Article Archive
Ideas Advance Fire Fighting
Vol. 20 No. 6

Innovation is the implementation of new or significantly improved ideas, goods, services, processes or practices. In particular, the industrial fire service has seen a wealth of product innovation in the last century leading to better functioning characteristics, technical abilities, ease of use and many other key areas of concern.

Any list of these awesome innovations that does not include the following items is seriously derelict.


Williams Fire & Hazard Control is a name that is synonymous with the word innovation. Less than 10 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans is Chalmette, LA. In August 1983, Les and Dwight Williams extinguished a 160-foot diameter gasoline storage tank, the largest fully involved tank fire extinguished in history to that point. It was also the first use of prototype 1,250 gpm Hydro-Foam? self-educting nozzles. Pumping water to these monsters took a fireboat, pumpers borrowed from New Orleans and other local fire departments and about a mile of 4-inch hose.

The fire went out but Les Williams was still not happy. His next innovation was a 2,000 gpm monitor. Competing with a new generation of jumbo storage tanks, Williams F&HC soon introduced a selection of large-volume monitors. The largest of these flowed 15,000 gpm. Besides being bigger, these nozzles were self-educting without the massive friction loss that virtually crippled such nozzles before the Williams era. This meant greater reach. Add to that the Williams F&HC innovations in jet ratio controllers that freed firefighters from their logistics nightmare. Instead of carrying five-gallon buckets of foam anywhere you placed the monitor, firefighters could feed water and foam to the nozzle from as far away as 1,500 feet.

Flash forward to June 2001. Twenty-four miles west of New Orleans is the small refinery town of Norco, LA. Williams F&HC set a new record for extinguishing a fully involved gasoline storage tank -- 270 feet in diameter. About half of the 300,000 barrels of gasoline in the tank was saved. Two Williams F&HC nozzles delivered 12,000 gpm of foam that spread from a single point to cover the entire surface.

As was Chalmette, Norco was a landmark event. Chalmette signaled the innovations to come from Williams F&HC. Norco demonstrated that those innovations were now practical and effective fire fighting tools. Most recently, Williams has introduced the DASPIT Tool, which is a monitor/nozzle configuration that is highly adaptable to any application scenario and mounting configuration. Initially designed as a rim mount package to fight tank fires from an elevated position, the DASPIT Tool has evolved into a powerful appliance that can be used in a truck mount package for tactical mobility, throw-down applications for react lines, marine vessel mounted applications ... even mounting to backhoe or bulldozer blades! That's adaptable innovation!

Other brand names figure prominently in monitor/nozzle innovations. Elkhart Brass has taken giant strides forward in the area of radio remote control. The operator can now stand away from the monitor where he has a better view for aiming the stream. The other advantage is safety. For example, take an incident that happened in Cincinnati, OH, in late August. A rail car tanker containing 24,000 gallons of styrene started leaking styrene gas. Officials said a chemical added to stabilize the styrene is believed to have expired, which makes the styrene unstable. It was entirely possible that the car could blow up at any second. Sending a firefighter to operate a monitor only 100 feet from the potential blast is an unacceptable risk.

Of course Elkhart's history of innovation goes back to the introduction of the peripheral jet fog nozzle to America in 1936. A friend from Hamburg, Germany, sold Elkhart Brass founder Albert E. Hansen the patent rights to manufacture the first Mystery fog nozzle in the United States. Soon Hansen improved on the original design by surrounding the orifice with teeth.

However, the fog nozzle, like the straight tip nozzle, had one major drawback -- firefighters were limited to a single flow setting. Then Akron Brass came out with the first adjustable flow nozzle. A 1? -inch nozzle could be set at 30 gpm, 60 gpm, 90 gpm or 120 gpm, whatever best fit the situation. But firefighters sometimes had trouble mastering the math involved. What's wrong when an adjustable nozzle produces a drizzle instead of a stream? The firefighter has the nozzle set wrong. Push 200 gpm through an orifice set for 600 gpm and all the firefighter does is get his feet wet.

Task Force Tips founder Clyde McMillan's solved the problem with a nozzle that automatically adjusts to maximize reach regardless of the flow available. If only 100 gpm is available, the nozzle closes the orifice accordingly to maintain a good stream. It was a tremendous leap forward.


