, I knew that had been on the interior attack you could visibly see the color draining from his face. This was a near miss for our firefighters to a potentially catastrophic fire.

Because of my industrial firefighting experience I have responded to many explosions, some involving fatalities. One of these explosions or series of explosions was a near miss for me and I was also one of the first officers on scene in response to it. This was also a mass casualty incident. A very large industrial furnace exploded during a shutdown for planned repairs. Other explosions our fire department responded to included two incidents of exploding 8” air lines. On two other incidents hydrogen was involved. Another included an industrial autoclave. Others involved molten metal and spalling concrete. Also, we responded to a hazmat call involving three tons of spilled explosives. In another incident I was asked by the police to “check out” an armed (IED) he had delivered to our office in his car. And observed it was a real dire threat. It was later disarmed.

In closing I cannot stress enough the importance of lifelong learning for firefighters and to learn all they can about the craft. The more you know, the more you learn to fill that hard drive so to speak and can respond armed with knowledge, experience, training and begin to utilize your own recognition primed decision making. Know your enemy and survive.


Bradley R. Davidson CCFI-C CFEI CFII
Author – Flames of the Fire – Firefighting Amidst the Explosions

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