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TECOM Training & Education Command

United States Marine Corps

Through smoke and flame: Local firefighters learn to fight flashovers

By Lance Cpl. Russell Midori | | October 2, 2009

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Parris Island Fire/Rescue hosted two weeks of realistic training for its firefighters, as well as the members of Burton, Beaufort and Port Royal departments, which ended today. 

At the fire-training site on Page Field, instructors from the PIFR burned more than 20 fires that would help them to better understand how to read and interpret fire and smoke in a flashover situation.

A flashover occurs when the ceiling, walls and furniture in a room cannot absorb any more heat from a fire and superheated gasses cause them all to combust at once, said Capt. Ralph Stanley, of the PIFR. By recreating the conditions of such an inferno, trainees witnessed the characteristics of the different phases of fire.

“This teaches them how the fire will react in the incipient stage, the free burning stage and the smoldering stage,” said Stanley, of Beaufort, S.C. “Usually by the time we arrive on a scene, it’s already free burning. But this training shows the firefighters what exactly the smoke is doing and how it’s layering through each stage.”

The Depot is the only place in Beaufort County with a flashover simulator, which is a heat-resistant building about the size of a tractor-trailer. The confined space is adorned inside with combustible and replaceable masonite slabs, and heats to about 1200 degrees Fahrenheit when a fire barrel is ignited
inside of it. 

Teams crawled into the building in full bunker gear consisting of boots, gloves, flash hoods, self-contained breathing apparatuses and masks. They stayed low during each half-hour burn  while learning how to react to each phase
of the fire. 

When trainees opened the door to the simulator they added oxygen to the mix of superheated gasses. This induced flashovers the firefighters could witness first-hand. 

“I had never gone through that type of burn before,” said Stacy Strong, a firefighter/paramedic with PIFR. “I’ve been in burn buildings, but it was basically a search and rescue kind of thing.

“Here, we didn’t have any workload.We were just sitting there, watching the fire and learning its chemistry,” explained Strong, a veteran Marine from Indianapolis.

Strong gained an appreciation for techniques that protect firefighters from flashovers, saying she came out of the simulator with a greater knowledge of temperature checks, penciling and aggressive cooling – the three skills a firefighter needs in such conditions.

They performed temperature checks by streaming the water at the ceiling above the fire.

“You’re hoping water droplets rain back down on you – that’s good,” Strong said. “If they turn to steam, we know we’ve got superheated gasses in there, and you run the risk of a flashover.”

Each trainee had a chance to handle the nozzle to practice suppressing the fire. 

“I learned you probably want to avoid using a fog stream,” Strong explained.  Indiscriminately spraying water over a fire pushes the smoke straight down to the firefighters, and eliminates any visibility.

“We use penciling instead,” she said. “We shoot a small stream of water to break through the smoke without upsetting the thermal layering in the room.”

When the fire is too intense and too close, they learn to use a fog stream as a last resort, added Jack Dean, the assistant chief
of training. 

“We call it aggressive cooling,” said Dean, who hails from Beaufort, S.C. “It’s really a protective measure to get the fire off of us.”

A flashover is one of the most hazardous conditions for firefighters. One mistake can put the whole team in greater danger, so each member of the team must know how to react. 

“Communication can be limited by conditions, so everyone has to have the same idea of what to do,” Dean said. “That’s why we want to do all this kind of training alongside other departments – in case we ever have to help each other out.”

The PIFR has mutual aide agreements with local firehouses to assist eachother with major fires. 

“Training together puts us all on the same page, so if we go out and work with them, we know how they do business, and if they work with us they have a general idea of how we do business,” Dean said.

He added that he is happy to share use simulator to help train other firefighters.

“This is just the beginning,” he said. “Eventually we’re going to reach out to every department in
the county.”


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