The IAAI and CFITrainer.Net present these podcasts with a focus on issues relating to fire investigation. With expertise from around the world, the International Association of Arson Investigators produces these podcasts to bring more information and electronic media to fire investigators looking for training, education and general information about fire investigation. Topics include recent technologies, issues in the news, training opportunities, changes in laws and standards and any other topic that might be of interest to a fire investigator or industry professional affected by fire. Information is presented using a combination of original stories and interviews with scientists, leaders in fire investigation from the fire service and the law enforcement community.
Welcome to IAAI’s July 2010 CFITrainer.Net Podcast. This month’s podcast is devoted to a roundtable spotlighting some of the latest research and technical activities that impact fire investigation. Our participants are Daniel Madrzykowski from NIST, Steven Kerber from Underwriters Laboratory and Dr. Fred Mowrer from Cal Poly.
Our roundtable is moderated by Dan Madrzykowski. The roundtable begins now.
DAN: Welcome to the podcast today. This is Daniel Madrzykowski. We’ll start off with some questions for Steve today. Steve, Underwriters Laboratory was founded back in 1894 and they’re well known around the world for their product safety test standards and their certification and evaluation programs. But lately it seems that Underwriters has been conducting quite a bit of research directly related to conditions on the fire ground. Can you tell us a little bit about this change and some of the recent projects?
STEVE: Absolutely. UL is fortunate to have a number of resources that are very good for fire testing and also work out very well for doing projects for the fire service and things of that scale. We were awarded several Department of Homeland Security grants through their research program. Some of them include lightweight construction, looking at the collapse of lightweight construction, a smoke particulate study looking at the hazards of overhaul and also horizontal ventilation, ventilation on the fire ground.
DAN: So you mentioned a study on fire exposure per smoke particulates. How would the findings in that report have any impact on fire investigators?
STEVE: Well there’s several places where I think the fire investigators can benefit from the results. Just a quick overview on the project. It was broken into four areas. The first one was small scale. There we ran 42 different materials that you would commonly find in and around your home through cone calorimeter tests as well as smoke pockets tests to get an idea on the small scale of what hazards are in the home today and what heat release rates are and what smoke production rates are.
The second piece of that grant was to step it up to what we’ll call large scale tests. We burned several living rooms, bedroom, kitchen, an attic, a couple of deck scenarios with pressure treated wood as well as some of the synthetic material wood and a couple of automobiles. And what we were looking at was to drive those rooms to flashover and then to suppress them, and the focus was to examine 30 minutes of overhaul after suppression. So we looked at what was in the smoke, all the different materials, all the different metals, all the different smoke concentrations looking for anything that would cause adverse health effects and taking all kinds of different samples and instrumenting firefighters while they conducted the overhaul.
There’s a couple of conclusions that came out of that, and I think probably one of the most significant ones for the investigation community is that more than 99% of the smoke particles collected during the overhaul were less than 1 micron in diameter. The thing about ultrafine particles is that more than 97% of them are too small to be seen by the naked eye. So areas that you think may be clear of smoke, in fact, are saturated with particles, so clean air isn’t necessarily clean air. The third piece of the project was to step it up from the small scale to the large scale to actual fire events. We trained a team of firefighters, UL sent an engineer to ride along with this team of firefighters, and essentially we chased fires around the south side of the city and we would send trained Chicago Fire Department Firefighters in instrumented to stand next to the firefighters at actual fires and measure the overall gases while they were conducting overhaul, and the engineers from UL and a couple other firefighters would use an open path FTIR device outside of the structure, which we could shoot into the flames and measure what was in the smoke between the measurement device and the flames themselves.
Then the final piece of the project was our partner in the project, which was the University of Cincinnati Medical School. At UL we really don’t have any medical resources to be able to determine what the impact of all of these different particles and gas concentrations would be, but they have experts in this field that have been conducting research here for quite some time, and related to the ultrafine particles that pretty much ultrafine particles have a very high surface to mass ratio. So they can also make it extremely far down into the bloodstream almost directly and they can be deposited very deep into lung tissue and result in direct transfer - toxins in the air, metals, PAHs all carried by the particles and therefore get transferred quickly into the bloodstream causing problems in the cardiovascular system, the nervous system or the liver.
DAN: You also mentioned a test series on the impact of horizontal firefighting ventilation for single family homes. Can you tell us a little bit about that study in some of your findings?
STEVE: Sure. We wanted to look at how fire behaviors changed over time both with fuel loads transitioning from natural materials to synthetic materials as well as houses changing in geometry. All the modern houses being built are sort of transitioning from smaller square footage ranch houses with a lot of compartments, a lot of walls, everything separated by doors to larger two story houses, and in our case it was a 3200 square foot, two story colonial type house with an open floor plan and two story spaces. So there was a two story great room as well as a two story foyer.
