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Focus on Hazmat - Advancing the human condition
Innovation is rarely, if ever, the result of a single event; it is most often the stringing together of several separate discoveries or advances.
Volume 23, No. 6

Innovation is the sum of necessity plus ingenuity. It is what happens when human thought supplies the means of solving a problem or assuaging a need and in the process advances the human condition. For innovation to take place there must first be a need; then there must be ingenuous creative thought in order to meet that need.

Innovation is rarely, if ever, the result of a single event; it is most often the stringing together of several separate discoveries or advances. The modern day fire pump offers an illustrative example. The concept that fluid could be drawn into a tube fitted with a movable piston was known to the ancients but its exact origin has been lost in antiquity. When such a device was fitted with a couple of one way flap-valves by some ingenious mechanic, the principle of the lift pump was introduced. Archival writings indicate that such a device was known by the 13th century1 and was utilized by ingenuous mining engineers in the middle ages to dewater mining operations, which had progressed to depths at which the incursion of ground water had become a major problem or "need."2

As the industrial revolution spread throughout England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the demand for English coal caused mines to press deeper and deeper into the earth and consequently generated a need for bigger and more efficient pumping machinery. In 1712, Thomas Newcomen, an English inventor and Baptist minister, introduced the atmospheric steam engine which bears his name. This huge device was inefficient and expensive to operate but it did make the operations of early English coal mines possible.

The addition of a crank or eccentric, another technical innovation from antiquity, to the pump rod made it possible to utilize rotary motion from water wheels, windmills or animal power from treadmills to pump water or other fluids, but it was James Watt's reciprocating steam engine with its continuously rotating shaft that revolutionized not only water pumps but the entire world of industry.

As the industrial revolution unfolded, the society of Western Europe underwent a major change. The factory system generated a need for a large supply of labor concentrated in a single site or factory. To supply this need, people moved from the rural agrarian communities of small hamlets and isolated farms to the congested cities and factory towns to satisfy this need and, hopefully, improve their "social-economic" status.

As this migration progressed, urban areas became more densely populated with buildings constructed side-by-side and often sharing adjacent walls and sometimes even lofts and roofs. From the standpoint of fire safety, this was definitely not the way to build buildings. In addition, each building and often each room had its own stove or fireplace and illumination was provided by candles, oil lamps, gas burners or other open flame devices. The stage was set for major fires and come they did.

London alone burned at least six times by the end of the seventeenth century (60 AD, 685, 1087, 1135, 1633 and 1666) and Paris, Moscow and other major cities were not immune. The fire suppression techniques in vogue at the time consisted of bucket brigades and, when these proved insufficient, the pulling down of structures to clear fire breaks. There was no question about the existence of a "need" for better and more effective means of extinguishing fires and the creative ingenuity of those times was equal to the task of providing solutions for this problem.

The first of these "more effective means" was a simple device called a "squirt." It was simply a tube or cylinder having a small constriction or nozzle at the forward end and fitted with a plunger or piston activated by an attached rod similar in form and function to the modern hypodermic syringe. With the plunger at the forward end of its stroke, the device was immersed in water and the piston withdrawn to the distal end. This created a partial vacuum in the tube, which then filled with water. The "squirt" was then withdrawn from the water and pointed at the fire; the plunger was again depressed to the forward position forcing a stream of water out the nozzle. This was repeated over and over again and, if there were a number of these in operation and if the water supply could be maintained, a fair sized fire could be controlled. This was innovation in seventeenth century London.

Almost as soon as the "squirt" became widely used, some innovative genius came up with the idea of fitting the device with one-way flap valves at the inlet and outlet to provide a continuous flow and create the first true fire pump. This was a far cry from modern equipment but it was the first step and it contained the elemental principle of the cylinder and piston that is still found in many of the positive displacement pumps of the modern era.

