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Firefighters embrace innovation

By JOHN S. TOWNSEND

Among those who study ecology, there is an old saying: “everything is connected to everything else” and “necessity is the mother of invention”.  Nowhere is this more apropos than in the history of the fire service. The suppression efforts of the earliest fire departments were more directed toward preventing the spread of conflagration rather than extinguishment. They simply pulled down neighboring structures with hooks and chains (hence the genesis of the term “Hook and Ladder) creating a fire break. The structure that was initially involved usually burned itself out. As cities grew and became more organized, bucket brigades became more common and, to an extent, more effective as laws were passed that required “every able-bodied citizen to respond with his bucket to any alarm of fire”. Bucket brigades can be effective if they can be deployed soon enough and if there is enough available water. There are limitations, however; the distance that a bucket of water can be thrown is severely limited and the amount of water being applied, i.e. flow rate, is not large enough to suppress a well developed conflagration. As structures became larger and began to have multiple stories, it became obvious that a better way had to be found to apply water to fires. This was particularly true in the frontier settlements of the “New World” where buildings were most likely to be constructed of wood and water supplies were limited.

Now we have need or necessity and on the heels of necessity comes invention and invention begets innovation. The first innovative approach to the problem of delivering water to the seat of a fire was the tub pump. This was a wooden tub containing a hand operated pump which was attached to a nozzle. This was carried by two or four men to the scene of the fire. The bucket brigade bailed water into the tub and when a couple of strong energetic firefighters operated the pump the water was forced through the nozzle emerging as a more or less continuous stream having a far greater reach than hand thrown buckets could achieve. Primitive as these devices appear today they did work and represented a great improvement over previous technology. One of the greatest disadvantages to the tub pump was that the entire apparatus had to be shifted in order to change the trajectory of the water stream. In some of the later renderings of this equipment the nozzles were mounted on swivels and thus could be traversed or elevated to some degree but it was still necessary to move the whole apparatus to change the origin of the fire stream, an arduous task at best, particularly if the tub was full of water. So, the need for more flexibility and greater mobility of the nozzle brought on the development of fire hose. The early hoses were made of leather segments held together by copper rivets. They weren’t particularly durable, they leaked badly and they required constant maintenance, but they worked and they conferred some additional advantages to department operations.

In the first place the introduction of hose allowed the tub and pump to be placed at a safer location further from the fire and closer to the water source while the nozzle could be moved with relative ease to play the stream over a larger area of the fire. It is also true that a good pump operated by a couple of strong firefighters could move more water through a hose than a bucket brigade composed of a dozen or so ever could and provide a contin-uous stream in the process.

As cities grew larger and buildings increased in size and complexity the need for larger pumps to supply bigger fire streams became apparent. Bigger pumps meant heavier pumps and expansion of urban communities made the practice of carrying the tub pumps to the scene of the fire by hand impractical if not physically impossible. Here again necessity engendered invention and invention lead to innovation. The tubs were simply mounted on wheels. This gave the apparatus mobility and made it possible to increase the size and capacity of the pump and, coincidently, the number of the men in the crew that operated it, thus the classical “gooseneck” pumper was born.

Once the gooseneck became common, the problem of adequate water supply became acute. A gooseneck in good condition and manned by a well trained crew can, for a short time, move a respectable amount of water; more than a bucket brigade is likely to be able to provide. Again there is an apparent need and in response to this need invention brought about innovation.

As urban sprawl continued to expand communities, the distance to the town well, pond or stream became too great to provide a practical and dependable source of domestic water and the demand for installed water systems began to be heard. Again, need, dependable safe domestic water supply, followed by invention; impoundment of surface water, deep wells pumped by windmills or steam engines and innovation, distribution pipeline systems either publicly owned or private, Now, in response to a need, we have a water source that is independent of muscle power, invention, and the adoption of this source by the fire service brought on innovation. It also engendered additional need.

In 1839 Charles Goodyear introduced the first practical process for vulcanizing rubber. It might seem to some to be a minor sidelight to history but, coupled with the continuous knitting machines, introduced about the same time, it made possible the seamless and water tight fire hose that we all take for granted. The incorporation of a wire coil in the walls of hose that was intended to draw water into the pump and which we know as “hard suction” prevented collapse of the hose and allowed the pump to create a vacuum while drawing water into the chamber. Now drafting of water was possible on a routine basis and rapidly replaced the bucket brigades.

Power to operate fire apparatus also followed a similar evolution with need being met by invention and followed by innovation. The human muscle of the bucket brigade days was supplanted by horse power and later by steam for pumping though the horse remained the primary source if motive power until, in some cases, the twentieth century. Again, our familiar triad; need, invention and innovation.

Some time around the early 1900’s some unknown fire department was confronted with a problem. The horses were getting old, they were getting expensive to care for or, perhaps one of them died. At any rate the department needed to move its steam pumpers and there was a shortage of horseflesh. Fire fighters are some of the most ingenuous people on earth and one of them rose to the occasion; he simply cut the tongue off the engine and attached the stub to a model T Ford truck; the day of the motor pumper had arrived. The internal combustion engines of the time were not developed to the point where they could supplant steam for pumping but they could, with the help of a Ruxtell 2 speed Axle, move an engine down the street and do it faster and more dependably than horseflesh ever could. Innovation was the order of the day.

As technical innovations were introduced to society they came with a certain amount of “baggage;” sometimes they caused almost as many problems as they solved. The automobile is a prime example.

