San Diego Firefighters Fend Off New Challenges, Seek Escape Equipment

Sythentic household materials have created new challenges for firefighters, and sparked the need for more efficient escape equipment

As the everyday items we use in our homes change, so does the modern environment in which fires spark – and the challenges firefighters face when battling a blaze.

All firefighters with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD) recently completed training on how to combat this modern fire environment. Compared to 30 years ago, fires burn much hotter and a lot faster due to what we keep in our homes.

“Our modern fire environment is the plastics and synthetics, the polyester and things like that, that create our new furniture and floors,” explained SDFD Battalion Chief and Training Officer James Gaboury.

Decades ago, the majority of household furniture pieces and items were made of wood and cotton fiber-type materials – a big difference when it came to the types of house fires crews encountered. Back then, that was known as the “legacy fire” environment.

Gaboury said blazes can double in size every 60 to 90 seconds, and firefighters try to fend off something known as “flashover conditions.” In today’s homes, flashover conditions become a challenge much faster for firefighters.

“It's where the incomplete combustion of smoke, which is in the atmosphere, reaches 1,128 degrees. It's basically a zero percent survivability rate for firefighters and victims,” the battalion chief told NBC 7. “The modern fire environment reaches flashover conditions in six to seven minutes, whereas the legacy fire environment reaches flashover conditions in 18 to 20 minutes.”

To prepare to combat this new environment and challenges, SDFD firefighters have trained over the past few months on the transitional attack of a fire, the initial phase of an offensive attack.

This strategy is used when flames are coming out of an open door or window when firefighters first arrive at a scene.

“By squirting water with the transitional attack, it helps reduce that flashover condition, where the whole room catches on fire and flashes down to the floor,” said Gaboury.

As crews try to gain the upper-hand at a fire and bring calmness to chaos, firefighters can quickly get trapped because of the way fires now burn. But one piece of very important equipment can help.

The Personal Escape System (PES) is a harness that allows firefighters to get out of a multi-story burning building in less than 30 seconds.

Currently, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Foundation is trying to raise $582,300 to equip all of its 873 firefighters with their own PES. In this day and age, it’s considered an essential piece of equipment for safer, more efficient firefighting.

“Our modern fire environment has outgrown a system that was developed over 25 years ago,” said SDFD Capt. Jafari Harris.

Today, San Diego firefighters work with an escape system that requires four firefighters to deploy.

“Typically with the old system, a crew of four can escape in four to six minutes. With this new system, a crew of four can escape in 30 seconds to a minute – all four of them,” explained Gaboury. “It also allows our firefighters to work independently as two separate units so they don't have to be attached to our old system.”

Nowadays, smoke can ignite in a matter of minutes, emitting poisonous gasses from the synthetics inside homes. A PES helps battle those challenges as well, and quickly.

“As soon as I put on my pants and clasp on this belt buckle, I'm protected. The escape kit is all contained in my right turnout pocket. It's pre-hooked up. All I have to do is reach down and pull it out,” added Harris. “It's like pulling the rip cord on a parachute. It's ready to go right now.”

SDFD crews will begin training on the new PES in April so they will be prepared to use the equipment, as more is purchased.

“It's our goal to be progressive, in the fire service in general. We want to be progressive and provide safety equipment and procedures and techniques to our personnel so we can make sure we're delivering a better service to the citizens,” said Gaboury.

Anyone who would like to donate money to help the SDFD purchase more of this equipment for local firefighters can do so through the San Diego Fire-Rescue Foundation’s website.

To see a demo of how a PES works check out this video below.

Personal Escape Systems from San Diego Fire Rescue Foundation on Vimeo.

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