How Does a Firefighter Use Chemistry?

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Firefighters need a strong understanding of chemistry for personal and public safety, to enhance the effectiveness of their efforts and to prevent adding to the many hazards present during a fire. A firefighter uses his or her understanding of the chemistry of building materials and furnishings as well as the interaction of suppression chemicals with fire.

Firefighters use chemical principles on a daily basis, especially when choosing the right type of extinguisher in combating chemical or industrial fires. They must apply the right type and amount of extinguisher to fires. Some substances burn more intensely and more dangerously, even exploding violently in the presence of certain types of substances. Electrical and petrochemical fires, for example, cannot be extinguished with water. Some compounds such as metallic sodium and magnesium actually explode when exposed to water. This requires firefighters to understand the chemical properties of the substances that are present within the fire as well as those used to put the fire out.

Firefighters also use chemistry when protecting the public from the potentially hazardous substances produced in fires and released in chemical spills. Firefighters need to understand how to mitigate the risks to themselves and the public while also knowing how to treat those exposed or injured.