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 this edition of the IAAI’s CFITrainer.Net podcast. Today, we focus on the fire research work of Underwriters’ Laboratories, better known as UL. UL’s research agenda over the past four years has been taking an in-depth look at the many facets of changing home construction and how they impact fire dynamics. In a few minutes, Steve Kerber, the Director of UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute, will be with us here to talk about UL’s most recent and upcoming fire research. But first, a little background.
Even though there have been technological improvements in firefighting equipment and protective gear, firefighter fatalities on the fire ground have actually been increasing. One possible reason for this counterintuitive rise may be the change in buildings construction, construction materials, and home furnishings. Although the intent of this change - or these changes was to improve efficiency, reduce cost, speed construction time, add modern conveniences, and improve sustainability, they may also have an unintended negative impact on safety, fire ignition, and fire spread. Since 2008, UL has invested in research to understand the correlation between changes in construction and the new array of risks for firefighters and consumers. UL research has focused on materials, construction methods and newer home systems (such as photovoltaic panels) that’ll help them understand how they impact the behavior of fire and the composition of smoke, and therefore, how to understand, prevent and mitigate the risks involved. Many of these topics directly affect fire investigation, including potential ignition sources, fire patterns, fire development and spread, and safety concerns.
To discuss recent research findings from UL and to look ahead, we are pleased to have Steve Kerber from UL with us today. Steve is an expert on improving firefighter safety, fire service ventilation, lightweight construction and smoke management fire modeling. He is 13-year veteran of the fire service, a registered professional engineer, and holds advanced degrees in fire protection engineering. Steve, welcome to the podcast.
STEVE KERBER: Thanks Rod.
ROD: So, what are some of the overall findings that are emerging from the body of fire research UL has been doing? What does this mean for fire investigators?
STEVE KERBER: At UL we’ve been lucky enough to receive some funding recently from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through the assistance of the firefighter grant program, and through that we’ve been able to do all kinds of large scale experiments looking at a lot of the problems the fire service faces and through that we’re starting to put together a lot of trends. Many of them have to do with the fire dynamics in single family homes and how we’ve been able to compare them to what we would consider legacy or my grandfather’s fire that he may have responded to and we’re seeing that fires are spreading faster than they ever have. They’ve got higher heat release rates. We’re seeing that occupants have less time to escape, collapse times are shorter, a whole bunch of pieces.
There’s more hazards today such as solar panel systems and the like and we’ve been picking those components together, essentially the system of the residential home and picking them apart one at a time and looking at how it would impact the fire department response, and clearly, once you understand how it impacts the fire service response, there’s a lot of factors there that would impact fire investigators such as the importance of understanding how the fire got the oxygen, understanding flow paths, understanding the speed at which fire grows and spreads and subsequently what would be seen after the fact by the investigators is going to be different today than it was in the past.
ROD: What has UL research found with regard to PV panels?
STEVE KERBER: I mean, one, they’re a great new advancement in energy, and in order to understand their benefits you also have to understand how they’re going to impact the fire service and maybe ultimately fire investigators. We saw how fire grows and spreads when a fire gets into the panel system. We looked at several safety issues such as how to secure the power, and whether it’s the fire service or fire investigators, it’s important that if you’re going to do your investigation or you’re going to complete your overhaul that you understand how to do that safely, and having DC voltage is something that’s a little bit different for the fire service. I think we’re used to securing the utilities when it involves AC power or natural gas and now we’ve got a DC power source that you can’t exactly turn off, and it was important to understand how the systems work and understand that when you, when you do disconnect the inverter from the panels themselves that you’re just securing the AC side of the power going into the house and not the DC being generated.
