Amanda Ripley

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Fire on the Brain

6th Mar 2009 posted in Disaster Behavior

The other day, I drove out to Frederick, MD. This time, blissfully, my trip had nothing whatsoever to do with anthrax.

I went to Frederick to meet John Bryan, a man who knows more about human behavior in fire than anyone alive. Or at least, anyone I have ever met. Jake Pauls had asked me to come out to meet John and do an interview for posterity. Until then, I had only known the man through his work—which I’d spent days poring over at the National Fire Academy and in the Library of Congress.

John met us at the door and very graciously sat for hours while we talked about his life and his work. This is a man who who started fighting fires when he was in grade school. John organized a group of boys in Somerset, MD, where his family lived, to put out brush fires caused by coals falling from the B & O steam engines that ran along the edge of town. The Rinky Dink Fire Department, as it was known, used brooms to stamp out the flames—until the boys eventually got a hand-operated pump from the Bethesda Fire Department. This was clearly before the lawyers took over emergency management.

Anyway, John grew up and became a professional firefighter. But he soon noticed was that the most important moments of a fire were the moments before the firefighters arrived. That was when regular people made crucial decisions about whether to fight the fire, call the fire department or flee. Their behavior mattered more than anything else—and yet professional firefighters spent a lot more time talking about equipment and technology and the physics of fire.

John began to research human behavior in fire, one of the first to seriously investigate what people do in actual fires. He went on to become a professor of fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland, where he mentored legions of young engineers and published books and articles about behavior in fire. It was a pleasure to meet him.