Fire Frequency vs. Fire Severity: An interview with Chief Gary S. Allyn, West Hartford Fire Department

gary allyn lgAn interesting current trend in the fire service is that fire frequency is down nationally, but fire severity has increased. There are fewer fires, but the fires are more dangerous and damaging. Community Fire Protection News spoke with Chief Gary S. Allyn of the West Hartford, Connecticut, Fire Department on this topic and others. He has experience as a firefighter, paramedic, and emergency management professional.

Chief Allyn began his fire service career in 1975 as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. He worked as both a firefighter and a paramedic, even as a hospital educator and emergency preparedness coordinator. He eventually joined the West Hartford Fire Department and rose through the ranks to become fire chief, fire marshal, and emergency management director in 2011. Chief Allyn has a bachelor of science degree in safety engineering and an associate degree in fire technology and administration; he graduated from the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. A Certified Emergency Manager and an Emergency Response Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, he’s also safety officer for the Connecticut Region 3 Incident Management Team (CTIMT-3).

Community Fire Protection News (CFP): When we look at the numbers, fire frequency is down nationwide, but fire severity is up. Why do you think this is so, and how can departments respond?

Chief Allyn: Being an intelligent, industrialized nation has its pluses and minuses. Our quest for economical and environmentally friendly buildings has caused a departure from organic construction principles and a shift to “engineered” materials and systems that make for tight, energy-efficient buildings. Coupled with the increased use of plastics and synthetics for appliances, furnishings, and interior finishes, you get fires that burn hotter faster and cause building components to fail more quickly. That hampers occupant evacuation and creates more dangerous conditions for firefighters.

Another dimension is that with today’s media technology, we’re more aware of the number of severe fires. Scientists are taking notice and developing tools to help make the public and fire service safer. With increasing scientific involvement, we can adapt to changes in construction and products used in the fires we fight. Our response to fire has been built on tradition, not quantifiable data. We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done and expect a different outcome. We need to embrace residential sprinklers and challenge home builders on the importance of installing them in every new home.

CFP: A few months back, your department had a very challenging residential fire with multiple victims. What do you feel was critical to the outcomes of that event?

Allyn: The building was a 48,000-square-foot, 4-story, 38-unit condominium built in 1971. It had an unprotected wood frame with brick veneer, with a center hallway featuring living units on either side. It was equipped with a local and central station fire alarm system. The fire occurred at 2:17 a.m. in a second floor unit in the center of the building and was auto-exposed to the unit above through the exterior. All occupants either self-evacuated or were rescued from decks by fire department ladders. The occupant of the fire unit awoke to find her bed on fire and the bedroom ablaze. As she exited her unit, she left the door to the hallway open. The door had a self-closing device, but it was disconnected. Fire broke the bedroom windows and lapped up the side of the building to the unit above. Those windows failed, allowing the fire to spread into the upper bedroom. Two people in that room self-evacuated. The three occupants were the only ones injured in the fire. All three went to a burn hospital due to smoke inhalation and extremity burns and were released within three days. The fire was contained to the unit of origin and bedroom above.

The era of construction played a role in the building performance during the fire. Because the building wasn’t sprinklered, requirements in the fire code—such as self-closing door devices, fire alarms, and interior finishes in the common areas—played a significant role in the evacuation of the occupants and growth of the fire before the arrival of the fire department. The building is inspected annually and had been prefire planned. The early activation of alarms, numerous 9-1-1 calls by occupants, and location of fire stations all contributed to the successful outcome of the fire. Even more, the fire unit staffing to conduct fire attack (with personnel involved in the preplanning of the building)—along with comprehensive size-up, early activation of mutual aid, and the use of the incident command system to manage all multidiscipline assets—contributed greatly to the fact that only two units became uninhabitable. Occupants were able to return to their homes within a week of the fire. Knowing the building before the fire and an accurate size-up were key.

CFP: What additional new firefighting challenges do you see down the road that the fire service will have to address?

Allyn: As building materials and methods continue to evolve, the fire service needs to be a stakeholder at the table. Green buildings or buildings certified by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) may be the next challenge in the study of fire behavior. We have new alternative energy sources for heating and cooling buildings and for powering our vehicles. The addition of photovoltaic panels and other energy-generating systems calls into question whether a building’s electrical system is secure during operations, potentially creating another danger zone. The enhancement of battery technology that powers cordless devices and recreational toys is proving to be a firefighting challenge. And while we focus on those related firefighting challenges, response to civil unrest, active assailants, and terrorism will add a dimension that’s unpredictable, requiring increased training and coordination with law enforcement.