In the old days there was mechanical foam and nothing else. Put air and water together with a foaming agent, agitate the solution and the result was fire fighting foam. The tricky part is the foaming agent. Protein is a complex nitrogen compound derived from vegetative and animal matter. Hydrolyzed protein adds stable, cohesive, adhesive and heat resistant properties to foam. Scrap leather, hides, hoofs and horns boiled together with calcium hydroxide was the first source of protein developed.

The military proved to be one of the biggest customers for fire fighting foam. Shortly after the United States entered World War II, National Foam switched to a mixture of soy protein and water that was converted to foam using an aerating nozzle. Sold to the Navy under the name Aer-O-Foam, the new foam soon acquired an apt nickname from sailors -- "Bean Soup."

Progress continued after the war. In 1952 National Foam developed an alcohol-compatible foam. However, protein foam had a major drawback with regard to industrial fire fighting. In hydrocarbon tank fires it had to be applied gently, pushing a blanket across the surface rather than concentrating on one spot. If the foam plunged beneath the surface the bubbles that returned to the top had absorbed so much oil that it simply burned up.

Then, in the 1960s, the company developed a method of adding fluorinated surfactants to its protein foam. Fluoroprotein foam was born. The new foam was able to stand the heat better. More importantly, it made subsurface injection possible. FP became the new standard in plants and refineries. But while this was happening the Navy developed the first AFFF (aqueous film forming foam). During the Vietnam war the Navy suffered three major fires aboard aircraft carriers that left more than 200 sailors dead within a 27 month period. Clearly, a pilot trapped on a burning flight deck could not wait until a suitable foam blanket built up.

By benefit of its close research work for the Navy and an ample supply of surfactant 3M got into the foam business. The new foam was much faster acting in extinguishment than any of its predecessors. But industrial firefighters with a decades-long attachment to protein foam were resistant to adopting it. Then, in 1983, Les and Dwight Williams extinguished the aforementioned Chalmette, LA, fire using straight AFFF. National Foam then invented AFFF/FR. In turn, 3M bought the rights to market it as ATC. It became the foam of choice for industrial fire fighting. Today, AFFF/AR is far and away the accepted standard for American industry.

Other major advances in extinguishing agent deserve to be mentioned. Today dry chemical is used in the vast majority of fire extinguishers throughout the world. In 1939 Ansul, Inc., purchased DuGas Engineering, the company that invented dry chemical. The dry chemical principally used back then was sodium bicarbonate. Out of that came the first cartridge operated extinguishers. Over the years the formulations have changed but Ansul remains preeminent in the field. Williams F&HC has extended the use of dry chemical through its landmark Hydro-Chem technology.

However, sometimes breakthroughs are short lived. Halon 1301 is probably the best fire fighting agent known. It was developed primarily as a total flooding system for confined spaces such as electrical and computer rooms. A detector would locate smoke or heat, dump the halon and no real flames ever occurred. Best of all, unlike using CO2 as a flooding agent, nobody suffocated. Halon had low toxicity and only required a three-to-five percent concentration to do the job.

None of this matters any more because halon is no longer allowed to be made. Engineered as a stable, long-lasting agent, some halons have atmospheric lifetimes of 65 years or more. When it finally does decompose in the upper atmosphere the bromine in halon attacks the ozone layer, Earth's shield against harmful ultraviolet-B radiation from the sun. Numerous halon replacements have reached the market -- DuPont's FE-13, 3M's Novec 1230, Fike's ECARO-25 and Amerex's Halotron, to name a few. Each has its advantages and drawbacks when compared to the original halon. For example, Novec 1230 looks like water but weighs about half again as much. A liquid at room temperature, Novec 1230 has a boiling point of 120 degrees F and relatively low vapor pressure of 4.75 psig at 68 degrees F. In a fire situation, the fluid rapidly gasifies to extinguish a fire.


Through the miracle of electronics firefighters are steadily extending their physical senses to better deal with emergencies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of detectors. Companies like Honeywell Zellweger Analytics have revolutionized detection technology through techniques such as open path gas detection.

Comparing catalytic combustible gas detectors to OPGD is like comparing a modern adding machine to its mechanical predecessor. Catalytic detection involves a small platinum element coated with a catalyst. When electric current is passed through the platinum, combustible gases touch the heated surface, react and raise the temperature, triggering the detector. Unfortunately catalytic detectors are subject to problems. One is "poisoning," when corrosive gases damage the catalytic surface..

