Article Archive
Focus on Hazmat
The Great Apparatus Debate
Vol 21 No 5

The history of industrial fire apparatus is one of innovative initiatives undertaken to meet perceived needs employing available resources. In the earliest industrial fire departments a response to an alarm meant that the responder grabbed the nearest bucket and ran to the scene of the conflagration, carrying the bucket with him, to join the "bucket brigade". This worked reasonably well if the run was short but if any significant distance was involved the responder was most likely to arrive at the fire-ground already out of breath and tired out from his exertions to get there. These early "bucket brigades" could not deliver much water nor could they sustain the delivery for an extended time. Horses or manpower were used to pull our original fire wagons, hose carts, and steamers. Finally some enterprising chief realized that internal combustion engines didn't eat when they weren't working, didn't get tired and didn't require the constant attention of a veterinarian. So, he removed the front wheels from his ladder wagon and backed a "Model T" under it, and viola, the articulated ladder truck was born.The same evolutionary sequence can be followed in the case of pumpers or engines. In earlier times getting water to the fire was only part of the problem. Getting it on the fire was also a challenge. One could throw a bucketful of water only so far and then it was pretty much a "hit-or-miss" deal. The first appliance for projecting a stream of water onto a fire was the "squirt," introduced at various times and places during the later part of the seventeenth century and the early part of the eighteenth. These "squirts" were nothing more than a cylinder containing a tight fitting piston and having a constriction at the distal end. In use the constriction was immersed in water and the piston was withdrawn sucking the water into the cylinder. The apparatus was then withdrawn from the water and pointed at the fire. Depressing the handle attached to the piston produced a stream of water. As one can imagine, these "squirts" were not the greatest in terms of efficiency or in the amount of water they could move at a given time but they were cutting edge technology in their day. Of course "squirts" got bigger so that they could hold more water and now we had another item to transport to the fire-ground. Not long after the introduction of the "squirt" some other ingenious soul devised a system of valves which allowed the squirt to draw water in on the up stroke and expel it on the down stroke. The hand pumper or Tub fire pump was born. The pump, like other items of fire fighting equipment, underwent a sequence of evolution. From the small pump tub carried by two men to the elaborate hand powered "gooseneck" pumpers of the first half of the nineteenth century; which were, in turn, supplanted by the steam driven engine and these in turn were replaced by the introduction of the internal combustion engine which ushered in the motor pumper so familiar to all of us, the fire stream got bigger and longer and more reliable. (There does not seem to be any photos of use by plants of hand pumpers, but they must have been used in some cases.)Until the last half of the twentieth century, the size of motor pumpers, most of which were built on commercial truck chassis, was limited by the power of the engines then available. While this is still true, the demand by the trucking industry for bigger and more powerful engines has made possible a great increase in the size and capacity of current motor pumpers. There are numerous photos of old industrial fire apparatus that date to the early 1900s.The industrial fire brigade was most likely born in the late 1800s. It was a loose knit bunch of plant employees that banded together when a fire occurred. Their first line of defense was the fire extinguisher backed up by some type of water pumping apparatus. This may have been a hand pumper or steamer. Almost all large industrial plants had some type of fire water system and hose houses with 100-200 feet of 2? inch hose with an Underwriters playpipe, sometimes called a suicide nozzle.

The use of Steamers in industry seemed to have been very limited. It seems that most plants relied upon the fixed fire systems, sprinkler systems, hoses and hose reels for defense from fire. The only steamer that I have ever documented was one in the railroad museum in Baltimore, Maryland. It was from the B & O Railroad and had been used to protect the railroad shops.Sprinkler systems were invented in the 1860s to protect the mills in the Eastern US. The Gamewell Fire Alarm system was invented about the same time and they also were installed in industrial plants. They not only would sound an alarm in the plant, but would notify the local fire department.In the 1920's there was a revolution in fire apparatus. The horses were going away. In just 3-5 years beginning in 1920 almost all cities exchanged their horses for this new thing called the automobile or truck powered by an internal combustion engine. The first automotive fire apparatus were chiefs cars. Then vehicles appeared such as ladder wagons, hose trucks, and steamers that had been converted to motor powered. A number of fire truck manufacturers made automotive slip-on units that would replace the horses on steamers and ladder trucks. This continued until about the 1950's with most of these units going out of service.Then the motor driven fire trucks appeared on the scene. The first ones for industry were in many cases just like the ones in city fire departments. In many cases the industrial plant would purchase a used municipal fire truck and get some more life out of it. By the 1930's pumpers were common and industry lost no time in obtaining them. All this is well and good except for one item: physical size. Now emergency response in general, and fire response in particular, is not an "in house" endeavor. Each incident involves a "house call." The nature of the work requires that anything and everything that might possibly be required be transported to the fire scene and as rapidly as possible; thus the evolution of the modern "apparatus" has been accompanied by ever increasing size, complexity and, not insignificantly, unit cost.Fire apparatus, as we know it, has, from the earliest hand carts performed three basic functions:

1.) Transportation of men and equipment to the fire ground.

