Responding to a flashover fire
It's the firefighter's nightmare — a flashover, a fire involving heat so intense that everything in a room, including anyone in it, ignites at the same time.
Last week more than 85 Menlo Park Fire Protection District firefighters experienced a flashover — not nightmares, but part of training exercises meant to teach them how to anticipate and react to flashover conditions.
The training, which also involved 15 Fremont and 12 South San Francisco firefighters, took place at the Menlo Park district's training facility near the Dumbarton Bridge.
On Tuesday, April 3, 24 firefighters at a time — dressed in full gear with air tanks, face shields and radios — crowd into a modified metal shipping container with their instructors, sitting on the floor and watching as a specially constructed fire box in front of and above them heats to flashover temperature, as high as 1,200 degrees.
On the floor, where the firefighters sit, it is not as hot, around 400 degrees. But the paint on a wall of the container behind them is melted from previous drills. Firefighters must even practice breathing slowly and calmly so they don't use up their air tanks too quickly.
Outside the container, onlookers, including Menlo Park mayor Kirsten Keith and fire board directors Virginia Chang Kiraly and Rob Silano, watch as a sensor placed in the container midway between the firefighters and the fire climbs to 800 degrees. Smoke billows when the door is opened to replenish oxygen in the room.
Fire District Chief Harold Schapelhouman says the simulation training is important because today's firefighters experience fewer live fires and do not have the same opportunities for on-the-job training that they did in the past. "We try to show the massive power of fire," he says.
According to Division Chief Frank Fraone, only about 4 to 5 percent of the fire district's calls are for fires, and about 35 of those each year are structure fires. Most other calls are medical emergencies.
Chief Schapelhouman says that the exercise shows firefighters what indicators — including very high temperatures and thick, dark smoke — warn that a flashover is about to occur, and how to survive one.
"They're watching it happen right over them," he says. "A lot of people have been getting hurt over the years because they don't know what to look for."
After 20 minutes in the container, the firefighters emerge and the fire is extinguished. But they only have a few minutes to rest, rehydrate and breathe freely before they are on to the second part of the training.
In small teams the firefighters enter another set of containers, where they will grope through the dark before encountering another live fire. They will practice using their radios, fire hoses and thermal imaging cameras, which allow them to see heat sources — fire or people or pets — in the dark or through heavy smoke.
They will also practice teamwork. "It's combat. You don't go into combat with one person," Chief Schapelhouman says. "You practice, practice, practice."
But even the practice doesn't mean things don't go wrong, he says. "Things always go wrong."
Chief Schapelhouman, who has been with the Menlo district for close to 32 years, says that not only do today's firefighters have fewer opportunities to fight live fires, but conditions make the task more difficult. Better equipment protects firefighters, but makes it harder for them to sense things such as the high temperatures that lead to flashovers.
Construction materials and methods allow structures to collapse more quickly and anything made out of petroleum products such as plastics burns very hot and releases toxic gases.
"Our time frame is much less than it used to be," Chief Schapelhouman says. The training, he says "makes a difference."
"We're going to save lives, we're going to save property, by being more efficient," Chief Schapelhouman says.
In the future, the district will provide even more training opportunities at the facility. Currently under construction by firefighters is a unit that will simulate a two-story apartment building, with rooms for the firefighters to search, windows to go in and out of, and stairwells to climb.
Outside, three gas meters were installed and connected to underground gas lines by Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Firefighters and PG&E employees will use them to practice situations where a gas meter has been sheared off in a car accident.
Chief Fraone says that fire departments from South San Francisco to Mountain View use the Menlo Park training facility. Locate on property owned by PG&E, the facility has been used by the district since 1991, he says.
Firefighters go through the training at least once a year, and this time Chief Schapelhouman also participated. "It's good for me to go back and remember what it's like," he says.