Indians used smoke to send signals, today firefighters get signals from smoke but the information is a lot different. When we arrive at the scene of a fire, there is a lot of information that can be gained by looking at the smoke.
Responding to calls, we also use the smoke to help us determine what is going on. We have all gotten a little excited when we see a header while responding to a call. A header is a thick cloud of smoke that can be seen from a long distance. It can tell us before we arrive that there is something significant burning. It can be a house, a vehicle, or brush, but it lets us know it is not a false alarm.
When we arrive on the scene there can be no smoke, a little smoke , or heavy smoke. Judging the amount of smoke doesn’t always tell you the size of the fire. A small fire in a small building will look like more smoke than a small fire in a large building, it just won’t be as thick. You need to keep the “size of the container” in mind when you look at the smoke.
A good indicator to the intensity of the fire is the force behind the smoke. There can be a lazy floating cloud of smoke, or there can be turbulent smoke pushing through cracks in the building or through opening in windows. Turbulent smoke indicate the smoke is very hot and is getting close to igniting. Thick black turbulent smoke that is heating up in an enclosed building can ignite.
The color of smoke is also a good indicator of the fire. White smoke is mostly moisture. When a fire first starts, the white smoke is caused by the moisture in the product burning. When you put water on a fire, there will be white smoke which is caused by the moisture in the water. When you arrive at a fire and see white smoke, the fire is likely just beginning. As the fire progresses, the smoke will become darker and more turbulent.
Yellow smoke is not very common but it is very dangerous. Yellow smoke indicates that the fire is starved for oxygen. Once oxygen is let into this building there could be a violent backdraft when the oxygen reaches the fire.
Phosgene gas and hydrogen cyanide are released when plastics and vinyl items burn. Houses and furniture today are made from lots of plastics and vinyl and these poisonous gases will be present in every structure fire. Both of these gases are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and interfere with the bodys ability to absorb oxygen.
No matter what the smoke tells you, it is bad for you. It doesn’t matter the color or intensity. Smoke is not supposed to be put in your lungs. Today we have SCBA with positive pressure to keep that smoke out of our lung, but they only work when you use it properly. A department SOP that requires you to wear the SCBA on a fire alarm won’t help you if you don’t actually put on the facepiece and use the SCBA when you are near smoke. We have spent a lot of money to protect our lungs. Don’t be too macho to use the facepiece and keep yourself safe.
By John Morse
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