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Genius At Work
The late Phil Cummins remembered as the Nostradamus of modern fire fighting

Imagine a remote controlled fire fighting vehicle mounted on crawler tracks that allow it to cross the roughest debris-strewn terrain possible. Among a variety of equipment with which it can be outfitted is a movable turret used to direct a powerful stream of water against any potential hazard.

“The vehicle can be operated to load and unload itself from a trailer and utilizes a specialized radio control system which is not subject to outside interference,” states its official U.S. patent.

Sounds pretty cutting edge even by today’s standards. Back in October 1973, when Phil Cummins filed his patent, the vehicle that came to be known as the Fire Cat must have seemed like sheer science fiction.

“It was like driving a jet powered car when everyone else was still driving Model Ts,” said David White, publisher of Industrial Fire World.

Some of Cummins’ inventions – a quick-to-erect portable shelter and a remote controlled vehicle for transporting helicopters – were big success stories. Other inventions such as the Fire Cat proved to be worthy predecessors to modern technology available today.

Some of his ideas such as a combination toothpick-match were admittedly silly but gives insight into a mind always looking for a better way to do things.

 

EARLY YEARS

Phil F. Cummins, born in 1921, grew up in the desert community of Hobbs, population 12,000, near the southeast corner of New Mexico. The discovery of oil in the region greatly benefitted the small town. Cummins, who married his high school sweetheart, Joalene, went to work for his father’s business partner who owned an oil field service company.

Those early years in the oil fields gave Cummins the incentive to dedicate much of his life to industrial fire fighting, said his son Mark Cummins.

“He was working on a drilling rig in West Texas when it caught fire,” Mark said. “One of his best buddies was trapped in the metal doghouse and couldn’t get out. He hollered to my dad for help but there was nothing he could do to save him.”

Shortly after, Cummins started his own fire equipment rental business under the name Centennial.

“First he rented big dry powder wheel units,” Mark said. “Then, as his company grew, he started building trucks complete with big dry powder systems. Because the trucks needed foam too, he invented his own twin agent units combining dry powder propelled by nitrogen with foam pumps.”

However, the system had its drawbacks. The constant vibration when the truck was on the road served to pack the powder into a solid cake that could not be displaced.

“That’s when he invented Fire Ball, which was a rotating sphere that kept the powder agitated,” Mark said. “The powder would even go through standard hose.”

Phil patented the rotating sphere and sold it to finance his new company – Fire Boss. He started doing his first work on twin agent extinguishing systems, marketing a product called Emulsiflame that was an emulsifying or liquefying agent used with dry powder.

He also devised a technology that used plastic balls floating on the surface of flammable product in a storage tank as a means to control ignition from lightning strikes, White said.

“If the tank was struck there was no fire because there was no vaporization,” White said.

During this period, Cummins became closely associated with Texas Firemen’s Training School, later to become the Texas Extension Service’s Emergency Services Training Institute.

“He went every year for the annual training school,” Mark Cummins said. “I went with him many times, and that’s where I got acquainted with fire fighting.”

 

GENERAL DYNAMICS

In the early1960s, Cummins joined Fort Worth-based General Dynamics, a major defense contractor, as a project security coordinator. It was during this period that Cummins enjoyed some of his greatest successes and most bitter failures.

His Mad Dog aircraft crash truck design fits both categories.

“It was what he was most proud of because it beat General Dynamics’ top line P2 crash truck,” Mark said. “But that was also its demise because General Dynamics’ couldn’t have an old, remodeled piece of equipment out doing the latest engineered model.”

It was during this period that White first met Phil Cummins.

“He worked for some people who let him have free reign to do some very unique, exotic things,” White said.

Before the Mad Dog, crash trucks used protein foam. The only other alternative was chemical foam consisting of a part A and B that built pressure when mixed to push the foam through a nozzle. The expansion ratio of chemical foam was 10-to-one, compared to eight-to-one for protein foam.

“It was very good foam with one major defect,” White said. “You couldn’t shoot it very far. Well, Phil Cummins said, ‘Hey, we can make this better.’”