We looked at ways to cover the panels and there are proper ways and improper ways depending on what you have to cover the panels using black visqueen, for example, was very successful, versus some of the new modern salvage covers that the fire service would have or fire investigators would have, while it looked like it may have worked, it didn’t necessarily cut down the power enough to make is safe to operate around that system. Understanding that the wiring going from the panels to the inverter could still be energized, so it’s important to cover those panels or to make sure as you’re conducting your investigation, even if it’s in the interior of the house, you need to understand where that wiring runs because if there’s any bit of sun outside, those wires are going to be hot. So, many other topics like that we compiled into an online training program that you can go to UL’s website to view.
ROD: Excellent. You mentioned earlier about lithium ion batteries. What’s UL research found there and why is that important to fire investigators?
STEVE KERBER: In many cases, if you’re going to store the power from the solar panel system, you’re going to need a battery bank in order to do so, and UL has a lot of research going on right now in the topic of lithium ion batteries, whether it’s individual cells or all the way up through computer batteries or larger than that, the storage of batteries and a lot of it’s still underway so there’s not a lot of results to talk about, but I think importantly, that copious amounts of water to control that and understanding the potential fault paths and how those batteries fail could be very important for fire investigators to find exports in order to nail down whether or not that was the source or not.
ROD: When you say copious amounts of water, I just sort of want to clarify because, well, as a guy who doesn’t know enough about this topic, when I think about spraying water around things that generate electricity, could you be more specific?
STEVE KERBER: Sure, absolutely. That the - I mean, the power off of battery storage is going to be different than power out of an AC system or DC system, so it’s maybe not as important for investigators but for the fire service to control those fires. There was some research done, I believe it was by the NFPA, that looked at the ability to use water to suppress the lithium ion battery fires and it was very successful.
ROD: So the part about making this safe, making these batteries and making the photo voltaic panel connections and everything around them safe, that’s handled in your online learning at UL?
STEVE KERBER: Absolutely. We’ve got a very comprehensive online training program that covers the solar panels. There’s also some, we have a new science campaign which we’re calling it that has an entire essentially journal dedicated to the topic of lithium ion batteries, so you’ll be able to see the latest and greatest there.
ROD: Excellent. I’ve seen a lot of that related to vehicles, and that’s an ever-changing pieces as well. So one of the major factors considered in fire investigation is the effect of ventilation on the fire’s growth and development, and the ventilation generated patterns can obviously impact how a fire investigator determines origin and cause. Can you tell us about the research UL has done on horizontal and vertical ventilation and what that means for fire investigators? Can you give us sort of a summary?
STEVE KERBER: Sure. We did several multi-year studies looking at both horizontal and vertical ventilation, and really it’s being able to understand the flow path of how the fire is getting the air, where it’s exhausting its gases, understanding the pressures that exist within the structure to determine where that fire’s going to grow and spread, and specifically for investigators, in order to properly do an investigation of that fire, you need to be paying attention to where that fire got its air from because your heaviest damage may be very remote from where the fire started based on where it got the oxygen from in the very simple fire triangle principles and, again, we have online training programs for both of these explaining how fire grows and spreads, how it reacts to fire service horizontal ventilation, whether it’s doors or windows or how that may be different if a hole is cut in the roof and really walks through the dynamics and the timing of how long it may take some of these things to occur and, of course, understanding that and showing that it happens faster today than it happened in the past. So there might be some - some updates there on current understanding of the speed at which these events occur and really understanding that the stages of fire development aren’t cut and dry. They aren’t very simple from the standpoint of the fire grows, becomes fully developed and then decays.
It’s important to understand that the fire is going to grow, run out of oxygen and it’s going to behave very differently depending on where it gets that oxygen and how much oxygen it gets to determine, there may be several growth stages of the fire depending on how the fire department or how the fire creates its own openings to dictate what the fire service is going to see when they arrive, how they interact with it and then ultimately what’s left for the fire investigator to piece together. So the fire service can have a huge impact on what those patterns are going to look like afterwards depending on how they fight the fire and it’s - I would say it’s - not that this doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s imperative for the fire investigators to really put a good timeline together to understand what happened on the fire ground.
ROD: A lot of changes both in fuels and the way fires are fought are going to really influence these fire investigators in the way they work.
