This month, James Duckworth and David Cyganski, engineering professors at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, will fill a building with expensive sensors—10 years’ worth of R&D—and set the whole place on fire. If their system works in the 1,100ºF inferno produced inside the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy’s burn building, the tech could give a fire chief everything he needs to make sure his crew returns safe and sound every time.
Ironically, the very gear that allows a modern firefighter to run into a burning building also puts his life at risk. Fire-retardant jackets deflect flames so well that firefighters can stay in a burning building until just before flashover, the moment when the room reaches 1,100°F and all the combustible gases in the air—and pretty much everything else—ignite. “Years ago, before we got hoods, we’d burn our ears and necks, and that would tell us ‘That’s too frickin’ hot, let’s get out,’ ” says Gerard Dio, chief of the Worcester, Massachusetts, fire department, which is helping test the system. Now, firemen feel the intense heat only when it’s seconds from flashover.