His solution involved borrowing a standard crash truck lent to General Dynamics by the Air Force. Cummins gutted the truck to install a 500 gallon tank for ingredient A and a 500 gallon tank for ingredient B.

A pump system brought the two together, building up significant pressure to propel the finished product further. Because the ingredients tended to be highly corrosive, Mad Dog used stainless steel tanks and plumbing.

Each foam bubble formed by the A-B system contained carbon dioxide, White said.

“CO2 is a good extinguishing agent if you can keep it from floating away,” White said. “This system held the CO2 in the bubble until the heat discharged it.”

Mad Dog had other advantages. The crash truck was fitted with tanker tires to carry additional supplies of extinguishing agent. The combined weight of the truck and fire extinguishing agent reduced the vehicle’s center of gravity and improved stability over soft terrain. The vehicle could also tow a trailer with tanker tires to further increase the available foam.

Anticipating the Fire Cat, one or more self-propelled, remote control vehicles equipped with a fire fighting nozzle could ride in a platform across the front. This arrangement reduced the personnel needed to operate that amount of fire equipment by nearly 50 percent, the patent states.

Finally, a rescue boom with a protective enclosure could be extended from the fire truck to remove passengers from a burning aircraft.

Unfortunately, the Air Force was already committed to the P-2 crash truck manufactured by FWD Corp. Many had been sold to the military. That the Mad Dog’s foam system bested it in repeated demonstrations caught the military’s attention. Finally, General Dynamics ordered a show down.

“They were going to put an end to the controversy,” Mark said. “They were going to put Dad’s Mad Dog up against a brand new P-2 manned by the best firefighters in the Air Force.”

Plenty of Air Force brass was on hand for the demo. First at bat, Cummins’ Mad Dog, an updated version of an American LaFrance O-11 crash truck, the truck replaced by the P-2. The Mad Dog summarily dispatched its test fire. With the blaze re-ignited, it was then the P-2’s turn to show how much faster it could do the job.

It failed. After several attempts by the P-2, the Mad Dog moved into position and extinguished the second test fire as well.

“That embarrassed everybody,” Mark said. “They were looking at going back to the drawing board and throwing the P-2 away. But that wasn’t going to happen.”

Since replacing the P-2 might prove embarrassing to its military customers, General Dynamics opted to scrap the Mad Dog instead.

“Dad was very disappointed,” Mark Cummins said. “General Dynamics told him to work on something else.”

 

MOVING ON

Cummins enjoyed more success with his next innovation, a multi-purpose utility structure for use by the military. The idea was to come up with something sturdier than a tent but easier to move than a pre-fabricated structure.

The shelters then in use by the military tended to be heavy, complex and difficult to erect at night or silently under combat conditions.

“Furthermore, these shelters are extremely difficult to erect upon either high or low density terrain, such as snow or ice,” the patent states.

Cummins’ design involves a long expandable shelter consisting of structural ribs with a cover attached on the interior side.

“Because of the structure’s simplicity, i.e., the absence of poles, stakes and guy lines, it may be erected silently and at night … and can be pitched on either normal, high or low density surface media,” the patent states.

The military enthusiastically seized on the Cummins design. Soon many copy cats appeared on the market as well.

“I was coming back from Florida via the Intracoastal Waterway and all of those high dollar hotels had their boundaries lined with those expandable shelters,” Mark said. “That was Dad’s design.”

The same year Cummins filed for a patent on a specialized survival garment designed to be worn for extended periods in widely varying environments – deserts, jungles, arctic regions and even in the water.

“Further, (aerospace) crews simultaneously face the possibility and resultant consequences of major vehicular failures, i.e., fire, cold, explosive decompression and high-speed bailout,” the patent states.

Cummins’ garment, designed using inflatable, interconnected bladders, provided indefinite floatation and protection from severe heat and cold. The suit also doubled as a pressure suit and an impact shock absorber. Yet, the garment was described as “no heavier than an ordinary business suit, thus permitting a ‘shirt sleeve’ environment.”

In 1968, Cummins filed for a patent for a portable shelter to protect the nose of aircraft. Like his utility structure, the nose dock was designed to collapse into a compact bundle.

