Estimated 10 min reading time.
Welcome to The USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I’m your host, Teresa Neal. This month we’re talking about the Fire Safety Research Institute.
As part of Underwriters Laboratory, FSRI is a nonprofit organization committed to sharing fire and life safety research. In 2019, they reported 3,704 deaths due to fire. This number is tragically 24% higher than the deaths reported in 2010. Fire safety and fire prevention are more important than ever.
The FSRI uses advanced fire science, rigorous research, extensive outreach, and education and collaboration with an international network of partners to share information, tools and resources to help people make safer decisions.
FSRI and their partners have begun to extend beyond fire dynamics to examine factors affecting firefighter health and safety. They work at the fire investigation community and help fire and life safety educators share data-driven public safety education with their communities.
On this episode we’ll be joined by Steve Kerber, executive director at the Fire Safety Research Institute.
Hi Steve, thank you for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure so. See, let’s go way back; I was born into a fire service family, and so I’ve known nothing but the fire service my entire life and kind of followed that into joining the volunteer fire department in my hometown of Broomall, Pennsylvania. And then found a way to bring together being halfway decent at math and science with the fire service and went to the fire protection engineering program at the University of Maryland. And really continued to fall in love with the fire service and learning more about it.
From there I went to work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in their firefighting technology group — and again — following that same theme.
I was going to say how long have you been at FSRI, but you really helped found it.
Yeah, we created the concept. UL was making a transition about 10 years ago and created a nonprofit parent company, essentially to do more research. And when that opportunity made itself available, it was almost out of desperation because we had gotten a number of Assistance to Firefighter grants through the years. And we’re taking a unique approach to firefighter research, doing it with the fire service instead of for the fire service, and really bringing them into the research, which was working great.
UL was gonna put research into the for-profit component of the enterprise and that would have meant no more fire grants.
So, I came up with the idea of creating a nonprofit institute that would go in the research organization of UL, and luckily the leaders at the time said, “Hey, this has been fairly successful. The fire service is telling us they’re using the research, so we’re going to let you start this thing.” And it’s grown ever since.
What first inspired you to focus on fire research? I know you said you came from a fire service family. But was there anything that you saw that said, “Yeah, this is where I need to go, this is the way”?
Certainly, the being born into the fire service, really. You see what the fire service is all about, and you see from a profession perspective, they’re some of the greatest people in the world.
The desire to help those folks and be a part of that culture … it’s a huge magnet. And I think that one of the things that — that inspired me was my time at the College Park Fire Department in PG County. They’ve got a program there where instead of living in a dorm at the University of Maryland, you move into the firehouse and run that department. And I did that my entire time through undergrad and really went to grad school so I could keep living in the fire station.
One of the things that I saw was that people came from all over the country. And everyone was exposed to something different. Everyone had their way of doing it. And I think that opened my eyes to — it’s like, well, how can we have 30,000 fire departments in this country? And they want to do it 30,000 different ways. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I mean some variation makes sense. You’ve got different types of structures or different staffing levels. But the housing demographic and the built environment is not that different across the country. There can’t be 5,000 best ways.
There’s got to be a way to find out what the best way is. And that’s really where research has allowed us to look at the fireground in a very different way that firefighters don’t get a chance to look at the fireground. They get 1 shot at a fire and they second guessed themselves, probably for a long period of time. Wondering, “Could I have done something better? Could I have gotten a slightly better outcome? Could I have saved more property?” And they’ll never know.
You know, volunteer for, I guess, their 13 years or so, and go into a number of fires — that feeling sticks with you. And I think through research we’ve been able to kind of tease some of that out and show that, yeah, there might be 1 not exact best way, but if we can teach you more about the fire and teach you more about the cause-and-effect relationship of your tactics to the outcomes, that we make a smarter, better fire service.
… if we can teach you more about the fire and teach you more about the cause-and-effect relationship of your tactics to the outcomes, we make a smarter, better fire service.
So, the FSRI website is filled with some interesting information from some of the best scientists, and fire researchers, and engineers. Are there any new research projects you’d like to share with us?
Wow — yes, many. I mean, we’ve got 20 projects going at 1 time right now; our team has grown quite a bit.
I’m very excited about getting into the wildland urban interface and some issues there. I mean, wildland fires, as everybody knows, have changed as the climate changed. Areas that previously didn’t think that they had any wildland urban interface — now most of the country does. And all it takes is some dry conditions and some wind, and who knows what could happen?
I mean, Marshall Fire was probably one of the more recent examples of what can happen. I wouldn’t even consider that a wildland fire. That was a suburban conflagration that moved through that community. There’s much more to learn, and I think that we’ve spent the last couple of years understanding what research is taking place.
We are not experts in wildland, but we are experts, I would say, in fire growth and spread in structures. So as that hazard comes into these communities, it’s not driven anymore by how the forest burns. It’s driven by how structures burn.
We’ve initiated a few projects ourselves and with some partners to make a contribution to that space. And I think we’ll make more of a contribution going forward. And we’re working on building up all of our partnerships and things like that, so that we can know what we don’t know and know where we can make a contribution that’s going to matter.
Trying not to repeat anything that anyone else is doing and make a novel contribution so that we can improve fire models or improve our prediction capabilities, improve firefighter tactics when it comes to working in the interface.
Yeah, I think there’s so many ways that things can go, like you said. You need to know how the wildfire reacts, but at the same time, it’s not the same thing as having just an open wildfire. And we know that it’s so important because we see it happening. We see communities burning because of their location.
