Building a Fire Behavior Program

Fire behavior, one of the first formal lessons we were all taught when we entered the fire service. We were educated to the fire tetrahedron and what it takes to have combustion followed by flashover and backdraft, detailing what these phenomenon’s are and how to detect them. The last lesson learned on this is steam. There is not a firefighter who is uniformed on the four sides of the tetrahedron or that water expands 1700 times at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, for many of us, the continued lessons and science-based discussions on fire behavior stopped once the academy was completed. The textbooks and instructors missed the opportunity to re-visit fire behavior in every other lesson in the program.


When we were taught vertical ventilation we were taught “cut a 4x4 hole and all the heat goes up and out and lifts the smoke from the floor”; “force the door, chock it open and make your advance”; “while pushing down the hallway, whip, or move the nozzle around to cool the environment as you go”; and, “when completing VES, use the ground ladder to break the window”. The lessons would then move into a Class A burn building and we would hear things like “Make the stretch in, get into the fire room, flow a little of water but don’t put the fire out”; and, “don’t flow water on smoke, get into the room”. We would then see and feel the results of “open the windows and vent the roof, everything gets better”.  These instructors, at no fault of their own, set us up for failure on the fireground. They were educating us to what they knew, experienced, and what worked for them on the fireground. Today, the environment is very different, and we must alter our training. Training needs to educate firefighters to fight the fire they fight today, not the enemy that was encountered in the 60’s, 70’s or even the 80’s.


Fire Behavior

As instructors and mentors of the next generation of the fire service, we must make sure we are taking the lessons and experience we have and making sure we are training the current and next generation with all the information and tools we have at our disposal. To train a recruit today and not expose them to the science and research is a disservice to them, their family and the community they serve. To train them only based on your experiences and the same way you were taught is a failure in your training. Many good well-intentioned fire service representatives clearly know this and understand they should be doing it different. However, some are just not sure where to start. Just like tactics, there is no silver bullet. I cannot provide you all the answers as I don’t have them all. What I can do is assist with providing a starting point for you. I have been blessed enough to have the opportunity to network with some of the nation’s leaders in the fire service. Leaders from small rural departments, large urban departments, fire protection engineers, and our brothers and sisters from outside the United States. Each and every one brings something special that is applicable to the fireground and the classroom. The number one recommendation I have for you is to realize none of us know everything we need to know, and for everything we know or think we know, there is someone that knows much more!


Where Do You Start?

One of the first lessons that provided the baseline knowledge was on the basic concepts of fire behavior. I challenge you to go much farther in your understanding, and then share that knowledge with individuals in your organization. No, not the fire tetrahedron, but how your tactics impact the environment both positively and negatively. The most important part of the lesson you are going to teach is in the planning. If you fail to plan, plan to fail! The biggest hurdle to completing this is finding a way to educate your members to this topic which in the past has not been an enjoyable lesson to teach let alone sit in a chair and absorb.


In Fire Instructor I, we all were explained the importance of having an ice breaker or some means of grabbing the attention of attendees at the start of lesson—stage one in the four-step method of instructional delivery. Utilizing an ice breaker to tie it in to the lecture/discussion is of utmost importance. If you do not grab your attendee’s attention immediately as soon as they hear the term fire behavior, they will tune out. I learned a valuable lesson from DC Anthony Avillo; play some good old rock and roll in the classroom while students/firefighters are walking in to class. This sets the tone for the class. Start the program with some fire ground video that shows a significant event(s) occurring like a complication of backdrafts, or a near miss to get the attention of the attendees. (example of the one the author uses - ) Now that you have their attention you need to keep it for the next couple hours. As with any topic you have to be on point, energetic, motivational and passionate about the lesson or you will lose them.


PowerPoint or Key Note are great tools to assist with the learning process. Unfortunately, many instructors over use it or do not use the resource correctly. Make sure you pay close attention to the “rules of PowerPoint”. Remember, that students can read your slides; do not read them to those in the seats. Rather fill the slides with photos, videos and bullet points and have an open and honest conversation regarding the content. This biggest reason most instructors fill their slides with words is to keep them on track and so they don’t miss anything. I relate that directly to not thoroughly knowing the material before teaching on it. If your slides do not have everything on it you are forced to learn the material, practice and prepare. I will say it again, do not put slides up loaded with words and read them to the students; you will lose their attention is minutes!


Another hurdle you will have is determining what level you will teach the science at. Steve Kerber, Robin Zevotek and Dan Madrzykowski (all with UL FSRI) and more have done amazing things and have provided an enormous amount of data, graphs, charts, videos, explanations, research papers and more for the public to access and use. You can dive into every item of your program and provide so much data your attendees will have no idea how it applies to them and their tactics. However, as I was so eloquently put in my place by Chief Van Dorpe, when trying to find the middle ground he stated “We cannot dumb it down any longer! The fire service is filled with a lot of smart people. Provide what they need and do not dumb it down”. While I completely agree with Chief Van Dorpe, it is a very difficult balance for us as instructors. Part of the planning process should be understanding the dynamics of the audience.


Building Your Program


  1. Instructor assessment
  2. Develop a course curriculum and lesson plan
    1. Start with a true assessment of your knowledge base, be honest with your understanding of the material.
      1. UL-FSRI and ISFSI have many of the resources you need to further your understanding
    2. Establish a plan.
      1. This plan is to identify what lesson(s) you will deliver, the order you will deliver them, what they will contain and how you will accomplish it.
    3. Build your program
      1. This step will be a challenge. If you are determined to not dumb it down, as I encourage you not to, you need to determine what your program will actually consist of. The biggest advice here is to start small (with the basics) and slowly build your program over a period of time. I recommend spending no more than three hours in the classroom and then moving the class outside and conduct a small-scale fire behavior demonstration. Utilizing the Palmers House Plans (downloadable for free from and visually showing and demonstrating the lessons you discussed in the classroom.


To help you put together a lesson plan to begin building your fire behavior program, I have included a basic outline below. This should give you foundation to your program.


Program Foundation Outline:

  • Icebreaker – highlighting the importance of having an increased understanding
  • Smoke (unburned fuel) - Volume, Velocity and Density
  • Today’s residential environment and the fuels found within
  • Heat Release Rates
  • Fuel limited versus ventilation limited
  • Flashover, backdraft and steam
  • Flowpath
  • Neutral Plane
  • Heat transfer – conduction, radiation and convection
  • Turn out gear - how it protects us and its limitations (include SCBA facemasks)
  • Scene size up – evaluating the fire dynamics using reading smoke, neutral planes and thermal imagery
  • How tactics impact the fire tetrahedron
    • Fire Attack
      • Door control, interior attack, transitional attack, blitz attack, impact on civilians, impact on firefighters and water mapping.
    • Ventilation
      • Horizontal, vertical, void spaces
    • Search and rescue
      • Door control both interior and exterior, orientated search with interior door control, VEIS (breaking the window with the ladder versus ascending the ladder) and door control, thermal imager limitations.


I have many law enforcement officer (LEO) friends who I enjoy telling them they are in the wrong profession. Truth of the matter is I would not ever want to be a LEO. The number one reason is our environment is predictable and theirs is not. When the LEO acts there is always a human factor involved which is very unpredictable. While every fire department operates a little different the fire is physics and therefore is always the same; how it burns and reacts to the environment is predictable. There will be many additional factors in the building and contents, but the fire simply reacts to that environment in a very predictable way. The more time you put into truly learning about fire dynamics and how it reacts to our tactics will help you better understand what tactic to use when and the positive and negative impact it will have.

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