Joseph Clarke, Assistant Editor of Fire Buyer analyses the concept of the modern firefighter and tackles the diverse challenges through advanced training and global collaboration
Urban development has rapidly changed over the years, bringing about unique challenges for today’s firefighters. Highrises now punctuate the skylines of many cities. These tall structures, while a testament to modern engineering, complicate firefighting due to their height, limited access points, and potential for rapid fire spread between floors.
Moreover, the density of contemporary urban areas, with buildings in close proximity to one another, poses a risk of fires spreading quickly from one structure to another. Tight alleyways and congested streets can also hinder quick access and response, making efficient firefighting strategies imperative.
Furthermore, the urban sprawl is pushing cities outward, leading to more interface areas where urban developments meet natural landscapes. These zones can be vulnerable to wildfires, especially in dry conditions. The threat of a wildfire encroaching on urban territory or vice versa is a real concern for many fire departments located at the periphery of cities. As Bernie Higgins of the FIA stated to us, even London is seeing an unprecedented number of wildfires.
Given these varied challenges, it’s clear that the firefighting landscape has diversified. Fire departments can no longer afford to focus solely on traditional urban firefighting techniques. A modern firefighter needs to be versatile, well-trained, and ready to respond to a range of scenarios, from highrise fires to urban wildfires.
The Emergence of Highrise Firefighting
Highrise buildings, a defining feature of many modern urban landscapes, have introduced challenges to firefighting that were almost unheard of a few decades ago. Their towering nature means that fires can quickly ascend, making rapid, effective response crucial. Traditional firefighting equipment, designed predominantly for lower buildings, often falls short in these skyscraper scenarios. For instance, the height and layout of these structures make it harder to access certain areas, particularly if elevators are non-operational due to fire or smoke. We must also take into consideration the sheer weight of PPE and equipment. This difficulty is compounded by the need to evacuate residents and workers, many of whom could be on floors significantly above ground level.
Recognising these challenges, the firefighting community has been compelled to innovate, leading to a new generation of equipment tailored to highrise emergencies. Key among these are high-angle rescue gear and advanced fire suppression systems. High-angle rescue gear, such as specialised harnesses, ropes, and descent devices, enable firefighters to access, rescue, and evacuate individuals from heights in a controlled and safe manner. This equipment ensures that even if traditional routes like stairwells are compromised, rescues can still be carried out.
On the fire suppression front, innovations have been equally significant. Newer systems focus on rapid deployment and efficiency. For instance, water mist systems, which use fine water droplets to suppress fires, have become more prevalent in highrise settings. They are especially effective in confined spaces like corridors and can help in lowering the temperature, reducing smoke and combating fires more efficiently than traditional sprinkler systems.
The introduction of this new equipment, however, demands intensive training. This is where Hands-On Training (HOT) comes into play. HOT sessions are not just demonstrations; they provide firefighters with the practical experience needed to master the tools of their trade. More than simple operations, these sessions cultivate judgment and strategy. Firefighters learn to assess situations rapidly, deciding which equipment is best suited to the task at hand. This decision-making process is crucial, as the correct choice can mean the difference between a successful operation and a challenging one.
As highrises continue to shape our urban skylines, the tools and techniques that firefighters employ must evolve in tandem. With a combination of innovative equipment and rigorous HOT sessions, the modern firefighter is better equipped than ever to tackle the unique challenges that highrise structures present.
Another dimension of modern firefighting that cannot be overlooked is the emergence and growing popularity of electric vehicles (EVs). While EVs bring numerous environmental and operational benefits, they also introduce unique challenges in fire scenarios, especially within confined spaces like carparks.
One of the key issues with EV fires is their resilience. Batteries, once ignited, can be difficult to extinguish and can reignite even after the initial fire is doused. Furthermore, the fumes produced by a burning battery are not only dense and visually obstructive but are also highly toxic. This makes the task of fighting such fires, especially in enclosed spaces, hazardous.
Understanding the distinct nature of EV fires, firefighting entities worldwide are recognising the need for specialised training. Traditional methods may not be adequate or appropriate for handling the unique dangers posed by battery fires. As a result, new techniques are being trialled and refined to address these challenges more effectively.
One innovative approach has been to employ realistic training simulations tailored to EV fires. These simulations can recreate the conditions of an EV fire, allowing firefighters to practice their response in a controlled environment without the associated risks. This is especially crucial given the differing tactics required; for instance, large amounts of water may be needed to cool down and extinguish an EV battery fire, contrasting with conventional vehicle fires.