So we ran a series of 16 tests. Eight of the tests were in the smaller ranch house - we have a 1200 square foot ranch house in our lab, and right next to that we had a larger two story house. Some of the important things for the fire investigators based on all these tests that we did - and the results will be available on our website soon - fire behaviors change significantly, and if you have a fire bottled up in a living room that’s surrounded by doors that pass into the other rooms, your fire behavior’s going to be much different than it is in a 17 foot ceiling great room that’s open to pretty much every room on the first floor and directly open to all the bedrooms on the second floor. The basis was to examine the fire department operations and look at what they’re traditionally taught on where they’re supposed to vent and when they’re supposed to vent, and that’s going to change the fire growth, that’s going to change the patterns they see afterwards, and I think the outcome of this project, the fire investigator will be able to look at and gain some insight as to what they see every day out on the street.
DAN: So those are some really significant projects. Do you have anything new coming up
STEVE: Well we’ve got two big projects we’re working on right now. One is in partnership with NIST where we’re doing some additional lightweight construction research, and then the newest piece, which we were just awarded from the Department of Homeland Security as well, is firefighter safety as it pertains to photovoltaic solar panels. We’re going to go through a series of tests combining some of our fire expertise and some of our electrical expertise to look at what happens if a firefighter sticks a pipe pole into a solar panel? What happens if he sprays water on it? How well do firefighter gloves protect the firefighter? Or the boots, how do they protect the firefighter? What happens if you cut into a conduit with your power saw on the roof? Or what happens if you start hitting the components with large amounts of water and the panels begin to break? What hazard can that cause? And then what does the fire department do to interact with the photovoltaic panels? What can you do to shut them off? There’s only two things that can turn off solar panels and that’s either covering them with a completely opaque tarp or waiting for dark. So anywhere before the inverter and the panels themselves are going to stay live. That’s also important for fire investigators. You get to the scene later on and you’ve got some solar panels that are damaged by fire and you have to know what to be able to do to work around them safely.
DAN: Fantastic. It sounds like a very valuable resource. Now with that, we will turn our attention over to Fred Mowrer. Fred, thank you for being on the program today. You jumped into this new project, this new job as Director of Fire Protection Programs at Cal Poly. Is this is a brand new program or it’s just getting started? What’s it status?
FRED: Yes, we have just started a new graduate program in fire protection engineering at Cal Poly. The graduate program leads to a Masters of Science degree.
DAN: So why the West Coast? Why California?
FRED: First of all, there’s the two existing graduate programs in fire protection engineering are located at the University of Maryland and at WPI, which is in Massachusetts, and both of those are along the East Coast. Certainly with the growth of the Western United States for the past few decades in particular, there is an increasing need for educational programs in fire protection engineering along the West Coast. I think California’s also a logical choice because of the problems it experiences annually with wild land fires and with fires at the wild land/urban interface. Really, the final and perhaps the most important reason to do this in California right now is that the institution of Cal Poly has shown a distinct interest in this program and Cal Poly is one of the best engineering schools in the country.
DAN: That all makes sense and sounds very exciting. Who is the program open to?
FRED: Generally speaking, the program is open to students who hold a Bachelors of Science degree in one of the engineering disciplines or in a closely related technical field - fields such as physics, chemistry or applied mathematics. Qualified students who may not have the necessary background to get admitted to the Masters of Science program can also enroll in some of our individual courses through what’s known as the open university program at Cal Poly. This is where I think a number of investigators who may not qualify for the whole program may be interested in coming in and taking some of the courses, for instance, in fire modeling or in fire dynamics that are important to their practice in fire investigation. This is a good way for some of these students who may be borderline in terms of whether they can get admitted to the program or not, to actually demonstrate that they’ve got the skills necessary to complete the full program successfully.
DAN: Very, very neat. Given your background in fire investigations, I know that as you have come up, while you were in school and everything, you’ve been involved in some very major fire investigations. How do you see your program relating - or being involved potentially in fire investigations and that kind of thing?
FRED: Well I guess I come at fire investigations from the standpoint of an engineer who’s really trying to look at differences between expected and observed performance of buildings under fire conditions, and that’s really what engineers I think largely bring to the table. To that end, you know, this program, like other fire protection engineering programs, really has two tracts. On one hand the program focuses on the fundamental fire sciences. That includes topics like fire dynamics, flammability of materials, fire modeling, but it also focuses on fire protection systems and applications such as fire detection and alarm systems, fire suppression systems and structural fire protection. So by understanding the context of what is expected within a building and then coupling that with what was the actual performance of a building under fire conditions, I think that these are all valuable tools to help the investigator or the engineer understand how fires start and how they spread in buildings and other structures.
DAN: Given the newness of the program, the fact that it’s just starting this fall, I’m going to ask you to sort of look in your crystal ball a little bit. What do you see on the horizon for the program? Where would you like to see the program go?
FRED: Well certainly with respect to the fire investigation field, I want to see more collaboration. I would like for the fire investigators, particularly on the West Coast, to view this program as a resource and the people within the program as a resource.
DAN: Fred, thank you very much for your time today, and thank you both very much. This is Dan Madrzykowski and thank you.
More information on the research projects mentioned in this podcast is available on this podcast page.
The website for accessing the Fire Service Research results from UL is http://www.ul.com/fireservice
The website for the California Polytechnic State University Program is http://fpe.calpoly.edu
That concludes this IAAI CFITrainer.Net podcast. We’ll see you again next month.
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