Lights out: The future of firefighter safety

As an avid Formula 1 fan, the pictures of the Hass car driven by Romain Grosjean hurtling into a crash barrier and bursting into flames at the Bahrain Grand Prix was shocking to behold.

As the director cut away from what was most likely a fatal crash, the commentators were clearly disturbed, muted even, as they waited for news of the incident. A few moments later, as it became apparent that the driver had somehow escaped largely intact, more images began to materialise. Those pictures – mostly aerial shots circling the fireball and zooming in on the phoenix-like emergence of Romain, helped by the comparatively unprotected medic over the bowed crash barrier – would be repeated for hours on the same Sky Sports channel and recast on other media outlets and shared endlessly on social media. What psychological impact, one wonders, on vulnerable viewers?

The overriding impression on repeat viewing was how on earth did he manage to escape from a 137 mph, 53 G impact, and 27 second incarceration in the resultant inferno, and somehow struggle to free himself from the crippled wreckage and enveloping crash barrier? It was a jaw-dropping, inconceivable ‘miracle’ escape which could not leave anything but an indelible imprint.

It is apposite that this Dec 20/Jan 21 issue of FIRE magazine covers the evolution of firefighting technology and firefighter protection, alongside the emerging and understated threat of new and advanced technology car fires.


“It was a jaw-dropping, inconceivable ‘miracle’ escape which could not leave anything but an indelible imprint”


On the latter, the rush to reduce carbon emissions and environmental impact by bringing forward the introduction of electric cars to 2030 only amplifies the requirement to explore the impact on those wielding fire hoses and being exposed to the toxic fumes emanating from fires. This is all too pertinent given the findings of the exposure to toxic fire effluents research by the University of Central Lancashire, commissioned by the FBU, showing the urgent action needed to protect firefighters from cancer.

Formula 1 is going to learn their lessons in that ‘Blackbox’ way of thinking they have developed since the fateful spate of collisions in the 1980s and 1990s that killed the likes of Ayrton Senna. Progressive thinking resulted in the recent addition of the controversial ‘halo’ – a move Romain himself criticised at the time – that undoubtedly saved his life by piercing the barrier rather than his skull. In the immediate aftermath the layers of fire protection managed to shield him from the inferno, with minimal breach to his hands and ankles as he wrenched himself free. Engineers are still going to learn why the barrier was speared and how the car split in two and erupted in flames.

There are obvious parallels to firefighter safety in the UK and enough examples of the dangers posed by Lithium-ion batteries that fire and rescue services should explore, develop procedures and improve protection before anybody else has to face a ‘miracle’ escape. Breaking out of a domestic ‘bubble’, integrating lessons learnt from international incidents and adopting some ‘Blackbox’ thinking would place the UK at the start of the grid, where it should be when it comes to firefighter safety. Or it really could be ‘lights out’.


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