Chief Ronald E. Kanterman
Ten years have come and gone since the terrorist attacks on our country and we have not been attacked since. Some give the DHS the credit, some the military, some the law enforcement task forces around the country. Whoever is doing it, I hope they keep up the good work. While we are glad for 10 years for homeland peace, we can never let our guard down. The national and federal law enforcement community tells us that the next act of terrorism is more likely to be the “lone wolf” rather than an organized cell or group. It makes sense and follows a path of recent incidents such as the shoe bomber on the airliner, the Time Square car bomber, the massacre on the military base and some folks caught making bombs in their homes or garages here and there over the past few years. One of the key issues however is that bomb making materials like high order explosives are hard to get in most places in the U.S. It’s easy to learn how to make a bomb (the good old internet) but explosives are controlled for the most part. Not all but most. We can still get our hands on fireworks, propane and most easily gasoline. Thus the second best thing for a bad guy to do is commit arson. With the recent storms ravaging the east coast of the United States, it was easy to see people pulling up to the pumps with multiple 5 gallon gas cans. Granted, most of these fine Americans used the gas for the their generators at home in order to keep the milk fresh, the lights on, the well pumping and perhaps to get a gaze at the Kardashian wedding. Whatever reasons, the gas was put to good use. But what about the bad guys? What about pulling up to the pump on a regular day not following a storm? Who’s watching the gas stations of America? No one. Early domestic terrorism took place at the Jamestown Settlement when people burned others out of their homes. Later on during the civil war, the Union Army burned Atlanta. Arson has been the terrorist weapon of choice for a long, long time. It’s easy to do and easy to get the materials to do. So let’s take a lesson in arson awareness. Every firefighter in the nation should have some idea of what to look for, the “red flags” if you will, while on the fire ground. This awareness could save your life or the lives of your crew. Part one covers basic fire science, building construction, and what line personnel can look for from dispatch, to arrival, to the firefight and afterwards. I invite you to use this as a simple drill the next time you’re all together in the fire house. Part 2 will come next month.
Basic Fire Science/Fire Behavior Review:
Sorry boys and girls. A little fire science goes a long way. Any field of the fire service you delve in to, requires a basic knowledge of fire behavior. Teaching college level fire science for over 22 years has gotten me in the habit of reviewing these concepts almost every semester whether we’re learning fire and arson investigation, fire protection systems, hazardous materials, building construction or strategy and tactics. They are all tied together with the knowledge of basic fire science. Review the following:
• Pyrolysis: Defined as the chemical decomposition of matter by heat. Process begins when fuel is heated, gases are produced, gases ignite, heat balance and feedback is obtained
• Flashpoint: Minimum temperature required for a fuel to produce sufficient vapors for ignition.
• Flammable liquids: have a flashpoint below 100˚ F. Combustible liquids have a flashpoint at or above 100˚ F. Flashpoint is determined under controlled laboratory conditions in a cup tester.
• Ignition Temperature: Minimum temperature required to ignite a material. Auto ignition occurs without the presence of an open flame or spark. Piloted ignition occurs with the presence of an open flame or spark
• Flammable or Explosive Limits: The concentration level of fuel vapors to the amount of air (oxygen) available for combustion. UEL - upper explosive limit, LEL lower explosive limit.
• Specific Gravity: Weight of a product compared to the weight of water. Water has a value of 1. Products with specific gravity of less than one will float (gasoline) and products with specific gravity of more than one will sink (carbon disulphide).
• Vapor Density: Weight of a product compared to air. Air has value of 1. Products with vapor density less than 1 will rise (natural gas), products with vapor density greater than 1 will sink (propane).
• Btu: Heat is measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units). One BTU is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water 1˚f.
• Methods of Heat Transfer: Convection-through air currents; Conduction-through solid mass (steel); adiation-UV heat waves.
• Flashover: Simply put, it is the stage of a fire when a room or compartment and its contents becomes fully involved in fire.
• Backdraft: Also known as a “smoke explosion,” results from the sudden introduction of air into an oxygen deficient confined space that contains superheated products of incomplete combustion. Can occur in concealed spaces like ceilings.
Building Construction Review:
• Fire Resistive: No exposed structural steel. Structural elements have substantial fire resistive ratings; maybe concrete, concrete encased steel, encased with gypsum board/plaster or steel with sprayed on protection. Exterior walls may be “curtain walls”
• Noncombustible: All structural members are of noncombustible materials. May have a limited degree of fire resistance like 1 hour.
• Heavy Timber: Exterior walls of masonry materials, interior walls, floors, roofs, columns, beams are of large dimensional lumber (4X4, 8X8, 12X12, 16X16)- The least likely to collapse early in an operation.