Absolutely, and it’s more and more. I mean it’s not a West Coast problem. I mean, New Jersey has tremendous opportunity and hazards. We know Florida, Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We’re going to see more and more areas where fire departments that traditionally felt that “this is not something I have to deal with,” all of a sudden, are going to be right in the middle of it.
We’re going to see more and more (WUI) areas where fire departments that traditionally felt that “this is not something I have to deal with,” all of a sudden, are going to be right in the middle of it.
And whatever we can do to prepare those folks with the best knowledge possible, so they can speed up their learning curve, I think the better chance we have at positive outcomes, ’cause it’s going to happen.
So, any other research you think you can think of?
Oh, there’s so much.
We’ve got a search and rescue and size-up project that’s coming to an end right now. It’s been a 3-year project, and the team right now is putting the final touches on what we call tactical considerations.
I feel that that’s the best way that we can provide research results to the fire service — is to not tell them what to do; they know what to do — it’s to have them consider some modifications to what they already do. And then the science behind why they may want to consider that.
And I mean, we’ve done so much on ventilation. We’ve done so much on fire attack. This is the first one that’s really geared towards search and rescue, which is such a vital component of what the fire service does and kind of gives them insight into, well, if I initiate my search through the front door, or I initiate my search through a window depending on where the water is and where the occupants might be, how do my actions make conditions better for the occupants that might be in the house? Where are my best chances of finding victims that can be saved? And then ultimately, when I find them, how should I remove them to give them the best chance of survivability possible?
These are things that don’t commonly get thought about or talked about, but a simple action of finding a victim on a bed and taking them down to the floor could greatly reduce the exposure that they’re getting and possibly lead to a better outcome. We ran all kinds of experiments and have worked with our fire service technical panel of researchers — of firefighters from all over the country. And it’s finally almost time to unleash those results on everybody. So, it’ll be exciting to see how that’s embraced.
I really like the way that you just described that. We can’t just give them the message; we have to tell them everything we want them to do or the best way to do it, so they get to that survivability and not just understanding.
Absolutely, one of the things that I’m very proud of is what we call our research amplification team. And I know you’ve met Zoe recently and she leads that side of our team, and the way we look at it is if what we’re doing is going to result in some report or something that’s going to sit on the shelf, we’re absolutely wasting our time.
So, what we do is we staff up that side of the house with people that know marketing — with people that know how to get messages out — they study how people receive messages. And this goes for the fire service. It goes for the public. It goes for fire investigators. All of our stakeholder groups we study, and we make it such that our research amplification team is embedded with our research team the entire time.
So, from conception of the project all the way through getting it into the hands of the people that can use it — that’s science, also. So, we make sure that we invest in that just as much as we do the research itself. Because it is about changing behaviors, it is about making people better at the role that they do.
… we invest in (research amplification) just as much as we do the research itself. Because it is about changing behaviors, it is about making people better at the role that they do.
I mean, our team is not out saving lives. We’re trying to help other people save lives, and I think the more that we can show that and the more we can be effective at that, hopefully, the more resources we get to do more research.
So, do you have plans to expand the fire research capacity at FSRI?
There’s great things going on at UL, and we’re going to benefit from those. We made an announcement recently, about a few weeks back, that UL is now 3 separate organizations. We’ve got the research organization, of which our team sits in. We’ve got our standards and engagement organization, which sits alongside of us. And then most people that think of UL — is the UL in the circle that goes on a product that — that product is safe because it’s been tested to a standard. That for-profit part of our enterprise is kind of the third organization. And we announced recently that we just moved $1.8 billion into our nonprofit organizations to be able to do more research, more standards development, more engagement.
And that’s going to allow us to grow substantially. Our team has already grown quite quickly recently. We’re looking at probably 3 to 5 times our current team size in the next 5 years.
Yeah, so it’s exciting. I mean, I feel like I’m doing interviews every other day, but we’ve got more recent resources to do a lot more things, and we know the fire safety challenges in this world are not getting any easier.
I like to tell everybody that every technological advancement or societal advancement has a fire component to it, and I think as we scale up, we’ll be able to have the facilities and then have the resources to be able to tackle some of those challenges — before we even know they’re a challenge. Try and get ahead of some of this stuff. I feel like the fire business is always playing catch up. And it’s time that we kind of get ahead a little bit.
I like to tell everybody that every technological advancement or societal advancement has a fire component to it …
Anything else you would like to add as we wrap up?
Our partnership with the USFA has evolved over time, and I know that USFA would love to be doing more research and have more resources to do more research. And we’re out here pushing to get USFA as much funding as it can possibly get through CFSI and other partners. I mean, we’re excited of what Dr. Lori is doing to get possibly investigation, a potential back at USFA, to fill a lot of the gaps that exist so we can learn from fires.
I know the EFO Program is a part of that, and I think there might be an opportunity to raise the level of that research so that more people can benefit from it.
So, I think things are trending in a good direction.
I do too. Thank you so much for speaking with us today and also for your dedication in your heart for this work. When you speak about it, you can just tell that it’s not a job, it’s, you know, it is who you are and your passion, and that is contagious.
I appreciate that; that’s very kind. And FSRI.org. If anybody wants to watch all our projects and see everything in real time, we try and be as transparent as possible and follow our social media channels, and everybody can get involved and see what’s happening.
Thanks so much, Steve.
Thank you for listening to The USFA Podcast, and thank you to our guest, Steve Kerber, for joining us today.
Want to learn more about the Fire Safety Research Institute? Visit FSRI.org to learn how their research and signature programs are working to protect our communities.