STEVE KERBER: Absolutely, and certainly to add on to that would be today’s construction practices that you’re going to see possibly different mechanisms of fire spread into void spaces, into wall cavities, into attics and things like that based on new uses of materials that you’re going to see out there. Clearly, we’re optimizing how we build houses today taking a lot of the redundancies out of the houses that would have existed in the past by using lighter weight materials and different types of materials, which are going to be, fire investigators really need to stay on top of what these houses are being built out of.
ROD: So I was lucky enough to get out to Governors Island and saw what you were doing with the folks from NIST and from the Fire Department of New York, and I’m going a little bit off script here, but just wondering what blew you away? There was so much information. I saw a lot of firefighters’ faces and a lot of leadership sort of getting pretty visible aha moments.
STEVE KERBER: I don’t think anything really blew me away because, I mean, the Governors Island was a great opportunity to put together and to expand upon things that we had done in the past, so it was really an exercise of taking everything that we learned in the previous ten years to that and doing it in front of the New York City Fire Department leadership and really showing that, hey, just because this happened in a lab in a full scale house that we built in the lab is no different than the structure out in the middle of an island, kind of comparing the real structure verse laboratory test and bringing it all together.
The one thing that it really solidified for us is the whole concept of knowledge verse belief, that we were surrounded by a lot of very experienced fire chiefs that had really strong opinions on what they thought they were going to see, and when they were standing over our shoulders watching the interior video cameras, in many cases they were expecting things to happen that didn’t happen, and I think that’s what you’re referring to is there was kind of some aha’s or some puzzled looks. They believed something was going to happen and when it didn’t, they felt confused, which gave us the opportunity to really explain the fire dynamics to them, take the knowledge that they’ve gained over time through their experience and really try and understand the variables around it because it’s so important not to discount people’s experience. If they’ve seen something with their own eyes, where we’ve had a lot of success, both UL and NIST, has been to validate their experience or allow them to better understand what was going on around their experience because the fire...extremely complex and there’s a lot of things happening at the same time, there’s different points of view. I mean, people can only see one vantage point.
You’re also not going to a ton of fires that are exactly the same so it’s hard to put the pieces together, so many times we start applying things that we saw in one setting to another setting where maybe they don’t apply. So it was a really great opportunity to, I mean, basement fires was a great example, putting water in through a window in a basement fire to gain the upper hand. We had measurements and thermal imaging views of the top of the stairwell and a lot of those chiefs swore that the moment water went in through that basement window that a large amount of fire was going to come up through those interior stairs and actually the opposite happened.
Things cooled off quite a bit and they had experienced in their career being in that position and getting extremely hot when water got put into a window and we had to help put that into perspective, again, by explaining being in the flow path verse not being in the flow path, pressure differences, gas cooling, understanding steam expansion verse gas contraction for cooling and putting a lot of those pieces together, and I think we’ve really come a long way in the last five or six years because of these projects and because of the tremendous partnership between the researchers and the fire service. The fire service really wants to get better as does the fire investigation community, and if we can get them visuals to better understand what they’re seeing in the field, then everyone’s going to advance forward.
ROD: It was beautiful opportunity to tie science and observation to the folks that are out there, in an emotional way, I’m sure very often responding with concern for life, having that concern for life sort of taking out of the equation and being able to allow them to observe the fire, I think that was so incredibly valuable and it was great to watch. I think it’s going to be, as you said, a wonderful move forward. So when you think about this, it leads to safety and it leads to making the fire ground a place where firefighters can be more effective and be more careful with their own lives and hopefully save more lives. Can you talk a little bit about the safety perspective for firefighters and for fire investigators?
