Reading Smoke as a Key Tactical Firefighter Skill

One of the most important skills every fireman needs to learn is to read smoke. We can provide a few tips here, but to be truly proficient in the skill of reading smoke, is mostly learned through experience and careful study. We also recommend this helpful video from Battalion Chief David Dodson.

Today’s Fire Scenes

Fires today can grow in size exponentially in mere seconds. Globally, the use
billowing smoke at a fire scene
of synthetic materials has increased and unfortunately, has contributed to the speed at which fires spread and heat is released. Synthetic products are more volatile, catch on fire more quickly, and produce voluminous flames. 
Additionally, changes in modern construction materials have impacted firefighting efficiency, with lighter materials being used and certain design features changing the way a fire behaves through a structure. 

Deadly Flashovers and Smoke

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) says flashover today can occur in just 4 minutes. Flashovers are extremely deadly. Predicting them can save lives! Predictive firefighting is far better than reactive firefighting. A fire’s behavior can predict flashovers, and much of that behavior can be shown by the smoke. Interpret the smoke’s velocity, volume, movement, and appearance and you may be able to predict when a flashover is imminent. Ideally, you “see” the heat before you feel the heat. Fire-End proudly supplies structural firefighting equipment and gear, but you'll get further protection from education and insight gained on the job. Smoke is fuel (a byproduct of combustion) that includes particulates and explosive gases. Particles not completely burned or “leftover” will ignite at any moment if conditions are hot enough. Trapped smoke will ignite as soon as oxygen becomes available.

Smoke Color, Volume, Intensity, Behavior

Observe the behavior, intensity, and color of the smoke and you will able to better assess the best firefighting tactics to use in your situation. The thicker the smoke, the more potential for an explosion. Black, angry smoke in large volume that appears to roll out of the fire area can be a sign prior to flashover. Black smoke in dense, tightly packed curls can also be a warning sign of flashover. Rollover is another sign of an impending flashover. When fire gases ignite in an upper ceiling area it can appear like snakes of fire coming out of black smoke, spreading out horizontally. Dark, yellow smoke that seems to pull and push can be a sign of a backdraft. That pull-and-push movement is the smoke fighting to suck oxygen in to keep burning. White smoke often indicates a fire is just starting, but lighter smoke that comes from pyrolysis does have the potential to combust. Again, reading smoke can really only be mastered through experience but expanding your knowledge about the way smoke behaves can provide you with valuable insight before you arrive on the scene of an active fire.

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