2.) Pumping water and other suppressants

3.) Power for pumps, lights, tools, communications and ancillary operationsThe early hand carts did these things in their time as did the steamers of later years but with each passing decade the amount of equipment utilized increased and so did the size of the pump, the drive train and the engine. In mid twentieth century the "standard" village fire engine was constructed on a 2? ton commercial truck chassis powered by a gasoline engine and mounting a 600 gpm pump. This vehicle could and did carry about all that a fire company would be expected to need at the time. It could be serviced by the local mechanic and most replacement parts could be obtained from the local auto parts store. It was built low enough to the ground so that side mounted ladders and other equipment could be offloaded by two firefighters.

Today, fire engines are usually custom built and are often of leviathan proportions. These behemoths are sometimes so large that special exemptions to size and weight laws must be implemented in order for them to operate. In at least one instance, it was found that these vehicles are so large that their cab doors could not be opened wide enough to allow occupants to escape in the event of need, and roof top escape hatches had to be incorporated in these mammoth vehicles to insure a functional escape route. Ladder racks are sometimes so high from the ground that a hydraulic mechanism is required to lower them to a point where the firefighters can reach them. This, of course, adds to the weight, complexity and cost of the vehicleIt is not uncommon for fire officials in older congested metropolitan areas, where there are very narrow streets, to deploy very long ladder trucks on one side of the district with the idea that they will respond into the district and then exit on the opposite side returning to quarters by a more accommodating route. They simply cannot turn around in those confined areas. Confined plant areas may face the same challenge.

This state of affairs gives rise to some rather interesting questions: how big is "too big"? Does fire apparatus reach a point where its very size inhibits its functionality? In our search for efficiency through "economy of scale" have we created apparatus so large that it is beginning to loose functionality? In the hay day of the steam fire engine, movement of the engine itself was about all that a team of horses could accomplish. Therefore every department was equipped with a cadre of auxiliary vehicles to carry hose, fuel, ladders, and, sometimes, additional manpower. This system worked but it has all but died out with the exception of fuel trucks which, at major fires, see service replenishing the tanks of working engines. Is it possible that larger is not necessarily better? Should we perhaps revisit to some extent the concept of a number of specialized vehicles as opposed to one gigantic behemoth that is all things to all people? Should we be asking "how big is too big?" In today's fire house everybody climbs on the engine to respond to any call and often for non emergencies such as lunch breaks. Given the initial cost of modern fire apparatus coupled with their high operating costs, could it be that we need to re-think this way of doing things?Time was when the Fire Department was just that, a dedicated group who fought fires, period. Now this department responds to almost any emergency situation: accidents, building collapse, bomb threats, medical calls even an occasional honest-to-goodness fire. A few days ago I encountered an ambulance running "hot" down my street. It turned off to a side street, stopped and the paramedics ran into the house. Shortly a large fire engine lumbered down the street and pulled over to the curb. Some of the crew got out and went inside to assist the paramedics, others stood about to direct what little traffic there was on this quiet residential street. After a time the paramedics emerged along with the firefighters carrying the patient on a litter. They loaded the patient into the ambulance and then all parties departed for the hospital or the fire station. This is standard operating procedure in this community but I question whether or not this is the way we should be doing business. A first line engine costing something on the order of half a million dollars is a mighty expensive taxi to deliver additional manpower to assist with an ambulance call. The argument that I get when I have raised this question is that the crew needs to take the engine with it in case they get a fire call while they are working the ambulance call. Fine; but are we to understand that if the fire crew is assisting the paramedics to stabilize and transfer a critical patient and a fire call is received, the firefighters will leave the patient and depart for the fire? I certainly hope not. If the situation is such that the ambulance crew can get by without the fire crew then the firefighters should not be there in the first place. If the firefighters are essential to maintaining the welfare of the patient, then a backup company should be dispatched to handle the fire. Of course there is an alternate way to address situations such as this. Some metropolitan departments employ passenger vans or "squads" when the object is simply to transport additional manpower to the scene. These vehicles are equipped with emergency lighting, air conditioning and heating and can be used as recuperation and refreshment shelters for firefighters or HazMat operatives who are resting after being on the line or in encapsulated suits. These vehicles are fast, maneuverable and economical and they do the job of transporting men and some equipment far more efficiently than full sized fire engines. These units can be utilized to transport an oncoming shift to relieve firefighters whose shifts are over. This is far more cost effective than having each new company respond with its engine. A few years ago I witnessed a rather large fire which had resulted in several additional alarms. I counted no less than eight full sized engines parked at the curb with motors running and no one in sight. None of them were hooked up to anything and there was no sign of any of their equipment being used. They were simply there to move manpower. They stayed there for four hours that I could testify to. Three 12-passenger squads could have done the job nicely at a lot less cost. Of course the argument is "What if one of the companies should get a second alarm while the crew is out?" There are two answers to this question:

  1. dispatch a backup company from another station, or
  2. have the crew respond in the squad from the first fire and have another firefighter from the station meet them at the scene of the new alarm with the engine.

Since the withdrawal of a committed company could very likely leave the original fire ground under-served, the first choice is most likely the best one. Since it is usual practice for more than one company to occupy a station this delivery of an engine should not be difficult. After all no one but the driver does a lot from the time the engine leaves the house until it arrives at the fire and certainly whatever is done could be done from the cab of a squad as well as from an engine. What parallels can you draw from industrial apparatus in your plant or mutual aide responsibilities?


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