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A Burning Issue: How to Save Lives

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The third advance that has the potential to change how fires are fought is also the least sophisticated of the technologies. Its origin lies in an incident that occurred nearly a decade ago.

On December 18, 1998, three New York City firefighters died while fighting an apartment fire on the tenth floor of a building on Vandalia Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. They had been searching on various floors for an elderly woman they thought was still inside, although she had already been evacuated.

As they made their way through the building, the firefighters were engulfed by a fireball that streamed out of an apartment into the hallway where they were, and toward an open apartment door at the end of the hallway. The temperature spike caused by the fireball melted the firefighters’ oxygen masks off their faces. They died soon after of smoke inhalation and burns.

This phenomenon is known as wind-driven fire. It can occur in any structure, though it is more prevalent in high-rise buildings. NIST’s Kerber, along with his colleague Dan Madrzykowski, has studied what happened at Vandalia Avenue in hopes of understanding the wind-driven- fire phenomenon and how to combat it.

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