South Carolina firefighter losses put focus on new safety technology

One solution under review is a sensor that can predict building collapses.

The loss of nine firefighters in a furniture warehouse fire in Charleston, S.C. – aside from 9/11, the most fatal fire in a structural setting in the US since 1973 – is likely to focus new attention on emerging fire-safety technology.

From fire-simulation training to thermal-imaging cameras, efforts are under way to make firefighting safer.

One such effort is research to create electronic sensors that will predict when a building is on the verge of collapse so that firefighters can quickly evacuate. The sensors, a joint project of the US Fire Administration (USFA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), could be mounted on the buildings by firefighters and, eventually, integrated into structures themselves. Although it has been tested on commercial buildings, officials say, the technology is still several years away from being deployed.

Such a warning system could be especially useful in saving lives because collapses are often hard to predict.

The collapse Monday of the warehouse's roof in Charleston happened too quickly for firefighters to escape, eyewitnesses said. "It came from nowhere," a local car salesman told CNN. "It was a standing structure, and five seconds later it was on the ground."

It was a particularly hard blow for the city's 237 firefighters. Incidents in which more than four firefighters are lost have become increasingly rare, according to the USFA. The last incident, apart from 9/11, where more than three firefighters died was in Worcester, Mass., in 1999, when six lost their lives.

Fire-safety experts hope that national efforts under way to develop new technologies and training approaches will make such incidents even more rare.

The USFA and NIST are developing virtual-reality computer programs for firefighter training that simulate different challenges. The two federal agencies are also working to improve the technology and create national standards for thermal-imaging cameras. These cameras could be used on-site to locate people caught in a blaze.

The decision of how many firefighters to send into a building, and just how long to keep them there, can depend on a variety of factors.

"It varies from fire to fire, depending on the type of construction and whether or not people are in the building," says Mark Whitney, a fire-fatalities specialist at the USFA. "The amount of risk a firefighter takes on really depends on the conditions on arrival – if the building is engulfed, if there is smoke, and if it [has sprinklers]. Sprinklers save a lot of lives…. They are one of the best preventive measures the nation can take."

"Firefighters will risk a lot to save a lot," says Kevin Roche, assistant fire marshal in Phoenix Fire Department and an expert on fire-prevention technology. "They will risk only a little to save a little property, for example, if a building is already mostly gone. In Charleston, there were people trapped in the building."

The firefighters rescued two employees, Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley told the Associated Press. Officials were investigating the fire's cause but did not suspect arson, he added.

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