Fire-Fighting Strategies Face Profound Scrutiny

By Graham Rayman

May 1, 2002

The collapse of the Twin Towers raises profound questions for future firefighting strategies, according to a city fire lieutenant.

Fire Lt. John Flynn, who is a certified engineer, writes in Firehouse magazine that in an incident on the scale of the Sept. 11 horror, the standard, time-tested firefighting strategy of "aggressive interior attack" proved "ineffective and disastrous."

"The concern today however is the advent of taller buildings and buildings which utilize new methods and materials of construction," Flynn writes. "The fire service in general is aggressive in its attempts to identify and understand new methods and materials. It is slow however to adapt changes in existing protocol: Old habits die hard."

Flynn's views enter a growing dialogue on fundamental questions about massive-scale fire response. The Fire Department, which lost 345 members Sept. 11, has retained a private consultant to look at issues raised by the terror attack.

Flynn, also a structural specialist on a federal Urban Search and Rescue team, suggests that the events of Sept. 11 illuminated a series of longstanding needs within the Fire Department:

Fire officers and firefighters had a lack of information on construction characteristics. An existing system is "far from exhaustive and generally not specific to the details of construction which might prove useful to commanders," Flynn writes.

Long-standing problems with radio communications in high-rise buildings need to be corrected.

Training and education on incident command and large-incident response is lacking.

Flynn also notes that the firefighting and structural engineering professions must interact to a greater degree. Engineers, he writes, need to be more aware of the needs of firefighters in the design of exits and stairwells; large open floor areas, which spread fire rapidly, and the lack of intermediate floor columns, which provide structural stability.

Firefighters, meanwhile, "must become familiar with the behavior of modern materials ... as well as their propensity for sudden failure," he said.