Penciling…is it really effective?

The fire service is a traditional, paramilitary brotherhood that is one of the most long standing professions in the world. I had the privilege of joining this brotherhood in 2007, at the age of 15. I quickly gained large interest to firefighting and wanted to learn what goes on “behind the flame,” for a lack of a better phrase. Shortly after that, I stumbled upon the Fire Protection Engineering program at the University of Maryland and gained an entry level understanding of fire dynamics and modeling. Unfortunately, some of what I learned with my degree does not correspond to the knowledge of basic firefighting.

Penciling is a technique taught in fire academy classes as, “short blasts of water, aimed at the ceiling, to provide enough cooling to stop or slow a flashover.”1185399_463885553739925_671889952_n I was taught that three, one second long bursts at the ceiling, are enough to cool to ceiling temperatures to fight back a flashover and allow the fire attack crew to push on to the seat of the fire for final extinguishment. As a fire protection engineer, this practice seems half baked. Why would you only provide three short bursts of water at the ceiling when you have an infinite [not entirely] amount of water to cool the surrounding atmosphere? And why just at the ceiling? The ceiling only accounts for one of the three sides of the room that are roughly affected by the high temperatures of upper smoke layer. The temperatures of these surfaces near, and sometimes over, 1000 degrees Fahrenheit right before flashover. Three, short shots of water at the ceiling will only decrease the temperature slightly and for a short amount of time before the upper smoke layer overwhelms the cooling and heat displacement created from the water application. It would make more sense to apply water to all three sides of the compartment, at a reasonable amount, causing a rapid decrease in the compartment temperature and the conversion of liquid water to steam, right?

I took this question to my fire academy instructor, who I am still very friendly with and currently work alongside with as a firefighter as well. The response I got was not as factual as expected. “Pete, that amount of water would cause extreme steam burns to your body [rapid steam expansion due to water phase change] and it is the way it has always been taught [what?].” I partially agree with the first point. Steam burns are atrocious. They resemble and feel like severe sunburns, but occur all over the body in some cases. However, these burns have become rarer with improvements in protective gear
standards and new and improved practices in fire ground ventilation. Now, I was appalled by the second argument. The rebuttal, “because that’s the way it has always been done…” goes as far as the kitchen when your mother is explaining to you how to clean dishes. This answer simply is not good enough to warrant the practice of a technique that is performed in an immediately dangerous to life job.311185_240397166088766_552113395_n
I took to some resources to show that the direct application of a continuous water stream to the upper layer rapidly cooled and decreased the flashover temperature of the fire room before forming a counter argument to my instructor’s claims. “Kill the flashover,” is a group of firefighters/engineering that run an engineering consulting firm, dedicated to educating a firefighter on the ins and outs of attacking and preventing the flashover. They concluded what I hypothesized with practical and live fire exercises. They even did a comparison test of the penciling technique and the full flow technique. Penciling did show improvements in the fire compartment, but these improvements were temporary and still fostered high temperatures and dangerous operating conditions for the interior firefighting crews. The full flow technique showed great results, sometimes resulting in full extinguishment of the fire in the compartment with just the simple application of water to the fire’s upper layer and the compartment’s surface area.
A question to now pose to ourselves is, “how do we get firefighters to use this method?” In all my experiences on the fire ground, practice is the best form of education. The more you practice a proven technique, the more convinced you will be of it validity. We have to stray away from the old, “because that’s how it has always been done,” attitude to a more adaptive and receptive technique.11165303_959983874034957_8256527571293363879_n

– Pete Raia