Fires are the accidents which occur most frequently, whose causes are the most diverse and which require intervention methods and techniques adapted to the conditions and needs of each incident.
Depending on the type of fire (nature of the material ablaze), meteorological conditions (wind) and the effectiveness of the intervention, material damage can be limited (a single car, building or production or storage warehouse installation), or affect wide areas (forest or agricultural fires, hydrocarbons, gas or other highly flammable products, storage or piping installations, harbour installations and rail or marine transport equipment). Explosions are in a different category.
Each type of fire is the object of specific technical prescriptions as regards prevention, intervention and the behaviour of the population affected. It is also relevant to note that many fires have a criminal origin and that in times of armed conflict or crisis as well as of indirect wars (sabotage) human intervention also provokes major accidents.
For practical reasons it is best to refer to technical documentation, which should be known or available to all security and fire-fighting services, and to national and regional disaster alarm and information centres.
This is especially the case for rescue and fire extinction on motorways, buildings designed to be used by a great number of people (hospitals, hotels, cinemas, high-rise buildings, department stores, etc...); fires affecting chimneys, attires, cotton (bales, loose, explosive dust), fodder (fermentation), fires in high warehouses, silos or underground garages as well as forest fires.
All these types of intervention are subject to special measures.
2. Preventive and protective measures
Fires can spread more or less rapidly depending on their causes, the nature of the material and goods alight, the fire prevention installations (automatic sprinklers), meteorological conditions, the ways the population is informed and the initiative it shows, as well as the speed and efficiency of the intervening services and of their fire-fighting equipment.
In the light of experience, prevention is seen to be most important and consists of two distinct components. On the one hand, the primary responsibility falling upon the political authorities empowered to implement the legal prescriptions concerning fire protection, to forecast accidents and to inform the population, as well as to set up measures and means for fighting fires and Explosions. On the other hand, the responsible behaviour of each individual based upon an education geared towards caution and the respect of instructions in case of fire.
Defining, and controlling the implementation of, the particular rules of protection against fires, specific to each enterprise presenting a potential danger, including the training of security personnel, is also relevant in this context.
The many types of fire and the preventive and protective measures which relate to them, make it advisable to limit the present study to the specific measures falling to the political authorities in one area only, namely that of "forest fires". This type of fire is of particular interest to developing countries and the preventive measures to be applied have a general representative value, that is :
- organising an observation service, prevention and alarm (security) service at local and regional levels;
- implementing legislation regulating the use of fire by all the population present in or at the edge of forests, and more particularly by owners and individuals exercising a professional activity in sensitive areas;
- planning and concrete preparation (periodic maintenance) for fire-fighting through adequate landscaping of the territory and appropriate forest cultivation limiting fire propagation (alternating vegetation, clearance, trimming), creating and maintaining access paths (extinction) and fire-break areas as well as fire-fighting equipment such as water supplies (conduits, cisterns), watch towers and meteorological posts, and the construction of helicopter landing pads;
- surveillance and detection of fires as soon as the danger of fires is forecast by the ad hoc meteorological service (which comprises automatic or mobile statistics posts observing the winds and the vegetation: dryness, force, direction, evolution);
- as soon as the danger of fire increases, activating an alarm plan (basic intervention plan) requiring the engagement of preventive intervention squads (firemen), and their wide positioning as near as possible to the threatened zones, and making available water bombers and specialised aerial machines ready for action;
- preparation and concretisation (organisation) of an intervention mechanism: this requires the setting up of specialised management programmes ensuring the coordination of powerful and efficient equipment and means for fighting forest fires (instruction);
- preparedness management and the coordination of the use of the means of intervention of the authorities and the information and alarm services for the population require a secure transmission network (radio network);
- planning the evacuation of the population possibly under threat in the various sensitive areas, particularly if there are risks of explosion (reservoirs and gas conduits explosives or ammunition dumps, hydrocarbon production, handling or transport installations, other dangerous material, etc.).
3. Intervention and assistance measures
The means of intervention brought into coordinated action at the local, regional or cross-boundary level vary according to the seriousness of the incident. The time factor and the quality of the intervention are of primary importance. Fire-fighting requires that substantial means be available at the right time and place and brought into action as quickly as possible. The chances of success are greater when the fire has just broken out.
Generally, bringing into action the ways and means of fighting fires and explosions is the responsibility of the communal authorities that can calI on firemen (professionals or volunteers) reinforced by the civil or military means of intervention available. But clearly, mastering major fires and specific fires and managing particularly powerful explosions require the technical support of professionals and experts, especially in the case of toxic or radioactive fall-out. When these reinforcements are necessary, they must be made available at the regional or national level. If national means of intervention prove insufficient to ensure the safeguard of the population and the environment, the government of the country affected by the disaster should appeal for international emergency assistance.
