This medal recognizes a federal employee for a significant contribution to the nation in activities related to citizen services (including economic development, education, health care, housing, labor and transportation).
Position: Fire Protection Engineer
Agency: National Institute of Standards and Technology
Location: Gaithersburg, Maryland
Achievement: Dramatically improved firefighting practices by conducting and sharing sophisticated research that has saved firefighters’ lives and protected property across the nation.
Dan Madrzykowski has spent a good portion of his 28 years in government burning down buildings to study how fire behaves, resulting in radical changes in firefighting practices around the country that are saving lives and protecting property.
“I burn things for a living,” said Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “We burn a building, change one variable and do it again.”
Working with fire departments across the country, Madrzykowski finds buildings that are scheduled for demolition and recreates previous fires in which firefighters were injured or lost their lives. He uses sophisticated research tools and fire-modeling software that help him analyze the blazes and then spreads the word to firefighters on what he has learned.
“Dan has been able to use science to show that the traditional practices don’t always provide the best outcomes and, in some cases, they’re putting firefighters in harm’s way,” said Willie May, NIST’s associate director for laboratory programs.
Madrzykowski and his team have improved everything from ventilation and fire-suppression tactics to the protective equipment firefighters wear. He has had a major impact on understanding, documenting and mitigating the dangerous problem of fire driven by wind, which occurs frequently on the upper floors of tall buildings.
When winds blow through the open doors and windows of a burning building, they cause fires to grow and spread rapidly. Firefighters can open or close doors and use large fans to ventilate stairways and corridors, but if they don’t understand the science of fire behavior, they can inadvertently create more hazardous situations for themselves, May said.
Madrzykowski’s most significant research has been on how, when and where firefighters should ventilate a building, said Morgan J. Hurley, technical director at the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. “Doing it at the wrong place or time can actually exacerbate the situation,” he said.
In 2011, 70,090 firefighters were injured and 83 died in the line of duty, according to the National Fire Protection Association. During that same year, there were almost 1.4 million fires in the U.S., 3,005 deaths, 17,500 injuries and $11.6 billion in economic damage.
The wind-driven fire research started in 1998, when Madrzykowski was called to study the dynamics of a 1998 Brooklyn blaze that killed three firefighters on the top floor of a 10-story building. When wind blew through a corridor with open doors and windows on both sides of the building, the firefighters were overwhelmed by the intense heat that traveled down the hallway.
Armed with his research on the underlying physics of the inferno, Madrzykowski worked with fire departments in urban areas in five states, conducting fire tests in high-wind conditions. He had to overcome measurement challenges involving high temperatures, toxic gases and the potential for structural collapse.
Thanks to his findings, fire departments across the country now are trained to consider the impact of wind on structure fires and employ innovative tactics to use the wind to their advantage. They coordinate fire crews better and manage incidents more effectively.
Madrzykowski stressed that the fixes he recommends are inexpensive and quick. “I’m empowering the firefighters with information and introducing new techniques that don’t cost a lot of money to implement,” he said. “They can change tactics overnight.”
“His science-based recommendations are critical for the fire service, where many firefighters do not have an understanding of fire dynamics,” said Anthony Hamins, the chief of NIST’s Fire Research Division. “He is leading a transformational change in fire service thinking.”
Madrzykowski has helped spread the word about his research through publications, digital media, speaking engagements and curricula development. He also is the administrator of Fire.gov, a website dedicated to translating fire research results into easy-to-access research reviews. Site users can learn from reports and narrated videos about various experiments and simulations.
The website was visited nearly 200,000 times in 2012. During the past few years, more than 400,000 people and organizations, including the National Fire Academy, have requested DVD’s containing training videos, research findings and data.
Obstacles remain, including the need to reach more than a million firefighters and convince them to change practices they’ve used for decades.
“Dan made tremendous inroads in a tradition-based community,” Hamins said. “To succeed, he has to convince firefighters that what he’s proposing is better than what they’ve been doing their entire careers.”
Madrzykowski has studied more than just residential fires. Since working at NIST, he has investigated burning oil wells in Kuwait, post-earthquake fires in Japan and the 2003 Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island, which was caused by a band’s pyrotechnics and killed 100 people.
Perhaps his most important skill is his ability to relate to firefighters in the field.
“People in the fire service and researchers typically don’t speak the same language,” Hurley said. “During the late part of the 20th century, the fire service would scoff at research because they’ve ‘been there, done that and seen it firsthand.’ Dan has made research cool to the end user. They can now brag that they’ve ’been there, done that and understand what happened and why.’ ”
The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals are presented annually by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service to celebrate excellence in our federal civil service.