How would you like to burn things all day – and get paid for it? Fire scientists do exactly that. The goal: improved firefighter and civilian safety.

The need for an even better understanding of fire behavior hit the public spotlight during the recent Californian wildfires that killed more than 40 people and burned thousands of structures. In the U.S., 1.1 million men and women work as professional firefighters, putting their lives on the line for others, and 90 die a year on average, according to the CDC. Studying fire behavior provides needed knowledge to create high-tech equipment and improve firefighting techniques, prevention and alert systems.

Clothing

Firefighters wear protective gear that complies with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) code 1971. Their space-age jackets and pants, called turnouts, use special lab-developed blends to resist both fire and heat. Plus, they’re lightweight and breathable.

The next part of the personal protective equipment (PPE), the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) protects firefighters’ lungs from the toxic smoke and their faces from the heat. In the ‘70s, firefighters had to suck the air to get it flowing, while today the air flows freely because of a positive pressure manner, according to Fire Rescue Magazine.

“The respiratory system is the largest in the human body - and by far the most fragile. It doesn’t take much to cause serious damage,” adds firefighter news source FireRescue1.

The personal alert safety system (PASS) provides GPS coordinates of a firefighter’s location, comes on automatically with SCBA activation, sends out an audible alarm if the firefighter remains motionless and transmits how much air is in the bottle to a receiver in the face mask, according to Fire Engineering Magazine.

Helmets and hoods protect the head, ears and neck from heat, falling objects and other hazards. Before hoods, it wasn’t uncommon for firefighters’ hair to burn off, explains Fire Rescue Magazine.

Boots and gloves round out the PPE. The NFPA requires puncture, impact, compression and flame resistant boots. Gloves must protect from flame, heat, vapor, liquids and sharp objects, according to the NFPA.

Proper post-fire cleaning of gear to eliminate cancer-causing toxins without harming fire-protection capabilities proves critical. At UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute, fire scientists who extensively study fire behavior, test gear in numerous situations, helping to develop both cleaning protocols and standards.

Advances in Firefighting

Fire science also informs firefighting, a component in firefighter safety just as important as PPE. Structure fires burn quickly, becoming uncontrollable in as little as three minutes because of modern building design and synthetic furnishings. Forty years ago, it took 17 minutes for fire to overtake a home.

If firefighters arrive at eight minutes into the fire, collapse can happen 90 seconds later. Firefighters may not be in the house yet or may be just entering to search for occupants, reports the FSRI. Conversely, legacy fire collapse began 40 minutes after firefighters arrived, providing time to fight the fire and rescue occupants before collapse.

These fires endanger “firefighters more than ever before with increased heat and light intensities, phenomenal movement and deadly by-products,” writes firefighter and fire scientist Jim Spell, who advocates for updating firefighter protocols and training to address the new challenges.

All of the research by fire scientists goes into doing just that. It helps to improve gear, create updated firefighting techniques, inform training and ultimately protect lives, even as fires get faster and more dangerous. So next time you thank a firefighter, think of the fire scientists, too.