Then, as buildings increased in size and height, came the need for larger flows and greater pressures and so the pump was connected to the water supply by a hose and separated from the nozzle by another hose. Now the pump could be made bigger but this would require more power and the "gooseneck" engine was invented to meet this need. Eventually the power requirements exceeded what could be generated by human effort and, in the nineteenth century, the steam engine was mated with the piston pump to create what many still believe was one of the most colorful pieces of fire apparatus ever seen, the horse-drawn steam fire engine.

Now the point here is not to reiterate the history of the fire pump but to point out two things: First, the fire pump did not spring full blown from the creative genius of a single mind; it was an additive process which began with the first "squirt" and continues to the present day with each successive generation building on the knowledge and experience of the past. Second, each and every step on the long road from the earliest "squirt" to the latest in supercharged diesel apparatus was an innovation and each of them were "off-spec" or "non-standard" in their day.

Standards are an absolute essential in any mechanized society. They make it possible for more than one person to operate in a cooperative effort successfully. Standards do not determine which method or device is best; they simply define one for everyone to use. The common quarter-inch bolt is an example. This bolt will have a sixty degree thread and there will be twenty of them to the inch, assuming the bolt has a National Coarse (NC) thread. What is special about 20 threads per inch? Actually nothing; a nineteen thread bolt would probably be just as strong as would a twenty-one thread bolt. What is important is that everyone has agreed that a quarter-inch bolt will have twenty threads per inch. This means that when a nut off a bolt on an engine is lost, the mechanic can purchase another one at the hardware store made, most likely, by a different manufacturer at a different place and time. Standards ensure that everybody's gallon of gasoline contains the same amount and that everybody's yard stick is the same length. Anyone who doubts the benefits of standardization need only look at the problem with fire hose threads today, though efforts are being made to standardize a common thread. Standards are created to ensure interchangeability and consistency; they are not meant to impede progress.

Codes are sets of specifications which set forth how an object is to be constructed or the procedure by which something should be done. The National Fire Code establishes how a building shall be constructed, where and how many exits it should have and what type of materials should be used. When these codes are adopted by governing bodies, they have the force of law.

Codes are, or at least should be, minimal standards; they set forth specifications for what exactly a building must have or a piece of equipment must do in order to be safe. If a manufacturer knows that a certain piece of equipment will be subjected to harsh operating conditions, he may install ten gauge wire in a location where the prevailing code calls for only twelve gauge. He has exceeded the prevalent code and hopefully produced a superior piece of equipment. If the local city code requires that lawns be cut every two weeks and a fastidious homeowner cuts his lawn weekly, he complies with the code. Codes are promulgated to insure safety and uniformity; again, they should not impede progress or suppress creativity nor should they be employed for that purpose.

Codes and standards are not set in concrete; they change in response to innovation. Prior to World War II, there was no domestic plumbing code for plastic pipe because this material was not invented. When it came on the market, new codes had to be devised and existing ones modified to accommodate the new innovation. Because things change, those charged with writing codes and standards should take care that they do not unduly restrict progress and innovation.

It has been said that firefighters, especially volunteers, are the greatest innovators in the world and there is some justification for this statement. The volunteer fire department in a town or in an industrial setting tends to attract the mechanically inclined. These are the creative and innovative individuals within the community, and they are the ones who, when faced with a problem, will promptly come up with a solution. It may not be "standard" and it may not "meet code," but in the given situation, it will work.

I can recall, more years ago than I like to admit, being called out after midnight to respond to a request for mutual aid from a smaller department in a neighboring town. When we arrived, we found a fire plug with a good flow of water but with threads which would not mate with those on our engine. (We later found out that someone had saved money by buying second hand plugs that were obsolete because they had this odd thread.) We were desperately trying to figure out a solution when we heard a big crash behind us. A section of board fence fell down to reveal one of our firefighters, a huge bear of a man who was strong as an ox but spoke very little. He held a small aluminum boat in his arms. He placed the boat under the steamer and turned on the water. Our pump operator dropped his hard suction in the boat, primed the pump, opened the throttle and we went to work. We saved the building but we also bought a section of fence and, as I recall, a new boat.

