Article Archive
Protection Versus Productivity
Vol. 20 No. 5

The development of fire apparatus in The United States and elsewhere has been a progression of responses to emerging needs engendered by increasing complexity and size both in structures and their contents. Urbanization of our society has also impacted apparatus design.

There is something about the Fire Service, particularly as it is found in small town mid-America, that calls forth all of the creative ingenuity and mechanical talent in that community. If there is a good mechanic or competent machinist in town you will find him, like as not, a member of the Volunteer Fire Department. He will be as generous with his talents as he is with his time and his community will be the better for it

The earliest attempts at fire suppression in colonial America were groups of citizens who responded with a water bucket, hence the name "Bucket Brigade" at the sound of the Fire Warden's rattle whenever a fire broke out in their community or neighborhood. They formed a line between the fire and the nearest creek or cistern passing full buckets to the fire and empty ones back to be refilled. If the response was quick enough they actually managed to extinguish the occasional fire.

Now, it was inconvenient for brigade members to carry their buckets with them at all times and it wasn't long before some inventive genius came up with the idea of employing a cart that would hold all the buckets and carry them to the fire where they could be used by whoever was able to respond. The Fire Department as such was born.

Since water delivery by bucket brigade was slow and uncertain, fire tactics of the time often called for the demolition of adjacent structures to prevent the spread of the conflagration. To accomplish this task responders employed chains fitted with terminal hooks which were thrown over the walls and used to pull down the small buildings of the day. As buildings of more than one story became common, ladders were employed for rescue of occupants, removal of goods and to facilitate demolition.

Ladders of any reasonable length are unwieldy and difficult to carry and long chains equipped with large hooks of sufficient size to pull down buildings are quite heavy. Therefore it wasn't long before some village blacksmith modified a cart with racks to carry a number of long ladders and a compartmentalized bed to hold the hooked chains. The "Hook and Ladder" was born.

Throwing water on a fire from a bucket works but only at very close range and getting water on a second or third story fire was a major accomplishment indeed. Enter again the inventive genius of the ordinary firefighter. During the eighteenth century several inventors in Europe and America discovered that a cylinder fitted with a tight fitting piston and capped with a restrictive "nozzle" could propel a stream of water for a greater distance than it could be thrown from a bucket. These devices, known as "fire squirts" were employed by immersing the tip or nozzle in a tub of water, withdrawing the piston to fill the cylinder, pointing the nozzle at the fire and depressing the piston to force the charge of water onto the blaze. An improvement in range, if not in volume, of water delivered was improved.

With the introduction of the "squirt" it wasn't long before some other inventive genius devised a system of valves and levers to convert the "one-shot" squirt into a pump capable of delivering a continuous stream. The water was poured into a reservoir or "tub" by the bucket brigade and one or two stout men on the pump handles could produce a respectable stream of water, so long as the bucket brigade held out. These early "tub" pumpers were the first apparatus to be called "engines". Originally these engines were small affairs usually carried to the fire by two or four men by holding the handles protruding from the tub. As they grew in complexity and capacity they also increased in weight and soon became too large for two or four men to carry. Again, local inventive genius proved itself equal to the challenge and carriage mounted, hand-operated "engines" began to appear. Thus came the great dichotomy in Fire Department organization which continues to exist to this day - Engines, which carried pumps and supplied water and Hook and Ladder (later "trucks") which provided access to and egress from the fire. Other auxiliary appliances; hose carts, fuel wagons, ambulances etc were added. But to this day we still have engine companies and truck companies.

As cities grew both vertically and horizontally the fire service was, and still is, always trying to keep up with the demands imposed by higher structures and by the ever increasing variety and complexity of the contents of these structures, and as always, individual initiative and mechanical talent have met the needs of modern society.

Larger and taller structures meant larger fires and the endurance limits of the crews operating the hand pumped engines were rapidly exceeded. Again ingenuity came to the rescue and the steam fire pump rumbled down the street of history to a permanent place in fire service lore. Steam and cast iron did what sweat and muscle power could not and by the end of the nineteenth century the American steam fire engine had become one of the most ornate and most functional machines of the day . Those examples still existing are a sight to behold especially when they are actually still operable.

Necessity is the mother of invention. It was probably necessity (and economics) that prompted some small town fire chief to put a Model T truck under the front of his steam pumper and produce the first motor pumper and an articulated one at that. Taller buildings required longer ladders; longer than those that could be handled by ground crews. Somewhere someone came up with the idea of fastening a ladder to a vehicle and raising it by means of compressed springs, cables, or other means of applying power.

At the dawn of the twentieth century the advent of the automobile vastly improved response times and increased efficiency and endurance in the fire service. Concurrently, its voracious appetite for fuel and lubricants presented a new challenge to the firefighters; that of large quantities of volatile liquids which were lighter than water and immiscible with it. Great quantities were transported and stored in local communities. Once again "Yankee ingenuity" came up with an answer.

If fire service folklore is to be believed, this answer was found in the wash tub of a firefighter's wife when he was asked to help her with the family wash. The man noticed that the suds floated on top of the water and it occurred to him that they might float on top of burning gasoline and thus snuff out the fire as well. Whether or not this story is true we have no way of knowing but it is true that the first foams were nothing more than soapsuds and many of those presently in use are in fact very effective as detergents. It is also true that in an emergency several of the commercial dishwashing detergents will function quite effectively as fire fighting foam concentrates.

As the capabilities of foams as a fire suppressant became known, ingenious firefighters were at it again, experimenting to find better ways of applying foam to burning liquids

Fire foams had one serious limitation namely their density. Trying to propel a foam stream for a long distance is somewhat like trying to throw a "nerf" football. In most cases, especially those where "high expansion" foam is employed, the firefighter must get "close to his work" to be effective.