By contrast, OPGD is based on the absorption of energy by hydrocarbons. A pulsed infra-red light is transmitted from a source to a receiver unit. Because hydrocarbons absorb infra-red energy at a variety of wavelengths, the receiver measures reduction in intensity as the potential LEL (lower explosive limit). Vapor that potentially could pass undetected between point detectors immediately trigger OPGD. This technology is not subject to poisoning as are traditional detectors.

Other electronic marvels aid modern firefighters. Visual flame detection such as that sold by Micropack utilizes a closed circuit television system. By means of digital signal processing and software algorithms the system can process live images and interpret flame characteristics, discriminating between genuine fire conditions and other radiant sources.

Michael Moore of Flameout Control is conducting research that could take these new technologies to their next level. Together with The Leake Company, Flameout is working to marry different types of visual image technologies -- infra-red, ultra violet and flame recognition software -- into a single system that can be used in much the same way as OPGD to locate fugitive gas emissions that are normally invisible to the human eye.

The parade of new electronic sensing devices that might prove valuable to firefighters does not end there. Those parabolic microphones that are so common at televised sporting events are finding their way into fire fighting. Big Ears, invented by Bill Russell, is a 24-inch-wide dish that weighs five pounds. Depending on the environment and surrounding noise levels Big Ears can amplify a target area 30 inches in diameter from 100 feet away. It's effective range is 500 feet. Think of the advantage in search and rescue work. Collapsed buildings may be too structurally unsafe to allow searchers to immediately access the scene. Prior to Big Ears the sound of buried survivors could only be pinpointed using complicated triangulations.

Lets not forget the must-have technological advance that has found a permanent home in municipal fire fighting -- thermal imaging. No less a responder than distinguished writer Frank Brannigan refers to thermal imaging as "radar for firefighters." If you have a building full of smoke and can't locate the fire, turn on the thermal imager. Suddenly the fire behind the wall becomes as obvious as a red flag against a blue sky. The same can be said for the smoke victim unconscious on the steps.


Of all the advancements in fire fighting technology during the 20th century, Nomex has been the most profound. But even Nomex had to prove its worth to the perpetual naysayers. "It will never work," they chattered. "It's not thick enough and it doesn't absorb water." Remember that before Nomex most fire coats were nothing more than cotton duck or rubber. The more water logged the coat became the better. Of course, if cotton duck was completely dry it caught fire very easily. However, King Cotton didn't give up without a fight. In Texas, a state senator introduced legislation to require that all fire fighting coats purchased in the state be cotton. Fortunately, the legislation died for lack of support.

Nomex enjoyed early success in aviation. The nation watched as the three astronauts aboard Apollo 1 died for lack of fire retardant clothing. Military aviation accepted Nomex as the standard for flight suits and coveralls. Given that it was hard to explain why firefighters should continue to wear cotton for protection. After 30 years on the market, Nomex is either the material of choice for fire protection or an important component of whatever blended fiber is picked.

There have been other important improvements in PPE. GORE-TEX? fabrics, which for fire gear is now called CROSSTECH? fabrics, were included in turnout gear to help alleviate heat stress and provide a waterproof, breathable barrier. In the days of cotton duck coats, firefighters literally wore a vinyl raincoat under their fire gear to keep the water out. As if fire fighting wasn't hot enough as a physical endeavor, adding the raincoat made it hellish. Adapting a similar technology that was first applied to coating electrical wiring, GORE-TEX? fabric gave firefighters an effective moisture barrier that kept them dry and more comfortable.

There is a difference between air permeable and breathable. Breathable liners do not let in air. Instead, breathable liners allow sweat in the form of moisture vapor to pass through the barrier which helps firefighters stay dry. In 1997, the NFPA standard for moisture barriers changed to include additional requirements of protecting against common chemical and viral penetration by either body fluids or blood born pathogens. Once these additional requirements were added the product became known as CROSSTECH? fabric. While GORE-TEX? is waterproof, it does not protect against contaminates.

Sometimes the simplest innovations are the most brilliant. Once upon a time firefighters dressed in black except for their helmets. Imagine directing traffic in the middle of a busy highway at midnight wearing this gear. Worse, imagine trying to find a lost firefighter in a collapsed structure. The solution? Reflective striping saved the day. This was a vast improvement in fire safety.