LEED-certified buildings and green buildings may be the next challenge in the study of fire behavior.

CFP: The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Safety Section, the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and UL (Underwriters Laboratories) have scientifically developed the SLICE-RS system for initial attack for building fires. Has your department established a plan to adopt this system? If so, how difficult do you think it will be to change the culture of your department as defined by this system?

Allyn: We’re very fortunate to have a command staff that remains current on trends in the fire service. Some of them even teach at the state fire academy. We’ve used the principles of SLICE-RS for some time but have not used the formal acronym. The fire service is deep with tradition, sometimes to a fault. So to provide unity between the older and younger officers, the principles guide the action. When it’s accepted, the acronym appears.

CFP: What are you doing to address the growing risk of cancer in the fire service?

Allyn: We’ve been enhancing cancer awareness in our culture for several years. Most firefighters don’t believe they’ll be the next cancer victim. Policies are in place to monitor the air of environments before the SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) is removed. All turnout gear is laundered every six months or after every structural fire. Each firefighter has a second set of gear for this purpose. Turnout gear is not allowed into the living quarters of the fire station and must remain in the apparatus bay. All of our fire stations have diesel extraction systems that have greatly improved the air quality and surface contamination in the buildings. We do some medical monitoring but need to improve our presumptive testing. There’s still much to do in medical surveillance and testing, some of which requires collective bargaining. The attitude toward medical monitoring must change within the firefighting community because there’s still suspicion within the ranks as to its purpose.

(NOTE: See the article “‘I never saw that coming’—Cancer in the fire service,” also in this issue.)

CFP: How do you see your department evolving in the future?

Allyn: The department is taking a more active role in emergency medical services (EMS). On August 1, 2016, the department became the designated paramedic provider for the town. EMS accounts for 70 percent of call volume. We’ll provide community paramedicine as an enhanced EMS service. Our fire prevention and inspection program continues to evolve to keep up with new construction and modifications to older construction. We’re focusing on overall community risk reduction, and fire is becoming the catastrophic result when our prevention, inspection, and education programs fail. Active assailant events are happening around us. We’ve trained with our law enforcement partners to become part of the rescue task force to support that mission. Every riding position in the department is now equipped with ballistic personal protective equipment (PPE). When people in town don’t have an answer, they call the fire department. We still make house calls!

CFP: What’s been the proudest moment in your career?

Allyn: Earning the faith of the people to be appointed fire chief of a department with an excellent reputation in the profession.

CFP: What advice would you give to a new fire chief?

Allyn: Be yourself, be nice, be fair, hire the best, share what you know, and surround yourself with great people. Being a fire chief is a journey, not a destination.

Austin Fire Department’s RED Team promotes use of unmanned aerial systems in firefighting

The fire service is often a risky and dangerous profession. Modern technology holds a lot of promise in making it safer for firefighters, emergency responders, and the public. Community Fire Protection News wants to share information as often as we can on the new devices and systems being developed. We recently heard of a major initiative by the Austin (Texas) Fire Department concerning the use of unmanned robotic devices (aerial, land, and maritime) to help firefighters increase safety on the job. This is their report.

air land water logoBy Assistant Chief Richard Davis, Austin Fire Department (AFD)
It all started in 2013 when I undertook an executive fire officer research project for the National Fire Academy. I researched how firefighters could use robotics to avoid excessive danger while gathering important information about an emergency and ended up publishing a paper titled The Practicality of Utilizing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Damage Assessments. The paper is available on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website.

In January 2014, I presented my vision for using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in emergency response mitigation to the department’s Executive Team. The report was so well received that they decided to officially look into the possibilities. I volunteered to become the executive sponsor of a team to determine if this technology was appropriate for AFD emergency response. Four months later, a working committee was formed called the Robotic Assistance Mitigation (RAM) Team. The name was changed to the Robotic Emergency Deployment (RED) Team, and the scope of the research was broadened to include land and maritime assets.