The advent of the automobile had a tremendous impact upon the American life style, particularly in rural communities. But the motor car brought with it a voracious appetite for liquid fuels; most of which were products derived from petroleum. In fact, gasoline was originally a by-product of the production of kerosene used for lamp fuel. The internal combustion engine was a godsend to the petroleum refiners.

Internal combustion engines simply do not function on solid fuels so communities became host to large quantities of stored liquid hydrocarbons. Prior to the advent of the automobile coal was the fuel of choice and the large stockpile of this material was a feature of every community. Fires in these coal piles were not infrequent but they could be contained and controlled by the fire fighting technology of the day. A flooding stream from a steam pumper followed by dispersal of the remaining coal was usually all that was required. Liquid hydrocarbon fuels such as gasoline, kerosene, and distillate or “tractor fuel” were another matter entirely. These materials are not miscible with water and they are lighter than water; therefore the application of water applied to fires involving them was not only ineffective but it actually exacerbated the problem by causing  boil overs and overflows. Liquid fuels, particularly the lighter ones, tended to flow down gutters and also emit vapors; this was not compatible with the open fireboxes of steam pumpers. Clearly, there was an apparent need here.

The story goes that an off duty firefighter who had been “drafted” by his wife to help with the family wash noticed the soap suds floating on top of the wash water and realized that this might be the solution to the problem of hydrocarbon fires. He rigged up an applicator for soapsuds and firefighting foam was born. Whether or not this story is true or merely apocryphal we do not know but it is a matter of record that the first foams were soap based two part systems. They were composed of a solution of soap (and sometimes licorice) mixed with sodium bicarbonate. To this was added sodium alum which lowered the pH of the solution and resulted in the production of carbon dioxide which then caused the solution to foam much like a soda or that other beverage we won’t bother to mention. In practice the two components were supplied as powders and added to the fire stream through an eductor. The powders tended to be hygroscopic and clog the mixing chambers so, while the foam they produced was very good the methodology has been supplanted by systems employing liquid concentrates and utilizing atmospheric air (in some instances other gasses) to produce foam while being much less prone to clogs and stoppages.

As gasoline displaced kerosene as the primary product of petroleum refining and the internal combustion engine became more sophisticated the properties required of motor fuel also changed. The addition of ethanol is a case in point. These changes in composition necessitated changes in the formulation of firefighting foams. Additionally new products introduced into the stream of commerce by the chemists at the petroleum company labs introduced the need for specialty foams designed to be compatible with products with unique properties.

We have looked at the past but what of the future? What will the fire department look like fifty or one hundred years from now. We really don’t know but it is safe to say that there will be new challenges that we cannot begin to comprehend today and that the ingenuity of the firefighters will invent a way to meet them whatever they are.

Throughout the history of the fire service one of the primary goals has been to reduce the demand for manpower and improve personnel safety. This has been accomplished to a significant extent; witness hydraulically operated ladder trucks, power hose rollers etc. These are nice things to have indeed, they do ease the strain on a tired back but there are still risks inherent in our profession and firefighters still get hurt in the line of duty. Technology may well reduce these risks and at the same time enhance the capabilities of the firefighters on the scene.

The technology known as “robotics” has made amazing strides during the last decade with such things as robots to deal with explosive devices and unmanned aircraft known as drones to observe and in some instances to deal effectively with the antisocial groups in the world’s population. Medicine has developed the laparoscope and the De Vinci machine which will allow a surgeon to sit in an office and operate on a patient hundreds of miles away. This technology offers great potential for application in emergency response and will, in time, be transferred to the fire service.

We can only imagine a firefighter sitting in an office and directing a drone over an incident to determine the presence of trapped persons. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that this same firefighter-operator could control a robot that would actually be on the end of the hose line. No risk of injury, no need for SCBA and no family to inform in case of injury or worse. 1  

Confined space entry would be reduced to a bare minimum with most tasks (at least the routine ones) being performed by robots or by a remote manipulator i.e. the De Vinci machine and/the laparoscope. Specially designed robots could even descend into tanks or vats of hazardous materials to effect repairs .This is not some Buck Rogers fantasy, most of the fundamental technology already exists and awaits only its adaption to fire service operations.

There are among us a certain number of traditionalists who would resist change in whatever form. If these people had their way we would still be moving engines with horses and pumping water with steam. Change is not a bad word nor is it something to be feared. True enough, it requires that practitioners update their thinking and their techniques from time to time but the advantages of new technology benefit us all. Change through need perception, inventiveness and innovation is not something to be feared but rather something to be embraced whole heartedly.  One has only to look around to see this; it was an improved technique that changed the cholecystectomy (gall bladder operation) from a major surgical procedure requiring more than an hour to what is often done on an outpatient basis with a laparoscope and takes 20-40 minutes. Our local Sheriff’s Dept. Bomb Squad has a robot that can completely disassemble a suspicious package with the operator yards away out of any significant danger. The original CAF systems (then called WEPS for Water Expanding Pump System) offer an example of the ingenuity of the firefighters in response to a need. They invented a solution and introduced it as an innovation into the fire service protocol. The articulated boom is another example of adaptation; the list is long and those who have contributed their skills, their knowledge and their experience have every right to be proud of their accomplishments.

Technological change is good (usually). We should embrace it, encourage it and assimilate it into our operations. Change is a necessity in today’s technically oriented society. Today’s emergency responder is constantly faced with new challenges and it is only through change in our protocols that these can be met. Fortunately the American firefighter is arguably one of the most inventive people around. Most of the innovations mentioned here are the result of the inventiveness of the firefighter; the one who takes something from another discipline and adapts it to his needs. As long as firefighters continue to improve their capacity to respond to any emergency we can all feel safer and more secure in our homes and where we work.
 
 

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