No one knows who was the first fire fighter to come up with the novel idea now known as subsurface injection but most likely it was some refinery worker who was familiar with the workings of storage tanks. This unsung inventor probably got the idea when trying to extinguish a fire in a petroleum storage tank. He connected a high pressure foam generator to the pre-existing piping of the storage tank and pumped foam into the tank contents below the surface. The foam was lighter than the oil in the tank and it expanded as it rose to the surface where it spread out forming a foam blanket which smothered the fire.

The application of "shade tree ingenuity" to solve problems in fire fighting continues alive and well into the present day, especially in small town departments. As this is written many small town departments utilize home-built apparatus of one sort of another. In fact one of the major suppliers of fire apparatus and equipment got its start during the years of the Great Depression by suppling components for "build it your self" fire equipment.

Much of this home-built apparatus is "interesting" to say the least, but it works. The first compressed foam system (CAF) developed by the Texas Forest Service is a case in point. The first operational unit was big, ugly and looked like a refugee from a Rube Goldberg exhibit but it worked and it showed beyond doubt that the principle of using compressed air to create a stream of highly expanded foam was valid.

The first innovator who used an orchard sprayer to create high pressure fog did so with equipment that was designed for an entirely different purpose but it demonstrated the validity of the concept and lead to the development of very compact and highly efficient units that, for many years did yeoman service in fighting residential fires while minimizing water damage to contents.

Regardless of their genesis, all of these examples of "home-brewed" apparatus have several things in common. One they were, in the main, created by men in the trenches men who fought fire where the "rubber meets the road". Theses were not graduate fire engineers but many of them were first rate mechanics. Their creations were intended to meet a particular need or solve a specific problem; and NONE of them were approved by NFPA, ASTM, FM, CSA, UL, OSHA, MSHA, EPA or any other agency; but they worked.

Now, lest the purists start looking for tar and feathers, if not worse, to apply as a punishment for this "sacrilege" let it be made "abundantly clear" that this is not in any way, shape or attempt at standard bashing or an effort to denigrate or belittle the efforts of the afore mentioned agencies. These agencies have one essential function and that is to set standards. They are not there to stifle creative thought or inventive talent even though they have been accused, quite wrongly, of doing so by those who say "if those folks ( the standard setting organizations) had their way we would still be moving engines with horses and pumping water with steam". Standards and standard setting is not something to be taken lightly or done in haste. Those groups and agencies that undertake this work do it with deliberation and with due regard to all possible variables in the knowledge that their final product will effect an entire industry and perhaps the safety of countless personnel for decades to come. They are conservative in their rulings to be sure but when worker safety is involved there is no other choice.

Standards and the organizations that promulgate them are essential to our mechanized society in general and the fire service in particular. Without them such things as interchangeable parts, the product of another American mechanic, would be impossible. Standards make all of us sing from the same hymnal. Does it really matter whether a quarter-inch bolt has 19 threads per inch or 20 threads? Not really; what does matter is that all of these bolts have the same number of threads per inch so that one can go down to the hardware store and buy a nut that will fit on our quarter-inch bolt. So, some standard setting agency somewhere decried that all national course threaded quarter-inch bolts would have 20 threads per inch. Not that 20 is better than 19 or 21 but so that all quarter-inch bolts will work interchangeably.

If one would question the need for standards he has only to look at the vast number of fire hose threads still used in The United States and wonder how mutual aid ever happens. Or, look at the interoperability problems encountered in communications systems particularly in large metropolitan areas. These problems arose because each system, like Topsy, "just growed" without regard to what was happening in the next community or even in the other departments of the same municipality.

In an ideal world standards would be in place at the time a technology is put in service. This is not an ideal word. We are now faced with the daunting task of undoing the sins of the past to meet the challenges of the future.

Now, the function of any standard is to promote uniformity of performance and ensure the safety of those involved. It is not by any stretch of the imagination to stifle innovation or preserve the "status quo" but unfortunately this has on occasion been done.

Whenever a "new" piece of equipment is presented to a prospective client one question is always first out of the box - "Is it approved by NFPA (or OSHA or some other similar standard)?" This is as it should be; we want and need to know exactly what we are issuing for personnel to use when they are called to respond to an emergency and we need to know that it will work as promised.

If the answer is "No, this item has not (yet) been approved," does that mean an automatic rejection of the item and ejection of the representative? Not necessarily, if the item is presented in an honest and straightforward manner as "something new that has been developed which we would like for departments to try and evaluate " then it is up to those considering the purchase or utilization of the item whether or not to give it a try. The salient point here is that the representation was "up front." The prospective user was told what was being presented to him. He knows that this is a new technology that is just being introduced . He knows that it may well have "bugs" in it and these are what the manufacturer is very likely trying to uncover. The purchaser may use the equipment but he should do so with caution and with adequate "back up" so that the ultimate safety of those involved is never compromised.

If the item in question is really new and innovative there may not be a standard which applies to it and one may have to be written. This in itself is a daunting task. Examples of this from the fairly recent past are the Compressed Air Foam Systems, High Expansion Foams, various wetting agents to name just a few. In each case these items were introduced, at lest on a limited scale, before they were certified by a standards setting agency. They were developed by workers who were not afraid to "think outside the box." They were innovative and they were effective in the situations for which they were developed. There also had to be those who would be willing to try them out. There had to be someone somewhere who would give the "new kid on the block" a chance.

Nothing employed by the fire service ever came complete with a seal from NFPA or other standard setting agency. Those that do carry such a seal have had to survive a rigorous testing and evaluation protocol. This arduous regimen takes time, sometimes several years. It's worth nothing if it is not through. But the end result is a product that can, when utilized properly and maintained correctly, be used with the utmost confidence. o


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