STEVE KERBER: Sure. I think that it all comes around to understanding the hazards, and clearly, the fire service is showing up for life safety and that is absolutely paramount, however, it doesn’t need to come to the detriment of their own safety, and clearly, it’s a hazardous job, but if we can allow them to better understand a lot of the hazards that they’re up against and specifically how they’ve changed over time; there’s many firefighters that have received training and there’s no continuing education requirements, so what they know about fire behavior might have been 30 years ago and haven’t looked at any changes since, and, I mean, we’ve had projects that have looked at the collapse hazards, we’ve looked at smoke toxicity, so what’s in the smoke during overhaul, we did a really comprehensive study on that and, I mean, that is paramount for fire investigators as well, and I know others have studied this, but we saw that I think it was 97% of the smoke particulate in the air during the overhaul stage is so small, it’s invisible to the naked eye. So when we don’t have some hard measure to say this environment is safe to conduct your investigation in, we might be unknowingly exposing our folks to conditions that we shouldn’t be exposing them to, and I think we need to take that a lot more seriously because there isn’t a gas measurement that you can make that says it’s okay to operate in that environment, so there’s probably some more work that needs to be done there.
We’ve got a project right now that would be very interesting to investigators, and that’s fires that start on the outside of structures and also attic fires where we’re seeing that as energy codes evolve and demands are being put in place get higher energy efficiency on the wrapping of homes that a simple change of switching out a solid piece of wood for a rigid foam board, for example, is going to do great energy-wise, but we’re seeing fire spread that is on the order of going, starting at the base of the wall and winding up in the attic in less than two minutes, and when you look at the average response time of the fire service, you’re going to have very different damage and very different hazards upon arrival today then may have been experienced in the past, and clearly, as the fires get into the attic, they become every difficult to fight. There’s a large fuel load up there and a collapse hazard as well as a fire dynamics hazard of if you get underneath it and make some openings, it might seek a low pressure through the crew that’s trying to find the attic fire, so we’re also studying that as well. So there’s a lot of new hazards that need to be well understood because you want to understand them ahead of time, not when you’re showing up to deal with it and get surprised, so we’re trying to get ahead of the game a little bit with our, with the firefighter research, which haven’t really happened in the past that much.
ROD: I know the work you’re doing is very, very appreciated around the country when I’ve traveled. I hear about you and Dan Madrzykowski and UL and NIST and the things that you’re doing, it’s blinding how excited people are. They’re just sort of blown away. So what am I missing, anything that you want to communicate to fire investigators that we haven’t talked about?
STEVE KERBER: I think the big thing is where to go for more information. I think that certainly we scratched the surface and we just created the UL Firefighter’s Safety Research Institute within UL which was just tremendous. It’s given us more resources, it’s given us a focus to completely serve the fire service community around the world and with that we’ve launched a new website, ULfirefightersafety.com. We also have a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel and the purpose behind that is to, in the past it’s been we get a grant, we conduct the grant, two years later we release a report and an online training program. A lot happens in that two years and we want to bring the fire service, the fire investigation community into the projects so not only do we have a fire service technical panel that’s serving us, we want to put every update on our web page as it happens, also invite people to participate, invite people to come watch tests so folks know what’s going on all along the way and not just at the end because there’s a lot of interesting information that comes out, a lot of potentially lifesaving information that gets developed along the way, so we want to open up the process and make it a huge partnership so if folks could go there and watch what’s going on. They’ll be pretty much up to the week with what’s happening.
ROD: Thank you very much for your time, Steve. We’re really grateful.
STEVE KERBER: I appreciate the opportunity, Rod.
ROD: We have links to a lot of this material available on this podcast page, so please be sure to check those out. Staying up to date on fire research is critical to fulfilling the requirements of NFPA 1033 and this is one way to do that.
That concludes this podcast. Remember to take a minute to click some of the resource links on this podcast page to learn more about the results of UL’s recent fire research. Stay safe, we’ll see you next time on CFITrainer.Net. For the IAAI and CFITrainer.Net, I’m Rod Ammon.
Overview of New Science: Fire Safety
UL Fire Research
UL Fire Safety Thought Leadership
Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction (Impact of Horizontal Ventilation)
Effectiveness of fire service ventilation and suppression tactics (Impact of Vertical Ventilation)
Firefighter Safety and Photovoltaic Systems
Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber in Fire Conditions
Upholstered Furniture Flammability
This program provides a primer on accreditation, certification, and certificates for fire investigation training.