Would this solution to the problem have complied with any code or met any standard in existence? Undoubtedly it would not; but it did solve the problem at hand and it was an innovative way to do it. Some purists would have counseled against using the boat on the grounds that it did not meet codes or standards, but I am reasonably sure that the owner of the building that we saved would not have been one of them. Codes and standards are a necessity in our society but they must not be so sacrosanct that they can inhibit the firefighter's function of saving life and property.

As a result of this incident, our department began carrying a large inflatable swimming pool (and later a folding canvas tank) on our tanker to enable us to use water drawn from farm wells. Later this same idea was introduced in connection with the now common practice of providing water by means of tanker trucks. I doubt our little department was the first to use this solution, but on that cold dark night the innovative genius of one of our own was more than welcome.

The industrial firefighter is confronted with problems that are unique to the particular industry in which he is employed. This is particularly true of the oil and petrochemical industry with its tremendous volumes of flammable liquids often at elevated temperatures and pressures. Many, if not most, of the techniques used to combat fires in these facilities are the result of the innovative ingenuity of the firefighters involved. The floating tank roof to eliminate the vapor filled head space and the sub-surface injection of foam into a tank to extinguish a fire at the surface are two examples. The Compressed Air Foam (CAF) system is another instance of ingenious innovation and has lead to a second generation in which nitrogen is introduced into the compressor instead of air to produce a foam that is effective on fires involving pyrophoric and/or hypergolic materials such as aluminum alkyls.

The firefighters in the petrochemical industry have not had a patent on innovation by any means. Many ideas from other industrial disciplines and the municipal side as well have been introduced. For example, there was the idea of using what amounted to a high pressure orchard sprayer to produce a fine mist almost approaching steam. This mist was intended to fight interior fires while generating a minimum amount of water damage. This innovation apparently worked well. A number of apparatus were built and placed in service, where they remained for many years, but for some unknown reason the idea never really "caught on." Most of the units have retired. The piercing roof nozzle, which allowed water or foam to be injected into a crawl space or attic area too small or too low to admit a firefighter, was another innovative idea produced by municipal firefighters. Many were turned out in the local machine shops by members of the department who were also craftsmen.

The first sprinkler systems were simply barrels of water placed in the attic of a factory or warehouse. A charge of gunpowder was placed under each barrel. In the event of a fire, the flames would ignite the gunpowder, which would explode, blowing the barrel apart and dousing the flames. Whether or not these actually worked is unknown, but one must give credit to somebody for innovative effort. Needless to say these would not have stood muster for any modern code for safety or fire suppression.

Often the greatest hurdle for an inventor or innovator is to get his product past the regulators. Liability concerns, insurance restrictions and the requirement of compliance with OSHA, MSHA, EPA and other bodies of regulations have often had the unintended effect of impeding innovation. We cannot know whether or not some new device or procedure will actually work and whether or not it is a practical improvement over the status quo until we try it.

All too often, testing is blocked by policy that says the innovation must meet standard so the innovation cannot be tried simply because it does not meet previously promulgated standards. Thus progress is stymied and innovation becomes the victim of regulation. While codes and standards are necessary, they must be initiated and administered with a generous serving of common "horse sense." Standards apply to a viable environment, not a static one, and should be relaxed enough so that their original function is not obliterated nor safety jeopardized. Meanwhile they must never stifle the creative genius of innovative individuals who are at the point "where the rubber meets the road" - for that is the point where need meets ingenuity to produce innovation and the human condition is improved.

  1. Al-Jazari, Al- Jami' bayn al-ilm was 'amal al-nafi' fi sina'at al-hiyal ( A Compendium on the Theory and Practice of the Mechanical Arts), Arabic text, edited by Ahmad Y. al-Hassan, Institute for the History of Arabic Science, University of Aleppo, 1979, p. 465.
  2. Donald Routledge Hill (1996), A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times, Routledge, p. 143 & 150.

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