Thoughts on NFPA 1700

Some of you may know this but the NFPA is currently in the works of creating a standard on fire attack. It’s proper name is NFPA 1700: Guide for Structural Fire Fighting and it is currently in development with a scheduled completion date of the end of 2016. As we speak a committee called the Fundamentals of Fire Control Within a Structure Utilizing Fire Dynamics is working on NFPA 1700. (Information about the committee and names of committee members can be found here ). While I am not against a guide that is a resource for firefighters there are some issues that need to be addressed.

According to Steve Kerber the goal is to create “a consensus tactical guide for firefighters”. This sounds like a promising idea until you start thinking about what it would take to complete it. In order to be included in this standard it seems that a tactic would have to be backed up by recent fire dynamics research. Kerber’s statement would lead you to believe that the standard would include all options for firefighters, but Kerber himself will admit the research is far from complete. In the next coming months UL/FSRI will conduct the long awaited “interior” study and then we will await the results. Will those results be ready for the due date set forth by NFPA? Will we have been able to test enough of our tactics so they can be included in consensus guide that is due by the end of the current calendar year? I do not believe so and what’s missing from the new “guide” will be just as important as what is included in it.

863311Furthermore is a consensus tactical guide needed? Will it include information on staffing, equipment, fire conditions, response times, or the make up of our jurisdictions? Will it cover all the variables that go into deciding which fire attack method to pick? A consensus tactical guide would need to cover every possible scenario, local laws, and assume that everyone has the same equipment and staffing. My city is bordered by a county fire department that could not be more different in our staffing and how we operate. In my career department I may have from 22 to 28 people on the fireground in 5-10 minutes as opposed to the neighboring career department where they may be operating with 2 to 4 people for 5-15 minutes. My engine may arrive on scene with 3 firefighters, an officer, and an operator (on a good day) while the jurisdiction next door only arrives with only an operator and an officer. We have different engine set ups hose loads, hose lengths, nozzles, hose size, tools and different kinds of buildings. The cultures of the two departments are completely different which leads to different thought processes and decision making. Now imagine the differences between my department of 400 firefighters serving a city of 200,000 citizens in 65 square miles and small town rural volunteer departments which make up 75% of the American fire service.  Another huge problem is the lack of a common language in the fire service. Aaron Fields (Seattle FD) has been talking about this at length for years and I agree with him that it is a big barrier, especially when we start considering a fire attack standard. The problem is not limited to departments on opposite sides of the country either. There are 3 large departments in my area and all have different vernaculars and different definitions of fully involved, working fire, structure fire, or room and contents fire. A national standard is not useful if it does not take into account the multitude of variables that todays fire service faces. Now some will argue that the military has had a long history of success through doctrine. It is true that they have had success but the fire service as a whole and the military are two very different animals. The Army for example has a common terminology, resources, and staffing is also uniform because they only have to worry about the Army. The fire service has no such comparison. No two fire departments are the same and sometimes no two battalions are the same within a fire department.

NFPA’s Vice President Chris Dubai was quoted as saying “given the magnitude of what has been happening in recent years, it may become necessary to consider the development of a guide or standard to specifically address these topics”. So the question becomes why now? Why all of a sudden is NFPA interested in writing a standard that addresses fire attack? The answer is simple, they believe they have scientific results from UL/FSRI/NIST that shows the modern fire ground is a more dangerous place and that new risks call for new tactics. Tactics that are backed up by scientific research. While I do not disagree that the modern fire ground is a high risk environment, why is NFPA specifically using new tactics to drive its fire attack standard? Because these tactics have scientific evidence to back them up. The NFPA has stated that it it will use NFPA 921, A Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations as a framework for the new standard. Dan Madrzykowski from UL even went so far as to say “much as NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, brought science to the practice of fire investigations, an NFPA tactical firefighting document could bring the latest science to fire ground operations”. If you are unaware of NFPA 921 it has been called controversial since its inception. The following is an excerpt from an article titled NFPA 921: A Double-Edged Sword by Guy E. Burnette, Jr., Esquire (Guy E. Burnette, Jr. is a practicing attorney and has 34 years as a civil litigation specialist in arson cases and author of the “Florida Arson Protection” training text)

“Conceived as a tool or “guide” for the fire investigator, it turned out to be much more than that. It became a strongly worded criticism of improper methodologies and a ready- made challenge to any conclusions unsupported by convincing scientific proof.”