With regard to "forest fires", the means of extinction are logically adapted to the technical possibilities of the States and sectors concerned. The old technique of "fire beating" is still often called upon; this requires numerous working hands, courage and a sense of civic duty, with little chance of success. In developed countries, extinction techniques increasingly make use of water, generally with chemical additives (retardants or foams). Intervention techniques must be adapted accordingly and call upon very competent personnel using mobile and fast equipment such as off-track vehicles, motorised pumps, tankers, water cannons, and aviation (water bombers, airplanes or helicopters of varied capacities).
The manpower is therefore made up of a minority of professional firemen (leaders) and a majority of volunteers. Bringing this force into action therefore involves an operational and strategic operation with an effective management structure having reliable means of command. The key to success lies in the coordination of the different protection and assistance measures and the cooperation of all of the means and services involved.
Because of the similarity in the damage caused by an explosion and an earthquake (direct and secondary effects) it seems relevant to apply the same principles of intervention and assistance to these two types of disasters, especially with regard to intervention tactics, the management structure and the disaster plan.
4. Instructions for the population
4.1 General precautions and safety measures relating to a potential danger
- keep matches and lighters out of the reach of children and teach them caution around fires and inflammable objects;
- do not keep inflammable products (alcohol, petrol, gas containers, paper, cloth, dried vegetable matter, etc.) near any source of heat;
- know the instructions relating to fires, find out about protection measures, know the whereabouts of gas and electricity conduits and learn to use domestic fire-fighting equipment (extinguishers, fire reels and hoses, nozzles ,etc.);
- do not smoke, do not light fires, do not switch on electrical equipment or machinery likely to make sparks when handling, or pouring inflammable or toxic products (petrol, alcohol, gas, etc...), or if they are leaking;
- know the telephone numbers of the fire-fighting and civil protection services and of the police;
- respect instructions forbidding staying, lighting fires, or smoking in forests, plantations, agricultural installations, wooden houses, etc., during dry spells or violent winds;
- obey the ruIes, regulations and orders of the authorities, their control organs and the representatives of fire or police services;
4.2 During a fire
- act in a calm and thoughtful manner, avoid panic;
- call for assistance by first alerting the firemen (fire service) and precisely identifying the area
(locality, road, number, type of accident, and also the name and address of the caller);
- immediately warn persons in danger and those responsible for security in the building or the enterprise, especially in public places;
- try to recue persons and animaIs in danger (wrap people whose clothing is alight in blankets or coats and roll them on the ground);
- prevent the rush of air by closing all doors and windows and switching off ventilation;
- do not use the lifts, leave the premises (stairs, exits and emergency exits);
- if stair wells and corridors are filled with smoke, stay in the flat, close the door and water it frequently, draught-proof it with wet rags. Show your presence at the windows (without opening them);
- if you are in a place that is getting filled with smoke, stay low on the ground where the air remains fresh;
- fight the fire with all available means (fire extinguishers, in-house hydrants, pouring water from utensils using the bath tub or sink as an improvised water reservoir;
- extinguish oil or fat fires (liquids or recipients on fire) by covering them with a damp cloth. If an electrical apparatus catches fire do not use water on itwitch off the current immediately and pull out the plug;
- inform and guide firemen or other rescuers and follow their instructions;
In case of a "forest fire":
- leave your house if it is a weak structure;
- open the entry gate to the building to facilitate the entry of rescuers;
- turn off gas bottles stored outside and place them away from the building but not in an access path;
- shelter vehicles, with their windows closed, against the side of the building protected from the wind;
- bring in watering hoses which may be used after the main fire is extinguished;
- close shutters and entrance doors and take refuge in the house with all your family and domestic animaIs; if necessary, shelter the homeless and the passers-by fleeing the fire;
- keep calm even if smoke enters the house despite the draught-proofing of the doors and windows;
- watch the situation and how the fire progresses (fire moves at a speed of 20 to 30 meters per minute) from a door or window situated on the side of the house facing the wind.
4.3 After the main fire has passed
- leave the house only if all parts of your body are protected (leather shoes, gloves, hat, clothes made of non-synthetic material);
- inspect your house and extinguish those parts which are burning (doors, shutters, etc.);
- inspect the roof, the timber frame, the attic and extinguish the cinders which may have infiltrated under the roof tiles and small openings by using the water hose or other recipients filled with water;
- water the vegetation surrounding your home and extinguish small flames if any;
- assist your neighbours and persons in danger (first aid);
- obey orders of the firemen and of the authorities' representatives.