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Software could boost firefighter safety

BY HEATHER MOYER | Gaithersburg, MD | August 16, 2000

Firefighter safety is receiving a boost from a new program that is helping scientists and fire engineers learn more about why fires react the way they do. The Fire Dynamics

Simulator (FDS) is a software program recently released by the Building and Fire Research Laboratory (BFRL) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in

Gaithersburg, MD.

The software has been being developed for more than 10 years, but has only been out for use since February of this year. FDS predicts smoke and air flow movement caused

by fire, wind, ventilation systems, and more. The Smokeview part of FDS allows those predictions to be viewed on the computer screen in an animated sequence of the user's


Dr. Kevin McGrattan is one of the developers of FDS. He's been with BFRL for more than ten years now and has watched the evolution of the program. McGrattan said the

program is aimed to beat the challenges of fire testing in real life. "Fire testing is expensive," he said. "Computer models are cheaper and easier than the (real) tests."

In the past, McGrattan said similar programs cost from anywhere between $5,000 to $25,000. FDS is available from BFRL for free. Outside of BFRL's walls, FDS is

mostly being used by fire engineers and investigators who must determine what caused fires and sometimes why they were deadly.

Most recently the Washington, D.C., fire department asked for BFRL's assistance after learning about the FDS program. In May of 1999, a fire in Washington, D.C.,

killed two firefighters and injured several others. The fire department wanted to know why those two firefighters died and why another was severely injured but not killed.

McGrattan said they tried to recreate the fire situation in the program based on the descriptions of those in it and other details from those who investigated it afterward.

The results were given to the fire department and they learned through the visual demonstration Smokeview gave that certain actions the firefighters took downstairs in the

home most likely led to the intense flames running upstairs from the basement at an incredible speed, killing two firefighters and severely burning another. McGrattan said

the rapid fire movement in this case is called a "flashover" or a "backdraft."

In the Smokeview demonstration of that fire, the flashover came up the stairs, killed the firefighter in the basement doorway, went up across the ceiling burning the firefighter

in the middle, and then came down the back wall killing the third firefighter standing behind the other two. All of this happened in only seconds when firefighters opened a

door to the basement, giving the stalled basement fire the fuel it needed to re-ignite at an incredible speed (a flashover).

Because of FDS' reconstruction ability, McGrattan said many of the models are finding themselves in courtrooms for arson cases. He said, however, that the re-constructions

are just models and are just based on what the witnesses' described, not on exactly what happened. "It's a tricky thing, we have to guess on lots of it, such as where the fire

started and more," he said, "You really have to piece it together and we have to be careful to say 'This is what we think happened.' "

McGrattan said those using the software now are helping BFRL improve it too. "It's still in the developmental stages, and the development phase is interactive," he said, "We're

working with people (on the outside) who are very knowledgeable and as they learn more, we learn more about what they need."

He noted that the Washington, D.C., fire department's results helped spread the word about FDS and has made it more popular. While BFRL is sticking with reconstructing

and modeling structure fires, McGrattan said many agencies in the west are aiming to build similar software programs to help them learn more about wildfire prevention and

causes. BFRL uses FDS for design as well, as McGrattan said they model more controlled fire situations with it and then compare those situations to reality.

FDS controlled situation models help BFRL learn more about designing effective sprinkler systems for buildings and about where to put smoke detectors, said McGrattan. He

added that FDS can't help them explain why a fire started (yet), but it is helping fire departments learn more about effective firefighting, and that could decrease the number of

firefighters dying or being injured on the job.

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