A fire occurred on the night of Feb. 20, 2003, in The Station nightclub at 211 Cowesett Avenue, West Warwick, Rhode Island.
Arc Mapping, or Arc Fault Circuit Analysis, uses the electrical system to help reconstruct a scene, providing investigators with a means of determining the area of a fire’s origin.
This module introduces basic electrical concepts, including: terminology, atomic theory and electricity, Ohm’s Law, Joule’s Law, AC and DC power.
A fire occurred on the evening of June 18, 2007, in the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, SC that resulted in the deaths of nine fire fighters.
This module looks at the many ways fire investigators enter and grow in the profession through academia, the fire service, law enforcement, insurance, and engineering.
This module will present a description of the IAAI organization.
This module takes a closer look at four of the most commonly-reported accidental fire causes according to "NFPA Fact Sheet.
This program brings three highly experienced fire investigators and an attorney with experience as a prosecutor and civil litigator together for a round table discussion.
The program discusses the basics of digital photography for fire investigators as well as software and editing procedures for digital images intended as evidence.
This self-paced program is an introduction to discovery in civil proceedings such as fire loss claims and product defect lawsuits.
This self-paced program is an introduction to discovery in criminal proceedings.
This module covers the foundation of DNA evidence: defining, recognizing, collecting, and testing.
This program provides a practical overview of how to perform the baseline documentation tasks that occur at every scene.
This module will discuss the techniques and strategies for conducting a proper science-based fire scene investigation and effectively presenting an investigator’s findings in court as an expert witness.
This module presents critical electrical safety practices that every fire investigator should implement at every scene, every time.
In this program, we will look at emerging technologies that fire investigators are integrating into their daily investigative work with great success.
This self-paced program examines the fire investigator's ethical duties beyond the fire scene.
As social media has emerged as a powerful force in interpersonal communications, fire investigators are being confronted with new questions...
Should you work for a private lab as a consultant if you are on an Arson Task Force? How about accepting discounts from the local hardware store as a “thanks” for a job well done on a fire they had last year?
This module takes investigators into the forensic laboratory and shows them what happens to the different types of fire scene evidence that are typically submitted for testing.
This module teaches the foundational knowledge of explosion dynamics, which is a necessary precursor to investigating an explosion scene.
This module addresses the foundations of fire chemistry and places it within the context of fire scene investigations.
The program is designed to introduce a new Palm/Pocket PC application called CFI Calculator to users and provide examples of how it can be used by fire investigators in the field.
This module examines these concepts to help all professionals tasked with determining fire origin and cause better understand fire flow dynamics so they can apply that knowledge to both to fire investigation and to fire attack.
This module provides a road map for fire officers to integrate and navigate their fire investigation duty with all their other responsibilities and describes where to obtain specific training in fire investigation.
The evaluation of hazards and the assessment of the relative risks associated with the investigation of fires and explosions are critical factors in the management of any investigation.
This module will describe the most commonly encountered fire protection systems.
This module presents best practices in preparing for and conducting the informational interview with witnesses in the fire investigation case.
This module provides instruction on the fundamentals of residential building construction with an eye toward how building construction affects fire development.
This module teaches first responders, including fire, police and EMS, how to make critical observations.
This program discusses how to access insurance information, understand insurance documents, ask key questions of witnesses, and apply the information learned.
This module offers a basic introduction about how some selected major appliances operate.
This program introduces the fire investigator to the issues related to the collection, handling and use of evidence related to a fire investigation.
This program takes you inside the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) archives of some of the most interesting and instructive test burns and fire model simulations they have ever conducted.
The program provides foundational background on the scope of the youth-set fire problem, the importance of rigorous fire investigation in addressing this problem, and the role of key agencies in the response to a youth-set fire.