“Modern aircraft of all types are commonly fitted with radar equipment mounted in the nose, which requires relatively frequent inspection and service,” the patent states. “To avoid tying up hanger space, it is desirable to provide a portable shelter which can be trundled out to the aircraft needing radar service and quickly erected over the nose portion … to afford protection both to the mechanics and to the equipment against inclement weather.”

Another General Dynamics project that Cummins invested time in was applying jet engines to fighting mine fires. The Górniczy Agregat Gaœniczy (GAG) jet engine developed in Poland in the 1970s was used to suppress and neutralize coal fires by emitting carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor. Cummins applied the system to a coal mine test fire in Kentucky.

 

FIRE CAT

Salvaging what he could from the aborted Mad Dog project, Cummins filed two patents in 1972. One was for a remote controlled vehicle traveling on crawler tracks and equipped with a movable turret and nozzle for fire fighting. The vehicle was strong enough to pull two three-inch hoses almost 1,000 feet long trailing from the rear of the vehicle to provide the pressurized fluid.

Cummins’ dubbed the vehicle as “Fire Cat.”

“The technology was right,” David White said. “It was just 20 or 30 years too soon.”

Fire Cat proved its real world reliability in 1973 when an explosion on the hand grenade production line at a Cleburne, TX, munitions plant killed three people and injured 29 others.

Because the blast scattered live hand grenade fuses that were potentially lethal, firefighters could not immediately search the accident scene. Cummins and his son Mark, who developed the radio control, responded to the scene with the Fire Cat, using it to clear a path for the rescuers.

“The little Fire Cat popped a few of those fuses but it didn’t hurt the tracks,” Mark Cummins said. “It cleared a path through the debris and got the rescuers to the front door, or where it used to be. Meanwhile, the Fire Cat wet down the area with its 1,200 gpm nozzle.”

The most successful adaptation of the Fire Cat technology was a remote controlled vehicle for transporting helicopters.

“It had the same radio control system as the Fire Cat,” Mark said. “You could drive it under a Huey, lift the helicopter and then move it wherever you wanted. It was ideal for the soft, boggy and sandy terrain found in Vietnam. We built quite a few of them.”

Cummins even experimented with arming the vehicle. At Fort Hood, he demonstrated a version outfitted with .50 caliber machine gun and a 106 mm recoilless rifle designed to fire artillery shells.

“We had it loaded with blanks,” Mark said. “When we opened fire, all the soldiers and big brass on hand for the demonstration jumped out of the bleachers. It sure made an impact.” Mark later adapted the control system to operate an M48 combat tank.

Another version of the Fire Cat technology was nearly deployed as a riot control device during the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Clashes between the Chicago police and anti-Vietnam war protesters outside the convention center turned violent.

“Our version of the Fire Cat had eight foot antennas on the front that carried a charge of 36,000 volts,” Mark said. “It wouldn’t kill you but it raised a knot on your head. When the feelers got close to the ground, they would strike lightning.”

Another remote control device on the vehicle squirted yellow dye on the rioters.

“You could spray the crowd and everybody who was yellow was guilty of being in the wrong place and not obeying orders,” Mark said. “They could be arrested later.”

Cummins had staked out a vantage point on a hotel roof top from which to control the specially outfitted Fire Cat. But, in the end, the vehicle was never used.

“The Democratic Convention said we prefer you not use that thing because it would look like the government was using it to control the people,” Cummins said. “We were set to go but they wouldn’t let us.”

Local authorities were impressed though. The Fire Cat sent to Chicago never came back, Cummins said.

But the Fire Cat as designed to fight fire never enjoyed the same amount of success.

“It was not the thing that the fire service wanted,” Mark said. “It was going to reduce the need for manpower which meant lost jobs and all that controversy. The applications were very specialized. It was difficult to generate a market for such a new concept.”

Only three of the fire vehicles were sold. Two went to fire departments in El Paso and Corpus Christi. The third was purchased by the Atomic Energy Commission, Mark said.

