Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Interview with Steve Kerber.

As many of you who have read my blog, I talked about doing an interview with Steve Kerber who works for Underwriters Laboratory and has lead numerous test involving the fire service. Steve has been involved with the testing of light weight construction and the effects of being on a floor constructed of light weight material above a fire. He has been involved in testing of wind driven fires and how to handle these fires. To the newest test which covered everything from basement fires to transitional attacks, Steve is not just a scientists, Steve has many years involved with the fire service. He is an honorary battalion chief in the FDNY (they don't pass that out like suckers in a candy store).
As one of us, he knows what it is like to crawl down that hot and smoke filled hallway.
ME: Steve, I understand you have a background with Volunteer Departments, can you tell me about that?
STEVE: I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and was a volunteer with the local volunteer department in Delaware County from when I was 16 up until I left for college. Then I joined the College Park Fire Department in Prince Georges County in college for about 11 years, until I moved to Chicago.
ME: With what you did with CFD and FDNY regarding wind driven fires, have you seen wind driven fires being confined to high rise buildings in the city and not a concern for smaller volunteer departments that don’t have any high rise buildings?
STEVE: That is not the case. You’re just as likely to have a wind issue while fighting a fire in a single family dwelling house fire as you are in a 50 story high rise. Granted a high rise is a different situation being the wind is often unimpeded but as Houston Fire Department unfortunately seen, wind can have a devastating effect, even on a single family dwelling.
ME: Now we do a lot of transitional attacks here where I am located. I heard you on the Mikey D and Mikey G show talk about transitional attacks and how the thought of pushing fire is not always the case. Can you talk about what you have seen first hand out of these tests?
STEVE: We have been looking at transitional attacks by directing a stream into a compartment from the outside and we are getting up near a 100 test amongst our selves, NIST, and some others. And everything we are seeing is the fire gets better when you put water on the fire.
ME: Now I heard you talk about basement fires and how the traditional route of going straight down the interior stairwell isn’t always the greatest option.
STEVE: Well the traditional thought of stretching a line into the first floor and protecting the interior stairwell and the search as well is not necessarily accomplishing what we thought it was. What we are seeing thru test is when we introduce the stream into the basement onto the fire first thing it makes the situation better throughout the house much faster. Remember when you go on to a floor with fire below it, the two main things you need to worry about is 1)collapse and falling thru the floor, and 2) getting caught in the flow path of the fire in the basement and the open front door you just came thru. Getting between the fire and where it wants to go. Both happen in an instant and you cannot possibly know everything you need to know to tell yourself whether one of those things will happen. You can’t control the flow path, you just don’t know how long that fire has been burning, so unless you can get a good look underneath that floor to see what shape its in which in itself is nearly impossible, you don’t have a real good reason to be on that floor because of the incredible risk, hopefully its calculated and thought out.
ME: If you can for me, talk about what you did test out with the FDNY on that study you just did. And some of the observations that you saw first hand.
STEVE: The FDNY had a great opportunity to use an island being renovated from a military base. We have done some test regarding wind driven fire stuff but in this we had two story town houses, there purpose was to bring UL and NIST together along with some of there members and test some of the conclusions regarding test done over the past five years or so basement fires, ventilation, and pushing fire. The mood was, lets get a bigger set of data and in different structures, different furnishings with the basement fires, try and push the fire up the stairs be it thru a window or thru a bulkhead door we also simulated a fire at the top of the stairs simulating trying to hold the stairs. On the first floor we looked at the pushing fire theory closer. Be it thru a door way or thru a window. We also looked at a popular style of construction called a railroad flat which is where you got a series of rooms in alignment on one side of the structure, there we looked at what happens if you flow from the floor below and flow into the first room can you wrap the fire around the room and it come behind the crew or if you put water thru the front window will you push it around or thru the structure. Then we looked at second floor fires where we were looking at the 2.5 gal cans ability to knock a bedroom fire back allowing the can man to shut the door and buy some time for the engine crew. Then we looked at some attic fires. What happens when you vent an attic fire does it localize it or allow it to spread, we also used a cockloft nozzle which is designed to flow water in both directions thru an attic hatch in an attempt to wet a large surface area. So we tested all these different things and like I said with the pushing fire theory we didn’t see it as readily as people expected to see it of course the testing instruments which consist of TIC’s and Thermo couplers etc will show the true data gained but the initial indication that we observed was that we didn’t see any fire pushed rather we observed fire actually pulling back towards the hose line which was very interesting. Some other things were if you vent a ventilation controlled fire it’s going to bigger, which shouldn’t be a surprise. On basement fires we saw a lot of creating a flow path from the stairwell to the front door on the first floor which created a very dangerous situation in which a crew making the push would be very hard pressed to make the stairs. We also saw a lot of issues around making it thru the front door and you protect the stairs the fire communicated to the first floor was not via the stairwell rather via the pipe chases in the kitchen and would come up behind the crew and creating a floor collapse situation in the kitchen area which would have been near the access to the basement stairs.
ME: Let me ask you how did that 2.5 gal can work?
STEVE: Well under the conditions we had which was a flashover bedroom it looked like potential was there to buy you enough time to get the door shut. But its not much time and its very temporary once out of your 2.5 gal and there’s not a continuous flow of water behind it, the fire comes back just as quickly as you darkened it down.
ME: Alright well let me ask you if there’s anybody reading this is there a good way to get a hold of you if they have questions regarding some test?
STEVE: Sure they can reach me at my email at or via our website at While they are there they can look at free online training programs. And due to a lot of request we are now giving CEU’s for the program for a small fee you can take the course and get good CEU’s if you need them for your training hours.
ME: Well Steve, I appreciate your time and thank you for your work.

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