The 10 members of the RED Team are dedicated to evaluating and refining the use of robotics in the fire service and other public safety fields. Their mission is to mitigate real-world problems through the use of air, ground, and maritime remotely-operated rescue robotics. The team is made up of individuals who have private pilot licenses, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) knowledge exams, and FAA ground school certifications together with commercial flight instructors in fixed- and rotary-wing formats.

red team photo

Members of the RED Team

The RED Team’s mission complements the vision of AFD to enhance firefighter safety and improve emergency response through the assessment and implementation of emerging technologies like robotics. Such tools can help facilitate increased situational awareness and incident command decisions at emergency scenes.

Safety is the priority, and robotics can help keep firefighters from excessive danger, in addition to gathering important information about the emergency scene. They’re learning about potential hazards using robots equipped with thermal imaging cameras (TICs), air-monitoring sensors, and/or mounted cameras. Robotics can benefit many different scenarios:

  • High-rise fires
  • Search and rescue
  • Hazardous materials mitigation
  • flood events
  • Wildfires
  • Commercial and residential fires
  • Postfire investigations
  • Prefire planning
  • Scene mapping

The advantage of deploying UAVs during a disaster is the opportunity for immediate feedback. They can enhance the way emergency response teams operate during disaster situations. Emerging technologies, including the use of robotics and UAVs, have been demonstrated in other municipalities, states, and countries in assisting the fire service in emergencies. However, AFD was the first metro fire department in the United States to receive a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA to use the systems as part of emergency response. AFD has been given the opportunity to study and evaluate robotics technology in four phases:

  • Education, certification, and training, including establishing policies and procedures (1st year)
  • Evaluation of the various hardware and software platforms available within the industry (2nd year)
  • The purchase of robotic platforms in various formats for emergency response (3rd year)
  • Continued testing and upgrades (4th year)

AFD is continually expanding its research and collaborations within the industry of robotics technology. In addition to learning more about entities with existing FAA authorizations, RED Team representatives network with the FAA’s unmanned aircraft systems integration office and other industry professionals. While drafting an application to the FAA for authorization to use unmanned aircraft, the RED Team developed policies, procedures, and a set of standard operating guidelines—complete with performance standards—that the FAA has directed other organizations to use as a template and resource.

The RED Team has evaluated ground robots in various emergency scenarios to simulate operation in subterranean industrial areas, confined spaces, structural collapses, and hazardous material events. They’ve evaluated water-borne robotics in swift water to see the benefits of deploying a remotely-operated flotation device for flood victims and below water to explore the capabilities of performing searches with underwater vehicles

The fire service’s general reluctance to explore advancements in technology hinders the potential for improvements. As guardians of public safety, we must constantly investigate opportunities for process enhancements. Having a systematic approach in every facet of the recovery process enhances the ability to return communities to pre-disaster states. The AFD RED Team uses the following robotics (air, land, water) for research and emergency response:

  • Leptron’s Rapidly Deployable Aerial Surveillance System (RDASS™) Quadcopter drone is an efficient platform for high- or low-altitude surveillance, photography, and sensor deployment. RDASS offers a fully featured flight system and military-grade ground station. Battery propulsion means there’s no power loss and a quiet operation with easy field charging.
  • The DJI Inspire 1 Quadcopter V2.0 is a professional-level craft capable of the most demanding projects. Flight is assisted through a variety of systems such as GPS, vision-positioning systems, and laser and camera sensors. The Inspire 1 has the ability to interchange and upgrade the gimbal and camera system for future options.
  • The Micro Tactical Ground Robot (MTGR) is an advanced lightweight robotic system [15 lb. platform, 25 lb. with manipulator arm, Ruggedized Operator Control Unit-7 (ROCU-7), and ancillary equipment]. It’s highly maneuverable on all terrains, and capable of climbing stairs and overcoming obstacles.
  • Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard (EMILY) is a 4-foot-long, remote-controlled buoy that can cruise through rip currents and swift water at speeds up to 22 mph. It can reach distressed swimmers faster than human lifeguards or rescue swimmers.

In 2016, the RED Team program won the Texas Fire Chief Association’s Lone Star Achievement Award for the “implementation of an innovative and progressive program that enhances their community’s fire and life safety service delivery.” Our intent is to lead with the proper education, certification, and training to make sure we’re doing things right.

