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Enhanced Effectiveness of Fire Fighting Tactics Project


Firefighting is hazardous. In 2011, the fire departments in the United States responded to more than 484,500 [1] structure fires. These fires resulted in approximately 2,640 civilian fatalities, 15,635 injuries and property losses of approximately $9.7 billion dollars. In addition, more than 30,000[2] fire fighters were injured on the fire ground[3]. This project will demonstrate through the use of measurement science, the dynamics of fire behavior in a structure and provide guidance on non-traditional means to mitigate the fire hazard in the structure in a manner that provides optimum safety and effectiveness for the fire fighter. The project has focused on understanding the impact of ventilation on structure fires.  In 2016, the final year of this phase of the project, the research focus will be on fire suppression and technology transfer to the fire service.   

[1] Karter, M.J., Jr., Fire Loss in the United States During 2011, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA 02169-7471, August 2012, www.nfpa.org

[2] Karter, M.J., Jr, and Molis, J.L., Firefighter Injuries in the United States, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA 02169-7471, October 2012, www.nfpa.org

[3] In 2011, fire fighter injuries totaled 70,090 of which 30,505 or 43.5% occurred on the fire ground.


Objective - Improve the safety and effectiveness of firefighters through measurement science to advance suppression tactics, examine non-traditional means of fire suppression, exploit advances in technology, and transfer of the results to the fire service.

What is the new technical idea? The three main objectives of a firefighting operation are life safety, fire extinguishment and property protection. Most fire departments have standard operating guidelines for achieving these objectives, which vary from department to department because they are based on the experience of the department leadership, the organization of the department, and the resources that each department has to respond to a fire. As a result, the actions of the fire fighters may not be driven by fire science but by tradition and experience.

As an example, currently fire suppression operations are termed "offensive," if the fire fighters advance a hose line into a building to attack the fire, while a "defensive" operation would be to apply water streams into the building from a safe distance away from the building. A study on wind driven fires in structures, conducted by NIST in cooperation with the Fire Department of New York City, the Chicago Fire Department, the Fire Protection Research Foundation and New York University Polytechnic, demonstrated alternate means of reducing the fire hazard for both firefighters and building occupants by using new tools to control the fire from the floor above or the floor below the fire floor. Hence a good defensive operation became a great offensive operation. This study has made the fire service aware that the traditional approaches that have been taught over the years may not be the most effective or the safest tactics, nor necessarily lead to the best outcome.

While fire science has made significant improvements in both measurement and prediction, much of the work has focused on the fire behavior in a single compartment, not a series of compartments linked within a structure. Measurements are needed to determine the capabilities and limitations of fire fighting techniques in actual structures to provide a basis for evaluating operational tools on the fire ground and to provide firefighters with the technical knowledge to anticipate the outcome of their tactics. In addition to tactics, exploiting advances in technology is important for effective fire fighting. The idea of Smart Fire Fighting will exploit sensor information and ultimately collect data globally across the fire ground, analyze the information, and distribute the results as decision tools to fire fighting teams and incident command as appropriate. In a practical sense, immediate progress in this area begins by identifying sensor data that informs decision making on the fire ground.

What is the research plan? The focus areas of this project are fire suppression and technology transfer to the fire service. NIST has been focused on ventilation and has shown the relationship between ventilation control and limiting fire growth. The fire service defines ventilation as the removal of heat and smoke from a burning structure while introducing cooler, cleaner air.

Traditionally this would be done with vertical ventilation - by making an exhaust vent in the roof and providing air inlets by opening doors or breaking windows. Another method is horizontal ventilation, where only windows are vented. Given the fuel rich environment found in structures, these actions may actually enable the fire to reach flashover at a faster rate, increasing the hazard. Therefore, a study documenting the fundamentals of natural ventilation in a real scale residential structure was required. The results of the NIST ventilation studies, as well as recent studies by UL, have clearly shown the importance of coordinating ventilation and suppression tactics. The experimental results coupled with investigations of fire incidents leads to the conclusion that with current residential fuel loads, using ventilation alone is likely to cause an increase in the hazardous conditions from the structure fire. This is opposite of the desired effect. As a result, suppression tactics need to be examined to determine a means to improve the effectiveness of using suppression and ventilation in combination.

Traditionally, suppression operations have been conducted from the interior of the structure as a means to reduce water damage, manage the "thermal balance", and limit fire damage to structures. In current training manuals, it is stated that these operations must be coordinated with the ventilation operations. However guidance on fire control has been limited. Previous research and examinations of line of duty deaths have shown that ventilation events occurring with fire fighters in the structure prior to suppression have led to tragic results. One means of reducing the possibilities of this occurrence would be to begin to extinguish the fire prior to entering the structure. In effect, an offensive exterior fire attack, in which water is directed into the structure from the exterior to cool the fire gases and reduce the heat release rate of the fire, prior to the fire fighters entering the building. The major concern with this type of operation is the potential harm that might occur to people trapped in the structure or the amount of water damage to the structure. Water pressure, flowrate, timing and quantity are all critical variables to ensure fire fighter safety, yet they are not measured. As a first step towards Smart Firefighting, work will be undertaken to explore the effective use of sensors to measure, record and transmit water flow through hoses, providing real-time data on this critical parameter. Thus, measurements are being conducted to document the changes of the thermal environment within a structure.

As this new information is analyzed and documented, a significant task is to share the information with the fire service across the nation. Mechanisms include NIST reports and videos on the [www.nist.gov/fire] website and the NIST Youtube Channel, updates on the NIST_Fire twitter account, journal articles, firefighting trade magazine articles, conferences, webinars, web-based training programs, podcasts and the integration of the new knowledge into standards, guides and training materials. NIST works with a variety of organizations that have established communications networks with fire departments in order to transfer technology efficiently. These organizations include Congressional Fire Service Institute, Institution of Fire Engineers' Vision 20/20 Project, International Association of Arson Investigators, International Fire Service Training Association, International Society of Fire Service Instructors, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, National Fire Protection Association, North American Fire Training Directors, International Association of Fire Fighters, International Association of Fire Chiefs, UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, and the U.S. Fire Administration. Through their state and local networks these groups reach both rural and metro fire departments of all sizes. In addition, NIST works directly with a number of large metro departments as these departments in turn impact the surrounding regions.

Major Accomplishments:

Potential Impact

  • Report on a line of duty death fire investigation using the Fire Dynamics Simulator
  • Report on the investigation of line of duty injuries during a fire incident using the Fire Dynamics Simulator
  • Smart Fire Fighting Roadmap (NIST Special Publication 1191)
Wind-Driven Fire Test.  Photo Credit: NIST
NIST researchers participated in a series of wind-driven fire experiments in a seven-story building on Governors Island, New York, in February 2008. Photo credit: NIST. 

Start Date:

October 1, 2011

Lead Organizational Unit:


Facilities/Tools Used:


Project Leader: Dr. Jiann C. Yang


More Information on Fire Fighting Research:

Research for the Fire Service

Topic: Fire Fighting Technologies


Dr. Jiann C. Yang
Fire Research Division

100 Bureau Drive, M/S 8662
Gaithersburg, MD 20899-8662