This module provides a thorough understanding of the ways an investigation changes when a fire-related death occurs.
This self-paced program will help you understand what to expect at a fire where an LODD has occurred, what your role is, how to interact with others, and how to handle special circumstances at the scene.
This program will introduce the fire investigator to the basic methodologies use to investigate vehicle fires.
This module presents the role natural gas can play in fire ignition, fuel load, and spread; the elements of investigating a fire in a residence where natural gas is present; and the potential role the gas utility or the municipality can play an investigation.
This self-paced program covers fundamental legal aspects of investigating youth-set fires, including the juvenile justice system, legalities of interviews and interrogations, arson statutes, search and seizure, and confidentiality.
This program discusses the latest developments in expert testimony under the Daubert standard, including the MagneTek case recently decided in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals.
This module focuses on how to manage investigations that have “complicating” factors.
This module uses the Motive, Means, and Opportunity case study to demonstrate how responsibility is determined in an arson case.
This program covers the general anatomy of a motor vehicle and a description of typical components of the engine, electrical, ignition, and fuel systems.
This self-paced program is the second part of a two-part basic introduction to motor vehicle systems. This program describes the function and major components of the transmission, exhaust, brake, and accessory systems.
This module educates the investigator about NFPA 1033’s importance, its requirements, and how those requirements impact the fire investigator’s professional development.
This module reviews the major changes included in the documents including the use of color photos in NFPA 921 and additional material that supports the expanded required knowledge list in NFPA 1033 Section 1.3.7.
The program illustrates for the fire investigator, how non-traditional fire scene evidence can be helpful during an investigation.
This module introduces the postflashover topic, describes ventilation-controlled fire flow, illustrates how the damage left by a postflashover can be significantly different than if that fire was extinguished preflashover.
This module lays the groundwork for understanding marine fires by covering four basic concepts that the investigator must understand before investigating a marine fire.
In this module, you will learn more about how cancer develops, what occupational exposure risks to carcinogens exist at fire scenes, and how to better protect yourself against those exposures.
The use of the process of elimination in the determination of a fire cause is a topic that has generated significant discussion and controversy in the fire investigation profession.
This module teaches the basics of the electrical power generation, distribution, and transmission system.
This module presents the basics of natural gas and its uses and system components in a residence.
This module explains the principles of search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, as contained in the amendment and according to subsequent case law, and applies them to typical fire scene scenarios.
One of the legal proceedings that may require the fire investigator to testify is a deposition. Depositions are often related to civil proceedings, but more and more jurisdictions are using them in criminal cases.
Deposing attorneys employ a variety of tactics to learn about the expert witness giving testimony, to try to unsettle that witness to see how he/she handles such pressure, and to probe for weaknesses to exploit.
This module provides introductory information on the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard – 29 CFR 1910.120.
The program examines the importance of assessing the impact of ventilation on a fire.
This module demonstrates the investigative potential of information stored on electronic devices.
This module explains the relationship between NFPA 1033 and NFPA 921
The basics of the scientific method are deceptively simple: observe, hypothesize, test, and conclude.
This module addresses the foundations of thermometry, including the definition of temperature, the scales used to measure temperature and much more.
This program presents the results of flame experiments conducted with a candle.
This self-paced program explains to non-investigators the role of the fire investigator, what the fire investigator does, how the fire investigator is trained, what qualifications the fire investigator must meet.
This module will untangle the meanings of "undetermined," straighten out how to use the term correctly, talk about how not to use it, and describe how to properly report fires where "undetermined" is the cause or classification.
This module will advise fire investigators on how to approach the fact-finding procedures necessary and validate a hypothesis.
This module provides an overview on how structures can become vacant and eventually abandoned.
This self-paced program provides a basic framework for structuring the management of fire cases and fire investigators.
This module illustrates how wildland fires spread, explains how to interpret burn patterns unique to these types of fires.
This module presents the key elements of the initial origin and cause report and methods of clearly presenting findings in a professional manner.