Dan Madrzykowski has spent a good portion of his time in government burning down buildings to study how fire behaves, resulting in radical changes in firefighting practices around the country that are saving lives and protecting property.
“I burn things for a living,” said Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “We burn a building, change one variable and do it again.”
Working with fire departments across the country, Madrzykowski finds buildings that are scheduled for demolition and recreates previous fires in which fire-fighters were injured or lost their lives. He uses sophisticated research tools and fire-modeling software to analyze the blazes and then spreads the word to firefighters on what he has learned.
“Dan has been able to use science to show that the traditional practices don’t always provide the best outcomes and, in some cases, they’re putting fire-fighters in harm’s way,” said Willie May, NIST’s associate director for laboratory programs.
Madrzykowski and his team have improved everything from ventilation and fire-suppression tactics to the protective equipment fire-fighters wear. He has had a major impact on understanding and mitigating the dangerous problem of fire driven by wind, which occurs frequently on the upper floors of tall buildings.
When winds blow through the open doors and windows of a burning building, they cause fires to grow and spread rapidly. Fire-fighters can open or close doors and use large fans to ventilate stairways and corridors, but if they don’t understand fire behavior, they can inadvertently create more hazardous situations for themselves, May said.
Madrzykowski’s most significant research has been on how, when and where fire-fighters should ventilate a building, said Morgan J. Hurley, technical director at the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. “Doing it at the wrong place or time can actually exacerbate the situation.”
In 2011, 70,090 firefighters were injured and 83 died in the line of duty, according to the National Fire Protection Association. During that same year, there were almost 1.4 million fires in the U.S., 3,005 deaths, 17,500 injuries and £7.3 billion in economic damage.
The wind-driven fire research started when Madrzykowski was called to study the dynamics of a 1998 Brooklyn blaze that killed three fire-fighters on the top floor of a 10-story building. When wind blew through a corridor with open doors and windows, the firefighters were overwhelmed by the intense heat that traveled down the hallway.
Armed with his research on the underlying physics of the inferno, Madrzykowski worked with fire departments in urban areas in five states, conducting fire tests in high-wind conditions. He had to overcome measurement challenges involving high temperatures, toxic gases and the potential for structural collapse.
Thanks to his findings, fire departments now are trained to consider the impact of wind on structure fires and employ innovative tactics to use the wind to their advantage.
Madrzykowski stressed that the fixes he recommends are inexpensive and quick. “I’m empowering the fire-fighters with information and introducing new techniques that don’t cost a lot of money to implement,” he said. “They can change tactics overnight.”
“His science-based recommendations are critical for the fire service, where many fire-fighters do not have an understanding of fire dynamics,” said Anthony Hamins, the chief of NIST’s Fire Research Division. “He is leading a transformational change in fire service thinking.”
Madrzykowski has helped spread the word about his research through publications, digital media, speaking engagements and curricula development. He also is the administrator of Fire.gov, a website dedicated to translating fire research results into easy-to-access research reviews. Site users can learn from reports and narrated videos about various experiments and simulations.
The website was visited nearly 200,000 times in 2012. During the past few years, more than 400,000 people and organisations, including the National Fire Academy, have requested DVD’s containing training videos, research findings and data.