In addition to simulations, training modules are focusing on educating firefighters about battery technologies and their behaviours under duress. This theoretical understanding, coupled with hands-on practice, ensures firefighters can make informed decisions quickly during real-world emergencies.
It’s also pivotal that this knowledge isn’t confined to regions with high EV adoption. Given the global push towards electric mobility, it’s anticipated that EVs will soon be commonplace worldwide. As such, sharing best practices and training modules globally is of utmost importance. This ensures that firefighters, irrespective of their location, are equipped with the knowledge and skills to tackle EV fires effectively.
Tackling the Wildfire Threat
In the vast expanse of the natural world, wildfires have long been considered nature’s own way of rejuvenating landscapes. However, their frequency, magnitude, and proximity to urban regions in recent times have shifted them from being solely a rural concern to a looming urban threat. Wildfires, with their voracious appetite for vegetation, can ravage thousands of acres in mere hours. Their unpredictability, driven by shifts in wind patterns, humidity, and the dryness of vegetation, presents a challenge of a magnitude unlike any other.
In earlier times, an urban fire department might have looked at wildfires as a distant problem, primarily concerning rural or forest departments. However, the urban sprawl, coupled with changing climatic conditions, has brought the wildfire threat closer to city limits. Urban peripheries now often interface with wildlands, making them vulnerable to these fierce fires. This has necessitated a change in the outlook and approach of urban fire departments.
Acknowledging this global issue, the firefighting community, traditionally divided by regional challenges and techniques, is now converging in an unprecedented manner. A universal adversary demands a unified response. This recognition has birthed a remarkable trend of international collaboration.
Across continents, wildfire specialists are extending their hands in camaraderie. Exchanging not just pleasantries, these professionals are sharing hard-earned knowledge, ground-tested strategies, and crucial expertise. An Australian firefighter, seasoned in battling bushfires, might share insights on ember attacks and fire-generated weather phenomena. Conversely, a specialist from the Mediterranean might bring forth expertise in dealing with fires in olive groves and scrublands.
Such exchanges are proving invaluable. A firefighter from Surrey, for example, despite being thousands of miles away from the Californian forests, could benefit immensely from understanding the firefighting tactics used in those woods. The nuances of terrain, the behaviour of fires in specific vegetation types, and even local wind patterns can offer critical lessons. So, if ever a wildfire were to threaten the greens of Surrey, the firefighter would not be navigating unfamiliar territory. Instead, they’d be armed with global knowledge, adapted to local conditions.
While traditional training methods have their merits and still remain a necessity in overall fire and realistic training, they often fall short in replicating the unpredictability and diverse nature of modern emergencies. These conventional methods can also be resource-intensive, both in terms of time and materials. Virtual Reality (VR), with its immersive capabilities, has grown in popularity in this area, in combination with realistic training, to address these limitations head-on.
At the heart of VR’s appeal is its ability to create lifelike scenarios in a risk-free environment. Firefighters can delve into the heart of a raging highrise fire or strategise containment of a rapidly spreading wildfire, all from the safety of a training room. Such realistic simulations permit mistakes without dire consequences, fostering a deeper understanding and refinement of techniques. The repeated exposure to a plethora of scenarios ensures firefighters are not just trained but are adept at handling a broad spectrum of emergencies.
Moreover, the potential of VR extends beyond individual training. It paves the way for collaborative sessions where teams from diverse geographies and departments can train together. Imagine a firefighter from London and another from Sydney, collaborating in real-time to manage a simulated emergency. Such international training not only sharpens skills but fosters a spirit of global solidarity and camaraderie, attributes invaluable in the close-knit world of firefighting.
Leading manufacturers in the tech space recognise the transformative potential of VR in firefighting. A notable collaboration between HTC VIVE and FLAIM Trainer exemplifies this commitment. Their recent case study on Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) training in the UK underscores how VR can provide nuanced training tailored to specific challenges, such as aircraft emergencies, which demand a distinct skill set and approach.
Further insights into the versatility of VR came to the fore during a recent interaction that Rebecca Spayne, Managing Editor of Fire Buyer had with Daniel Vecchiolla, Battalion Chief for Navy Region Mid-Atlantic Fire & Emergency Services, for our next installment of Fire Buyer Live taking place 18-19 October 2023. Vecchiolla elaborated on the unique challenges faced by firefighters at naval installations. Given the restricted access and strict protocols, firefighters often approach emergencies with limited knowledge of what they might encounter. This could range from ARFF fires or vessels, and even submarines to more traditional conventional structural blazes. To address this, he is actively exploring for the US Navy VR and other simulation technologies, aiming to equip their firefighters with a comprehensive training experience that mirrors the diverse challenges they might face…
To read the full article, see our last issue here.