Almost as legendary as the Fire Cat’s fire fighting prowess are the tales of demonstrations that did not go exactly as planned. After all, existing technology in the 1960s gave us the glory of Apollo 11 but the nightmare of Apollo 13, too.

“I saw (Phil) demonstrate it in Corpus Christi on a tank with no fire,” White said. “The tank had a dike. The Fire Cat scaled the grade pulling the hoses behind it, stopped and squirted some water. Then it turned left and overturned, rolling down the dike.”

Cummins demonstrated the Fire Cat at Texas A&M University many times. One disastrous live-fire demo is still whispered about by old timers of that era.

“We were putting out a pressure fire with a system that alternated between foam and dry powder,” Mark said. “Dad was on top of an aerial platform giving me instructions on operating the Fire Cat. When we put out the fire, there was so much powder in the air he couldn’t see it.”

Phil gave the order to turn on the foam. This was despite the fact that the dry powder was still going.

“We started making the world’s largest biscuits coming out of the 1,000 gpm turret,” Mark said. Even worse, the nozzle was pointed directly at the spectators, White said.

“People were walking away soaked in nasty protein foam and covered in dry powder,” he said.

Likewise, a Fire Cat demonstration aboard a Navy aircraft carrier ended in tears.

“The carrier had so much electronic equipment that some stray signal grabbed hold of the Fire Cat and told it to run,” Mark said. After driving over the edge, the Fire Cat dangled from its three-inch lines until it could be rescued.

White remembers the incident outside an Austin hotel when Phil Cummins brought the Fire Cat to the annual convention of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshal’s Association.

“Phil drove up with the Fire Cat in the back of a pickup,” White said. “He lowered the tailgate, reached over and switched it on. It just decided to leave the pickup of its own accord. It jumped right into the middle of a crowd and headed down the street.”

 

ON HIS OWN

In the 1970s, Cummins left General Dynamics to concentrate on his own company, Equipment Development Corporation. But when he was not working on fire fighting technology, he found other inventive ways to amuse himself and others.

“It always annoyed him that when he had people around a table discussing things at a bar or restaurant the waitress would come by and interrupt whether anyone needed a refill or not,” Mark Cummins said. “So Dad invented a little platform to sit your beer on.”

When the beer was full, a small donkey attached to it would lift its tail. When  empty, the tail dropped to signal the waitress.

“When the waitress came by she could see who needed a beer and who didn’t without interrupting,” Cummins said. “Dad thought that was clever.”

Another of Cummins’ “why hasn’t anybody thought of this before” notions was to combine a toothpick with a wooden match.

“In those days everybody smoked,” Mark said. “When you’d go to dinner you’d take a toothpick. But you couldn’t put it in your pocket because it would stab you or poke through your clothes. So he combined the two.”

It is uncertain if Phil Cummins ever applied for patents on any of these whimsical projects. But he still pursued serious innovation in his later years, White said.

“The last time I saw Phil was in 1982,” White said. “The Marine Corp had bought some modular fire fighting units that used big bladder tanks full of foam and water. Phil was demonstrating it for a Marine sergeant.”

Phil Cummins died later that same year.

 

CONCLUSION

Mark Cummins has made his name in fire fighting as an innovator in the field of compressed air foam systems (CAFS). His father’s advice, based on years of experience as a fire fighting pioneer, was to forget it.

“He said, ‘I’ve been through all of that,’” Mark said. “‘You’ll spend a lot of time and heartbreak. The firefighters aren’t going to change.’”

So often the people with the vision to break new ground in important fields are not the people who end up with the money.

“People started copying his patents,” Mark said. “He was getting sick and couldn’t afford to fight them all.”

And, yet, Phil Cummins and people like him are innovators that the fire service cannot afford to ignore, David White said.

“I never saw any of the newer devices do better than what he developed and he was using 1960s technology,” White said. “The point I’m trying to make about Phil Cummins is that he was a very unique guy who developed some unique technology. There is no question that he was way ahead of the world of fire.”

All of this leads to one unavoidable question for the modern fire service, White said.

“Where is the Phil Cummins of today?”

 
 

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