Firefighters are safer after Fairfield engineering grad students create a rooftop ventilation simulator

by Carolyn Arnold

Good engineers look around at the world for problems to solve. Four graduate students from the School of Engineering’s Management of Technology (MOT) program used their capstone project to solve a problem and help save the lives of firefighters.

Using their combined skills in engineering, physics, and management, David Conelias, Edward Gratrix, Joel McIntyre, and Corey Pullen — all from the graduate Class of 2011 — built a prototype of a vent simulator that firefighters could use as a novel and practical training device to help reduce line-of-duty deaths.

Firefighters must be experts at many tasks, including ventilating a burning building. Through the process of ventilation, firefighters create openings so that by-products of the fire such as heat, smoke, and toxic gasses can escape. This is crucial for firefighters who have to enter buildings where smoke makes visibility extremely low and temperatures can rise to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Gratrix is a successful entrepreneur and optical engineer for M-Cubed Technologies in Monroe, Conn., which develops advanced composite materials. He is also a 32-year member of the Trumbull Volunteer Fire Company and currently serves as department chief. When the MOT team got together to discuss projects, he noted several problems he had come across in his experience as a firefighter that needed an engineering solution. A prototype for a vertical ventilation simulator was at the top of the list.

Vertical ventilation involves cutting holes in roofs, an extremely difficult task. Imagine trying to cut a hole in a building on an angled roof, or one made of metal, while carrying a hefty chainsaw and wearing heavy equipment in dangerous and sweltering conditions.

While ventilation makes buildings safer for firefighters to enter, training for the task is also difficult. Gratrix noted, “The simulators that we have are okay. During the housing boom, when people were tearing down houses to build new ones, we had a lot to practice on. That’s not the case anymore.”

The team conducted in-depth interviews with firefighters and worked on defining the scope of what they could do. Conelias, an electrical harness design engineer at Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, Conn., said that practice on a structure that simulates a rooftop is essential, but it’s difficult to recreate a realistic scenario. Based on their interviews, the team identified several crucial specifications: The simulator must be structurally stable, novel and practical, cost effective, and compliant with State and Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) requirements.

About halfway through their project, the group decided to name the prototype “Ladder 11,” in remembrance of Lieutenant Steven Velasquez and Firefighter Michael Baik — two Bridgeport, Conn., firefighters from Unit 11 who perished in the line of duty on June 16, 2010. Firefighting always carries a risk, but Gratrix noted that if the responders in that instance had had the access and opportunity to use vertical ventilation, Velasquez and Baik might still be alive today. “It’s a critical skill that has its own risks, but when performed properly and timely it saves lives,” Gratrix said.

The team designed a simulated roof that resembles a large, adjustable triangle, which can hold more than 1,000 pounds, enough for several firefighters and their equipment. The Ladder 11 model is adjustable to simulate many different angles of roofs and can stand as tall as six feet or lay flat to stimulate a perfectly horizontal roof. The longest side has built-in ladders and a roof cartridge so that the materials the firefighters will practice cutting can be quickly replaced.

McIntyre, who has since relocated to Texas to work at Bell Helicopter, said that initially it was daunting to create Ladder 11. “I was worried about how we were going to do this,” said McIntyre, “But Corey said, ‘Hey, don’t worry, I’ve got some tools and I’m pretty good with them.’ He was very modest. We went over to his house and found that his entire basement is a woodworking/metalworking shop!”

Pullen said, “Since high school I’ve been into cars and things like that. And I’ve sort of acquired, as my wife would say, ‘a ridiculous amount of tools’ over the years. And this was a chance to use them all.” Pullen is an optical coating engineer at Goodrich Corporation in Danbury, Conn.

The team worked weeknights and weekends to make the prototype from the material that they bought using a budget provided by the MOT program. Dr. Harvey Hoffman, professor and director of the MOT program, said, “Everything we do is practical, and as engineers we make sure that what we do is real and can be used.”

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