Learning to Fight the Modern Fire in a Modern Way

Until this week, revolutionary firefighting research faced a hurdle higher than the scientific discoveries themselves: How to inform the nation’s 1.1 million firefighters – 70 percent of whom are part-time volunteers – about techniques that should replace decades-old practices?

On October 19, 2012, at the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association Conference, a research team headed by Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) intends to clear that hurdle by unveiling a unique, game-based computer program designed specifically to educate, train, and disseminate information to the nationwide firefighting community. 

This methodology is an important step in the translation of research into practice, and an integral part of the fire research being conducted at the University.  Previous phases of the ongoing research program that began in 2007 addressed strategies for fighting wind-driven fires in high-rise buildings.  The efficacy of these firefighting procedures was demonstrated by NYU-Poly partnering with the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  

The potential of these procedures and other research-based firefighting interventions to save lives and property has a significant impact on civilian safety as well.  Nationwide last year, firefighters responded to 484,500 building fires, in which 2,640 people died and 15,635 were injured, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Some fire departments are eager to embrace the new techniques but don’t have experienced trainers; others may not even be aware of the research.  So was born Advanced Learning through Integrated Visual Environments – ALIVE.  The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and led by NYU-Poly, in partnership with FDNY, the Chicago Fire Department (CFD), and the fire departments of Bloomington, Eden Prairie, and Eagan, MN.

ALIVE features short, interactive training modules that incorporate simulations and game techniques.  Firefighters learn more than how to fight a fire: They learn the science behind the fires.  They test their proficiency frequently, and can repeat each module until they absorb it.  With its capabilities and features, the research collaborators believe that ALIVE is a unique, interactive online education offering for firefighters.

Tests conducted with 600 firefighters determined that individuals trained on ALIVE scored consistently higher than those who received classroom training.  “We were stunned that the firefighters did so well – it is rare that results are this strong and consistent,” said NYU-Poly Professor of Environmental Psychology Richard Wener, Co-Principal Investigator of the research project.  “Until now, there was no way for an instructor to know whether students grasped concepts until a fire – and then it was too late,” said Frank Montagna, FDNY Chief (Bureau of Training).  

In addition to being engaging and interactive, ALIVE provides the benefit of rapid and effective rollout of training to large cohorts of firefighters - a task that would take several years by traditional means. Although ALIVE was not designed to replace traditional training that includes hands-on time with equipment, it will vastly improve the speed and ease of information dissemination.  The FDNY is such a large organization that it takes an entire year and $9 million to run every member through a full day of classroom training, which is why it will benefit from using ALIVE as an ancillary training tool.  As FDNY Chief Jack Mooney and other team leaders from Chicago and Bloomington explain, the attraction of ALIVE is not mainly financial.  “First and foremost, it’s safety,” Mooney said. “We want our firefighters to come home every night and be at the top of their game.”  But ALIVE is arriving at a time when fire departments nationwide are financially strained, in part due to increasing training mandates. 

Making the training modules quick and interesting was important, said FDNY Captain Erik Smith.  “You can get a call at any minute, so the lessons have to be short,” he said.  “You have to be able to go back to a module and pick it up again easily.  And they have to be interesting because firefighters are a pretty tough audience.”  The FDNY is considering linking the computer kiosks in every firehouse to ALIVE in order to reach all 11,000 of its firefighters.

Recently, DHS’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program awarded another grant to NYU-Poly to continue its fire research and to develop an ALIVE module designed to train the nationwide firefighting community on fire dynamics.  In collaboration with NIST, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and the fire departments of New York, Chicago and Bloomington, the research team will conduct small-scale burn tests and laboratory experiments to generate the necessary data, video and images. 

Achieving an understanding of fire dynamics is of paramount importance, since the characteristics of modern residential construction - including large, open layouts, increased fuel loads from synthetic materials and furnishings, and minimal fire resistance of structural components - make today’s modern residential fires far different from those of past generations, explained Prabodh Panindre, Senior Researcher at NYU-Poly. By gaining a better understanding of modern fire behavior through the use of interactive ALIVE training, firefighters will be able to adapt more effectively to today's hazardous fire environment, thereby improving their health and safety.

“It is vital that we spread the word on fire dynamics and new firefighting techniques to the firefighting community,” said Principal Investigator Sunil Kumar, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at NYU-Poly and Associate Provost for Engineering at NYU Abu Dhabi.  “For example, before the FDNY started using the research-based techniques for high-rise fires, such fires most often ended with significant firefighter injuries or death.  Now, through new tactics and associated training, similar fires are most likely to end in a whimper.”

For Bloomington, a major advantage of ALIVE is its flexibility.  Volunteer firefighters who often hold other full-time jobs can access the program on their personal computer, tablet, or smart phone at any convenient time.  “Fire doesn’t recognize the difference between full-time and volunteer – we have to be prepared,” said Bloomington Fire Chief Ulysses (Ulie) Seal.  He will introduce ALIVE to the Minnesota conference and urge all firefighters to participate at engineering.nyu.edu/fire/wdhr.html.

Beginning this month, the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) plans to use ALIVE to supplement its classroom training and hands-on training for its 5,000 firefighters.  CFD will give its firefighters the ability to link in through firehouse computers, and will add ALIVE to its academy curriculum.  This would also guide other fire departments to integrate ALIVE with traditional training techniques. With a multitude of older residential high-rise buildings, Chicago will benefit from implementing the technique of positive pressure ventilation, said James Dalton, Coordinator in the Office of Research and Development at CFD.

“Jim (Dalton) and I are  on the lecture circuit, trying to educate firefighters about the new techniques, and it is amazing how many haven’t heard about this important research,” said Peter Van Dorpe, CFD’s chief of training. “ALIVE will get the message out, and it will also ensure that the message doesn’t get confused.”

NYU-Poly’s research collaboration with FDNY on high-rise fires dates to the 1970s, when researchers conducted burn tests in a 22-story office building at 30 Church Street in Manhattan and demonstrated the strategy of stairwell pressurization for high-rise fires.  Since then, after a period that saw little emphasis on fire research, the partners expanded their research on fire dynamics in 2007, and in 2008, they dramatically demonstrated the efficacy of their research outcomes during a week of controlled high-rise fires on Governors Island.  Video footage from that and other experiments are incorporated into ALIVE training.  The collaboration also led to the practice of using tools such as positive pressure ventilation fans that can be strategically placed to control the flow path of a fire, thereby rendering it safer to extinguish.