Years ago pumpers rarely exceeded 1,000 gpm. You might find a few 1,250 gpm pumpers and, once in a blue moon, a 1,500 gpm pumper. Pumpers were governed by the size of their engines. The only engines available were gasoline, not diesel. If you wanted a 1,500 gpm pumper the only options you had were to either order it with a Hall Scott 1,000 cubic inch engine or join two 6-cylinder engines together to make a 12-cylinder special. Otherwise, there simply wasn't enough horsepower to drive a 1,500 gpm pumper. With Les and Dwight Williams designing monitors capable of 15,000 gpm, think of how many of these small pumpers would have to be connected together to make it work. Worse, these trucks did not have the five-inch and six-inch discharges being used in plants.

Emergency One took a bold step forward. The company put together a task force of industrial fire chiefs and flew them to corporate headquarters in Florida. There the task force members met with the engineers and the sales people. One important question was on the table -- "What do you want in a fire truck?" Sure, the chiefs wanted aerial ladders and more red lights. But at the top of the list was bigger pumpers with large diameter discharges. And E-One responded, settling on a new design that produced 3,000 gpm and four six-inch discharges. Take that truck to a refinery, feed it using two or three 5- or 6-inch hoses from a pressurized 100 psi water system and it would pump as much as 6,000 gpm. What was once a radical innovation in truck design is now accepted in plants across the nation.

An important industrial fire fighting innovation was National Foam introducing Squirts on foam pumpers, enabling elevated foam and water streams to be applied to industrial fires. Another giant leap came after World War II in the form of foam proportioning. National Foam started marketing balanced pressure foam systems. National Foam further improved foam proportioning with the invention of Servo Command which gave industry the first automated foam proportioning device. In 1988, a National Foam Servo Command foam pumper ran continuously for 171 hours at the Saudi Arabia Petrochemical Company to extinguish a gasoline tank fire.

Aerial devices have also been an important arena for innovation. Large capacity aerial devices were introduced by Bronto, Schwing with National Foam, LTI and E-One with flows from 3,000 - 4,000 gpm.

Airport crash trucks saw enormous change during this period too. After World War II, most crash trucks had one or two remote control monitors on top and 1,000 gallons of water in the tank. Then Texas-based Crash Rescue came along. Another company had come up with an articulated boom with a penetrating nozzle on it that could be extended as much as 40 feet. Crash Rescue bought the technology and adapted it to aviation crash rescue. Today it's hard to find an airport that doesn't have one.


"Portable" is a word that has changed a great deal in the last half century. Back in the 1960s when I was a young firefighter a portable two-way radio weighed about 25 pounds and hung from a strap around your shoulder, recalls publisher David White. Around the fire house we called them "bricks." It took three different sets of batteries to power the thing for six to eight hours. None of the batteries were rechargeable. At full volume you had to hold the speaker against your ear to hear anything. In McAllen, TX, we had two of them, naturally, but there was one big restriction. Nobody was authorized to use them unless there was a earth-shaking disaster in the works.

Then Motorola came along with a radio that was truly portable. Other companies made radios but Motorola was able to mass produce the technology and make it marketable. Today Motorola is preeminent in the fire service.


In the beginning there was oxygen breathing apparatus (OBA) which have been in use since the 1930s. The wearer is not dependent upon outside air or any type of air line. Independence was achieved by having air within the apparatus circulated through a canister within which oxygen is continuously generated. The effective life of the canister varies from 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the particular apparatus and the type of work being done. Simply exhale into the mask and the moisture in your breath activated the system. It is still in use today by the military, principally the Navy.

One major drawback is OBA is a negative pressure system, meaning that the outside air would be drawn into the mask if a face seal were compromised. For that reason, the Navy is making a transition long ago achieved by the fire service to self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) dependant on compressed air in bottles. Scott Aviation led the way by adapting German technology during World War II. Before the war the maximum altitude for airplanes was below 10,000 feet. Aviators could not survive above that altitude. The development of the demand valve permitted air flow only during inhalation. Exhaled breath passed to the atmophere through a valve in the face mask. Scott applied that technology to SCBA for firefighters.


Of course the list of important innovation in the fire service continues to grow. Each year brings a new twist on old technology or some radical new take that leads in a new direction. We complain about learning the new equipment but in reality the constant turnover gives us new confidence. Somewhere, somebody is always working to make things better. Refusing to deal with the change means that you are part of the problem, not the solution.o


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