In the summer of 2016, the project transitioned into the implementation phase when it moved from our Special Projects section to our Wildfire division. It will “live” there as deployment protocols are finalized. The most important lesson learned so far is that you must think through how to best incorporate the technology into your operations and sustain it. Don’t do it simply because it’s a fancy new toy or because “everyone else is doing it.” You’ll only guarantee your project’s failure if you go that route.

Visit for more information about their program.

FEMA website:

A good old-fashioned wetdown

By Anthony Zampella, Jr.

The fire service is known for its traditions. One such tradition is the time-honored commissioning of new fire apparatus with a good old-fashioned wetdown. I had the good fortune to be invited to one this summer at the Boonton Fire Department in Boonton, New Jersey. They were welcoming a new rescue truck. This was also a good time for me to practice another tradition: building good relations between the fire service and ISO Community Hazard Mitigation.

fire fightersIt was a hot day. It was 90 degrees, the heat emanated from the pavement, there was high humidity, and the threat of rain was in the air. Still, none of that discouraged the members of the Boonton Fire Department and their colleagues from around North Jersey from welcoming the new truck into service. It didn’t stop the residents of Boonton either; they came out en masse to help celebrate. There was food and drink, music, and children running everywhere. Fire departments from all over North Jersey came roaring in with alarms blazing, soaking the truck with their hoses—along with the children and adults who were young at heart.

Boonton is in Morris County, New Jersey, and it covers 2.5 square miles, with a population around 8,500. The Boonton Fire Department was established in 1891 and is currently under the leadership of Fire Chief R.J. Ryerson. Mike Petonak, superintendent of the Boonton public works and water department, was my host, and he has a great understanding of ISO. Petonak continually strives to provide a dependable water supply for fire protection. This is not uncommon for water employees, but Petonak is also a long-time member of the fire department.

Left to right: Fire Chief R.J. Ryerson Jr., Water Superintendent Mike Petonak, Tony Zampella (ISO), and Mayor Matthew Di Lauri.


ISO actively networks with the agencies we evaluate for their Public Protection Classification (PPC™). We also serve as a liaison with insurers that base rates partly on PPC grades for a community. Favorable PPC grades can earn lower premiums from insurers that understand the risks associated with fires and the benefit of fire prevention programs.

A wetdown is a great opportunity to meet local leaders and fire, water, and emergency communication officials. Also attending was Boonton Mayor Matthew Di Lauri. As a recently elected leader, the mayor was relatively new to ISO’s work, and he was very interested in how it affects his community. He learned that, for more than 40 years, we’ve been rating the capabilities of fire departments throughout the United States on how well they can prevent and reduce losses.

As fun as wetdowns are, they also serve several more tangible purposes. We’ve found that there’s a value in community risk reduction, education, and outreach and have included that in our calculation when grading fire jurisdictions. Those attending a wetdown can tour the firehouse, explore and climb on the new apparatus, and talk to firefighters and other officials. Residents can ask questions, and firefighters are always eager and proud to answer. It can also be an important face-to-face opportunity for fire prevention education.

We’ve always had, and will continue to have, excellent relationships with fire departments, emergency communication personnel, water resource departments, and local communities. Our ability to understand and recognize their traditions definitely benefits our collaboration. It’s a partnership that we appreciate and treasure.

And by the way, one tradition has not changed: everyone still gets soaked at a wetdown.

See more of the fun at the Boonton Fire Department wetdown here.

You Make the Call

The ISO Public Protection Classification (PPC™) program works with fire departments to analyze and measure their performance in the community. Recent data has shown that fire frequency is decreasing, and one important reason is that fire departments are doing an excellent job in education and prevention. The video discusses fire frequency and the difficulty of measuring the success of these programs—essentially, how do you measure fires that don’t happen?

Fire and Data Conversations - An ISO Video Series...

Fire Frequency - Part 1


There are many good reasons to educate your community on how your department is helping reduce the frequency of fires, but measuring the results is difficult.

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Fire and Data Conversations - An ISO Video Series...


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ISO Community Hazard Mitigation actively works with fire departments, building departments, water suppliers, and municipalities with our Public Protection Classification (PPC™), Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule (BCEGS®), water outreach, and emergency communication center review programs. With your participation and cooperation, we will attain our ultimate goal: safer communities.

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