• Ordinary: “Main Street USA”- exterior walls of noncombustible materials. Floors, roofs and interior walls are wholly or partially made of wood.
• Wood Frame: Walls, floors and roofs are partially or wholly made of wood. Metal framing with plywood is also considered wood frame. Others are balloon frame, post and beam or platform.
What Line Personnel Should Look For:
• Initial Call: Source of call, the caller.
• Source of Call: 911 center, fire dispatch, local law enforcement agencies, automatic fire alarms, private alarm companies, neighbors & passers-by
• Caller: Discoverer of fire? Owner/Occupant of property? Passer-by who observed fire? Law enforcement patrol? The arsonist?
• Information to Be Obtained by Operator: Identification - name, address, phone number, location from where call is being made, voice identification, emotional state, background noises, exact location of fire.
• Private Alarm (Central Stations): When was alarm received? Source of alarm signal? Any recent reports of trouble with system? Any recent false alarms? (Required to maintain written records of all alarm and test signals.)
• Weather Conditions: Clear or stormy, snow or ice, wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity. These effect response time or access to scene
and affect fire behavior and/or burn patterns
• Spectators: Individuals leaving the scene quickly, gender, height, build, clothing, hair, activities/actions
• Vehicles: Make, color, size, domestic or foreign, style, license number, driver/occupants, direction of travel, speeding away from the scene.
• Delays in Reaching Scene: Detours, railroad crossings, lift or drawbridge, trees, debris, rush hour. Trees across the road but no recent storms! Unplowed snow.
• Smoke and Flames: Location, color and amount of smoke, visible flames, color of smoke. Flames can be helpful but not definitive indicators. Reaction of putting water on the fire. Did the fire get bigger or flash back?
• Actions of Spectators: Too concerned, too eager to help, too vocal, critical of emergency services, displays of animosity against neighbors, society, or government, too quiet or withdrawn, too excited, overly brave, helpful or curious, hindering of fire fighting activities.
• Appearance of Spectators: Appropriate for time of day, weather, signs of smoke or burns, odors, injuries, have special items like toys, pets, fur coats, jewelry, insurance policy or other important papers? Who takes all that when their house is on fire?
• Environmental Considerations: Other fire activity in area, areas with high transient occupants, areas of high crime activity, other crimes in area or community.
Fire Ground Considerations:
• Type of structure involved: Does fire behavior seem “normal?” Location of fire/smoke, signs of occupant attempts to escape, exposures involved.
• Condition of Doors and Windows: Position on arrival. Did someone enter looking for occupants? Did someone break or open windows? Did burglary occur prior to fire? What is normal position of doors and windows? Any evidence of forced entry?
• Damage to Fixed Fire Protection: Items stuffed in FD connections, stripped threads, closed valves, missing caps, tampering.
• Entry: Was forcible entry necessary? Who performed entry operations and how? How many doors/windows were forced? Were doors/windows locked prior to forced entry? Were any alarms activated during entry? Any guard animals present?
• Obstacles: Doors barricaded from interior? Stock piled in front of doors? Panic bars chained closed? Security bars on doors and/or windows?
• Location and Extent of Fire: Fire found where it was expected? Anything unusual about location? Evidence of unusual fire travel? Evidence of “trailers?” Color of flames and smoke. Fire spread from area of origin? Evidence of separate fires?
• Difficulty in Extinguishment: Did room darken when water was applied? Any unusual reactions to water? Did fire flashback? Was fire floating on top of water? Was amount of water used for extinguishment similar to other fires?
• Alarm/Detection/Suppression: Smoke alarms present and operational? Fire alarm system present and operational? Fire sprinkler system present and operational? Any evidence of tampering?
• Unusual Observations: Covered windows? Blocked ingress or egress? Items in unusual locations?
• Signs of Pre-fire Activity: Rifled drawers, open or overturned furniture, papers or files thrown about, broken furniture, anything unusual placed on beds.
• Unusual Signs: Unusual burn patterns, unusual odors, unusual ceiling damage, unusual floor damage, furniture or other contents moved or placed together, items not where they should be.
• Utilities: Location of electrical panel - any signs of tampering, condition of fuses or circuit breakers? On or Off?-Who turned off? Meter reading; Gas-On or Off? Who turned off? Location of meter or tank, volume of tank, signs of tampering, meter reading.
Next month we’ll look at patterns of fire, common indicators of arson, scene security and evidence preservation and legal aspects. In the mean time, be careful, be deliberate, be aware, be observant and if it doesn’t look right or feel right, tell a fire ground boss. Knowing the signs of arson will lead to safer fire ground operations.
Stay well, stay safe,