In the early part of 2006, the FDNY experienced several challenging fires in high-rise fireproof residential buildings. These fires were similar to several incidents that, in the past, had claimed the lives of firefighters and civilians. One fire in particular nearly claimed the lives of several firefighters, and multiple members went to the hospital with burns.

This fire occurred in a building that 10 years earlier was the scene of a line of duty death of a member from the FDNY. With this near miss incident, interest was renewed in developing tactics that would better protect both firefighters and civilians. In this effort, the FDNY requested the assistance of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This request was answered by Dan Madrzykowski and Steve Kerber, fire protection engineers in the Firefighting Technology Group of NIST.

Fortunately, NIST was in the process of planning a series of tests for the spring of 2006 with the Toledo Fire Department; the focus of these tests was using positive pressure fans for stairwell pressurization and smoke control in high rise buildings. The concept was for a fire department to deploy portable fans to pressurize stairwells in high-rise buildings, allowing the fire units to limit smoke contamination of the stairwells and upper floors. A question that lingered was whether the portable fans would still be effective with increased pressures from actual fires. NIST validated the results from Toledo in December of 2006 in a series of live burns in a 17-story high-rise building in Chicago.

The fire service now began to request that the fire protection engineers study other tactics that possibly could provide an additional level of safety for firefighters and make for a more efficient operation. Of particular interest was the need for better understanding the effects that wind had on fire dynamics in high-rise buildings due to FDNY’s past experience with the negative effects that wind had on these fires.

With this newly formed partnership proving so valuable, the FDNY was able to secure a high-rise on Governors Island to test alternate strategies to combat wind driven fires. With the support of NIST and funding through the Department of Homeland Security and the Assistance to Firefighters grants, testing was conducted in February of 2008.

New tools such as wind control devices, high-rise nozzles and PPV fans were tested for their usefulness and ability to control these fires. A wealth of knowledge was gained through this testing, and the FDNY changed its tactics, trained and equipped line units and is better prepared today to fight fires in high-rise buildings. In the last several years, the FDNY has utilized these tactics in at least 20 serious high-rise fires with very positive results and has not experienced any serious firefighter injuries at these incidents.

This history that I have discussed is just the tip of the iceberg. The testing continues today with NIST and Underwriters Laboratories’ Firefighter Safety Research Institute. The importance of the partnership between the fire service and fire protection engineers cannot be overstated. The fire service today has knowledge of fire dynamics like never before. Testing allows the fire service to validate tactics and make changes to better provide safety. Changes in the fire service today are not based purely on personal observation and judgment; they are based on the testing that proves and validates their effectiveness.

Since the start of this partnership, the FDNY can show a reduction of traumatic injuries to its members from changing fire conditions. The fire ground is constantly evolving with changes to building construction and fuels that fill our homes. The fire service will continue to benefit from this ability to see how the these changes influence the fire and how we can deploy tactics and resources to combat the modern fire.

The fire service community owes a debt of gratitude to the dedication and support of fire protection engineers like Dan Madrzykowski and Steve Kerber. There continues to be requests from the fire service for better understanding of fire and means to control it; in the future, additional testing will further enhance our safety and effectiveness.

Chief George Healy is with the New York City Fire Department.