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.”
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.
“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.”