Thursday, January 31, 2013

Surviving Fires: Fire Shelter and Wet Cloths

Hi Ferfal,
I thought this video might pique your interest:
It's one of the videos about fire shelters I have to watch every year to keep my fire line qualifications. From 13:26 to 13:54 is where they talk about not wetting your clothing or handkerchief.
I'm not actually a firefighter. Most of the time I'm a Hydrologist. But sometimes they still call out "the militia". In 2008 we had a storm come through around June 20 with a bunch of lightning and started 400 fires in one night. We got most of them out in a day or two, but some burned together and some burned until it snowed in November. I worked 6 days a week for 8 weeks that summer. Fortunately, I don't have to swing a tool on The Line anymore, but I still need to be Red-Carded so I can go where I need to unescorted on the fire.
Anyway, here's my reference for my remarks (told you I was a scientist!) and frankly, I thought you might like it.

Hi Adam, thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge. Those fire shelters sure are something.  They seem to have outstanding insulation, seems like a good shelter for extreme cold weather as well.
 New Generation Fire Shelter with Case - Large

New Generation Fire Shelter with Case - Large

Use a Wet Cloth or Not?
The video above clearly explains that when trapped by fire and especially when fighting heat, a wet cloth will do more harm than good because it transmits heat better and the vapor burns your respiratory system. Water evaporates at 100 CÂș, so we’re talking about some serious heat here. This would be the case of someone trapped in a forest fire or otherwise surrounded by burning flammable material. Having said that, if the threat you are dealing with is smoke rather than heat this may not be the case.
During World War I, British troops used clothes soaked with urine against chemical attacks (chlorine). At the same time many seem to have died because of the use of poorly designed wet cotton pads intended to be used as filters. Soldiers could not breathe through these when soaked with water. The effectiveness of a wet cloth over your mouth and nose is limited, yet it is still recommended in some cases:
"According to the fire safety guidebook Get Out Alive, which is endorsed by the U.S. Fire Administration, the recommended and almost universally endorsed method of filtering smoke during a fire is to place a wet cloth over the nose and mouth before escaping. The wet cloth absorbs some of the smoke particles and filters noxious substances in the smoke, thereby reducing smoke inhalation. While the use of a wet cloth will not eliminate smoke inhalation, its purpose is to reduce smoke inhalation for a sufficient amount of time to escape the smoky condition. The more time that is available to the person to escape before being overcome by smoke, the greater the likelihood of survival."
The FAA makes a similar recommendation:
“A wet cloth held over the nose and mouth provides some protection from smoke inhalation”
Another common event during club fires seems to be that as the sound  insulation material and various plastic decorations start burning, they start dropping over victims in ignited melted form. Some accounts from “Republica Cromagnon” nightclub victims indicate that burning plastic would shower them as they escaped, dropping from the roof, in some cases igniting their hair. In this case I believe that if you do have a bottle or cup of water already at hand, soaking your head and clothes as you evacuate may help.

So, do you use a wet cloth as a respirator or not? The answer is, it depends. If you are mostly dealing with smoke (burning plastic, carpet, etc), a wet cloth over your nose and mouth will help provide some protection. If the fire is closing in and the heat is your greatest enemy, then do not use it since it may do more harm than good.  With flames closing in around you the soaked cloth around your head and upper torso may prevent your hair and clothes from catching fire. Typical clothes made of cotton and nylon are highly flammable. Either way, your priority should be escaping the fire, not finding water to soak a tshirt or other cloth.



Anonymous said...

All good advice, but one thing we haven't mentioned is the best way to survive is to ESCAPE. As you move laterally, you may need to move vertically as well. Which is to say, hot smoke rises, cooler, clean air sinks, so get down and crawl. Obviously this would have some risks trying to escape a crowded nightclub.

Also wanted to say that cotton is not all that flamable. That's what firefighters used to wear in the old days. Get out your lighter and try to set your jeans on fire. Go ahead, try it!


FerFAL said...

Its true that cotton, especially canvas, isnt as easy to ignite but at those temps, man, I wouldnt want anything flamable on me. I remember one of my old school teachers, she was wearing a sinthetic material blause of some sort, and it caught fire in a burner. The material burned and melted all over her, she barely survived. Her entire torso and neck got burned. When she went back to work you could still see her scarred neck, it had some of the worst scars I've ever seen.

Anonymous said...

"at those temps, man, I wouldnt want anything flamable on me"

Well, everything is flammable at some point. I'm told the Nomex we wear on the fireline is only slightly less flammable than a good pair of jeans. Wool is not too bad either. I mean, you wouldn't want to be naked, would you?

And I don't know if it's required, but pretty much everyone wears a cotton t-shirt under their Nomex.


Don Williams said...

1) I myself think the best way to survive is to avoid dangerous situations in the first place -- like getting drunk in heavily crowded dance halls with limited exits.

Although I've noticed that a lot of businesses in the USA now have exit doors which are normally closed, alarmed and open only from the inside but which are to be used as exits in the event of fire.

2) I also see a number of deaths every year in my city from house fires -- but in most cases from causes that could have been easily avoided.

3) In fairness, death sometimes occurs because people are poor, they are exhausted from working two jobs, and they juryrig something when poorly maintained equipment fails.

4) Safety standards are a lot easier to maintain if you are well-rested, well-fed, worry-free, and have the time or money to research things or hire someone to do the job right.

Which is why the military and medical profession push trainees to do some work when they are exhausted and sleep-deprived -- to show them how important it is to have checklists and simple procedures to avoid mistakes and accidents.