Tactical Thermal PPE Management-Temperature, Tactics, & PPE

The following speech was given at the FIERO 2019 PPE Symposium:

“PPE Thermal Limits are designed to protect the firefighter to a tested specified limit, yet our tactics do not consider these limits when placing the firefighter into these IDLH environments. We need to transform our processes to provide these tactical approaches. We have the tools, yet we refuse to modify these SOPs. If we know better and do not, we are negligent! Learn about the changes needed.”

Chief Joe Starnes-Founder Project Kill the Flashover.

What affects everything we do each day?

Temperature, Weather, and the exposure to those elements.
What also affects firefighters on every fire but isn’t measured, considered, or accounted for during fire suppression tactics?

Temperature, heat release rate, heat flux, & duration of exposure to severe thermal environments.

Many of the members here today have contributed to the advancements in PPE, increased thermal protection & safety for firefighters, and have quantified the thermal environments that firefighters will be exposed to (such as Michelle O’Donnelly’s work Thermal Classifications or the UTECH Standard).

NIST Technical Note 1474: https://tsapps.nist.gov/publication/get_pdf.cfm?pub_id=101375

However, despite all of the research and progress that is made by outstanding individuals and organizations, the fire service remains negligent and almost ignorant of the power of thermal severity.

Let’s explore this further:

On any given fire across America today, one may hear a size-up report that analyzes/assess the following:

Life Hazards:
Building Construction & Type of Occupancy
Reading Smoke: such as-Volume, Velocity, Density, Color & Weather.

But you will seldom hear if at all the following important factors being assessed:

• Severity of the fire based on thermal signatures.
• Fire Location based on thermal readings/signatures.
• Apparent Temperature/Relative Heat Report:
• Cold Spaces: Assisting with Survivable spaces and predicting fire direction & spread.


tactical thermal ppe management-temperature, tactics, & ppe

Firefighters today are constantly adding services to our never-ending service delivery model to our citizens. And within that service delivery model, is a small but ever hazardous portion of our line of work that needs to be improved.

This is the area of Fire Suppression regarding to Locating & Extinguishing the Fire based on thermal cues/signatures, Measuring Overall Thermal Severity, and maintaining a survivable thermal environment for the victim and for the firefighters within the thermal Limitations of their PPE.

Consider the following compelling data from the UL Fire Research Study:

Several firefighter Line of Duty Deaths and injuries have occurred in recent years on the fireground as a result of rapid fire progression [1–4]. Among the contributing factors to these incidents was a lack of understanding of fire behavior [1–3]. Recent studies on firefighter safety [5, 6] have identified that the shift towards a higher synthetic content in modern home furnishings has resulted in fires with higher heat release rates (HRRs) than legacy fuels, which were composed mostly of natural materials. This shift has resulted in a more unforgiving fire ground, where poorly timed actions such as uncoordinated ventilation can result in the rapid deterioration of conditions. Unfortunately, fire department tactics do not always reflect this changing fire environment. Among other considerations, the necessity for firefighters to understand the fire dynamics that they are likely to encounter on the fireground has been identified as essential for firefighter safety.

“The 2018 edition of NFPA 1403 lists a series of prerequisites that students must have prior to participating in live fire training. Among these prerequisites are training on the proper use of PPE, ventilation, and fire behavior. Specifically, students should have a proper understanding of fire dynamics, including heat transfer, basic chemistry, and compartment fire behavior, the components, capabilities, and limitations of their PPE; and nozzle techniques and door control. It is important to note firefighters understand the concept of ventilation-controlled fires, however since most residential structure fires are ventilation controlled. Thus the most recent version of NFPA 1403 includes a methodology for conducting controlled, ventilation-limted fires. These scenarios are intended to teach fire behavior, rather than to teach firefighting skills such as line advancement or search & rescue. The document stipulates that students and instructors should be positioned in a “safe observation space,” which is outside of the fire room, at the same level or below the fire room, and removed from the exhaust flow path.” (Study of the Fire Service Training Environment Safety & Fidelity in Concrete Burn Live Fire Training Buildings-2.1 Standards Literature Review pp. 4-5)

2.2 Line of Duty Deaths & Injuries:

• Pennsylvania LODD of a 47-year-old fire instructor. Investigators attributed the face-piece failure to the high thermal conditions that were present in the basement during the evolution. (pp.5)
• Maryland 2007, probationary firefighter was killed during a training evolution in a vacant end-of-the-row townhouse in Maryland. The scenarios used approximately 12 wooden pallets and 11 bales of hay as fuel. The victim was on the nozzle of the first hose-line & was instructed to BYPASS the fires on the first and second floors and make an attack on the third-floor fire. When the attack team reach the stairway between the second & third floors, they were overcome with high heat conditions. Two of the participants exited the structure through a window. The victim reached the window, but was unable to get the lower half of her body out of the window. The victim succumbed to thermal injuries and asphyxia. (pp.5)

Sadly, in these cases and many other LODD’s the failure to understand & identify a thermally severe environment led to their demise along with the remaining contributing factors. This brings us to the point of this discussion: Firefighters are not measuring heat, convective heat transfer, and heat flux/radiative transfer to their PPE.

According to the FEMSA manual that comes with every brand-new set of firefighter PPE it states:

“If your protective ensemble is exposed to radiant, convective, or conductive heat, you may be burned underneath the protective ensemble with no warning and no sign of damage to the protective ensemble. Be constantly alert to the possibility of exposure to radiant, convective or conductive heat and other hazards”

But in today’s ventilation controlled fire environment with limited visibility and higher TPP of PPE, how are firefighters to be “constantly alert to the possibility of exposure to radiant, convective, or conductive heat & other hazards?”

NIST and UTECH have developed thermal classifications for “characterizing a firefighters thermal environment that uses the temperature at the firefighters height as an approximation of the convective heat flux as an approximation of the radiative heat transfer to the firefighters gear from the surfaces of the room, the upper gas layer, and the fire itself”

But the problem with NIST, UTECH or any of these research projects isn’t their data. Its solid and factual but we still have failed to give firefighters the ability to measure the heat around them.

Reading smoke doesn’t necessarily measure heat!

Failing to control the air and allowing convective currents to move around them increases firefighters risk for injuries and death.

Failing to control the temperature in each compartment and confirm it leaves firefighters guessing in a dynamic and often uncontrolled environment.

What is missing from this equation?

Experiential relevance!

In all of the reports, research, and many other papers what is lacking is either one of the following two concepts:

• A method to measure thermal severity.
• Implementation of the actual fire suppression concepts from the research such as:

Controlling the ventilation, applying sufficient flow rate early and continually to reduce the heat, and stopping antiquated & dangerous training habits that lead to tragic outcomes.

The problem lies not in the information presented to firefighters but in how firefighters measure heat. They were taught to measure heat by feeling, by penciling, or by reading smoke conditions. All of these methods fall short of reading the Infrared spectrum which is where 2/3rd’s of the overall heat is delivered. Firefighters fail to open the nozzle or cool the environment adequately because they miss valuable thermal cues that go unseen.

Why do they go unseen?

Because in 38% of all the LODDs studied, the Thermal Imaging Camera was left on the charger on the fire apparatus. And in many cases, fire departments are using antiquated, out dated, low resolution fire service TICs that cannot compare to newer high-resolution decision-making TICs of today.

And in the midst of these issues, firefighters are now encapsulated in some of the highest thermal protective performance gear to date yet they only have a 2-3 mm piece of poly carbonate separating them from the IDLH environment. As my friends overseas have so eloquently stated:

“Your problem is that you have only one layer of protection around your brain and you have six layers of protection around your butt. And then you stand-up in the super-heated environment; what do you expect to happen?”

Ladies and gentlemen, I share this with you not because I have the answers, but we have a problem. In all of this research, they have discounted or discarded the thermal imaging cameras value. Currently, it is the only way a firefighter can gauge or diagnose thermal severity. And the technology is improving greatly, yet the latest fire service thermal imaging camera study in regards to firefighting is over 10 years old and had no industrial thermographers on the panel nor did they use any radiometric industrial thermal imaging cameras to accurate gauge the environment in comparison to qualitative fire service thermal imaging cameras.

I leave you with a challenge. If firefighters are to recognize fire behavior indicators, ventilation limited fire conditions, and increasing fire growth they cannot rely only on their senses in the sensory deprived, TPP driven, and limited visibility conditions that they face. They need a quantifiable method or diagnostic tool that helps them to mitigate these thermal conditions before its too late.

Let’s work on not only defining the danger of the environment for firefighters but by providing a methodology to  identify these dangers, reduce temperature, cool and slow convection currents, and limit the duration of exposure thereby limiting and preventing further firefighter line of duty deaths.

Instructor Andy Starnes
Insight Training LLC
Level II Thermography Certified