He goes one to say:

“What sets apart NFPA 921 from other textbooks, manuals or guides is the tone and language of its content. It seems almost as if it was designed for use as an offensive weapon as much as its professed purpose of a “guide”. Much of the document is a lesson in how not to investigate a fire, rather than how to do the job. It advocates the use of objective, scientifically verifiable methods of analysis to the point of almost disregarding any subjective, experience-based methodologies and conclusions. Even as the document recognizes fire scene investigation is both art and science, it clearly advocates scientific data over professional opinion drawn from experience and training. While few would argue with the concept of seeking scientific confirmation, the absence of such confirming evidence may be due to any number of variables which can arise in fire scene investigation. Nfpa 921 seems to disregard the possibility of some valid explanation for the lack of scientific confirmation and presumes it to mean the investigation is flawed.”
Now go back and read those quotes again and replace investigator with firefighter and investigate with fight, and fire scene investigation with firefighting. Is this how we want the “consensus tactical guide” for firefighters to be presented? Do we want science to be our only standard in the fire service? It would take forever to validate every method of firefighting for use in such a guide. Maybe instead of trying to make everyone in the fire service the same and force a document on us that doesn’t take our differences into account we provide the firefighters with the science and allow them to apply it to their tactics as they see fit.

There is no doubt that NFPA has done wonderful things for the fire service when it comes to codes and safety equipment and most of us are very thankful of what they have done. There have also been some poorly done standards that lead me to be concerned about the current endeavor of NFPA 1700. If your goal is to provide firefighters with a go to book on research based tactics then we need to test all the tactics and publish the guide at once. We have all seen what happens when you don’t publish all the research at the same time. The release of NFPA 1700 may push the fire service farther apart and cause irreparable damage to certain tactics and skills that may hurt the fire service and our citizens in the long run.


  • Shawn Donovan says:

    You bring up some very good points. I noted a few days ago that the NIST staffing study went by almost unnoticed 6 years ago. That too was science, right? Where are the sweeping changes?
    My feeling is that NFPA 921 may have been written by well educated men and women with little experience. Or at least the experienced ones’ opinions were suppressed.
    I have a feeling the same thing will happen with the 1700. That is the way these things go.
    I, and the fire service as a whole, should hope the experienced members of the committee have the patience to fight for proven methods of saving lives (going in to search) as opposed to a 1/3 complete study that focuses on the fire.
    I am oversimplifying of course, but one must wonder why the rush. I think the rush is because if “Exterior offensive” (whatever that means) gets into a standard it will have the benefit of time (3-5 years) before the next revision. The longer it exists as a standard the harder it will be to change. So even if the remainder of the study reveals something else or some unforeseen consequences it will be an uphill battle to change the standard and the minds of all involved.
    While NFPA standards have to be adopted by individual jurisdictions, certain standards become “industry standards” and departments will be held to them even if they are not adopted. Remember that when you think your department will continue the way it has even if it has been successful.

  • Keith Follin says:

    You are exactly right on how it will effect the rural volunteer departments. But, the NFPA has never taken volunteer fire departments into account when publishing any documents. They do not have all of the scientific data because many depts, especially rural volunteer depts do not report on NFIRS and we don’t often have anyone qualified to investigate fires. Rural volunteer fire departments will continue to be pushed away from the fire service, even though we are the very foundation and 70% of the fire service.

  • Mike Furci says:

    So the NFPA is going to establish Standard 1700 on fire attack. No two fires are the same yet every one is dynamic. An outrageously short sided idea. The science needs to be considered, unless you use it to push such nonsense as SLICERS, SOGs need to be in place, but the tactics need to be right the city, the structure, the manning, and the proficiency of the firefighters involved. Bad idea.

  • Paul Lakin says:

    I am with a combination department. I find at times our volunteers get forgotten. I will be interested in seeing what guide lines are forth coming. Like many
    departments, we tailor our guide lines to the area. My
    district is mostly rural with no hydrants. Maybe one guide for city and one for rural. Just a thought

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *