Fighting Fire With … Chemistry

Josh Scalf, Student, IU Southeast, 10-Year Veteran Firefighter
Josh Scalf, IU Southeast student and 10-year veteran firefighter, hopes to equip fellow firefighters with an understanding of chemistry to protect them and others. Photo by Shannon Zahnle.

Take two sofas—one manufactured today and another in 1970—and light them on fire.

If you did, IU Southeast student and firefighter Josh Scalf says you’d notice a difference. Due to the chemistry of combustion, he explains, you’d find that the newer sofa burns faster and emits more noxious smoke, because it’s made of synthetic materials. Knowing that such materials are common in new home construction—and understanding how they burn—can change the way firefighters make critical decisions when arriving on the scene of an incident.

“We have to quickly determine whether a given fire is a ‘go or no-go’ situation,” says Scalf. “With all the synthetic materials used in new construction today, the window for us to ‘go’—to mount an offensive—is getting much, much smaller.”

This is how chemistry can help save lives, and it’s knowledge Scalf wants to share with his fellow firefighters. So in 2014, he wrote an article about the chemistry of combustion for Fire Engineering, a magazine that provides education and training information for firefighters worldwide.

That piece is just the first in a series of articles that Scalf is planning to write for his professional colleagues. His idea: to offer accessible, “user-friendly” explanations about the chemical processes behind fire. His goal: to help other firefighters save lives—including their own.

Take that noxious smoke, for instance. Knowing what causes a specific color or amount of smoke can change the way firefighters attack a blaze. “Once you start to understand the chemistry behind it,” Scalf says, “you respect that the black smoke coming out of a house isn’t just smoke; it’s literally aerosol fuel that could ignite at any moment.”

The IU Effect: Galvanizing Good Ideas

It’s rare for a high-profile magazine to publish an article written by an undergraduate. But Scalf was encouraged by his mentor, visiting chemistry professor Jim Williams, to pursue the idea. “I’m not a guy who likes to attract a lot of attention, but Professor Williams gave me the final shove I needed,” Scalf says.

In addition, Williams peer-reviewed the article for Scalf, helping to ensure that the information was accurate and useful. “He’s really been a great resource, mentor, and friend,” notes Scalf. Today, the two are continuing to work together, as Scalf prepares the next article in the series.

Back at his firehouse in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, Scalf’s article has gotten his fellow firefighters talking. Sometimes, it’s a casual hallway conversation about chemicals and fire. Or, it’s a new recruit who has a question about hydrocarbons. More formally, Scalf cotaught a training seminar for first responders.

For Scalf, his IU experience is helping him make a difference for the men and women who risk their lives to protect our homes and families. And it all started when a bright IU student got a spark of encouragement from a dedicated IU professor.

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This article was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By
IU Foundation Staff