|The FIT-5 before deployment and after deployment. (ARA Safety Photo)|
Port Jervis (N.Y.) Fire Chief Joseph Kowal has the distinction of being the first firefighter in the United States to hurl a 10-pound FIT-5 canister into a structure fire, much like a grenade.
FIT stands for fire interruption technology, and Kowal was impressed. He credits the product for saving the three-story house where he was the first firefighter to reach the scene.
"I could see heavy smoke coming out of the eaves, and people had reported that there was a fire on the third floor," he recalled. "We had just purchased the unit two weeks before, and I grabbed it and climbed up the fire escape to the third floor. I could see the fire was really rolling in there. All the windows were intact, so I knocked a window out and threw the unit in."
The FIT-5 is described by its manufacturer, ARA Safety of Vancouver, British Columbia, as a powder aerosol generator that discharges potassium bicarbonate, which absorbs heat and prevents the chemical reaction that produces fire, further reducing the heat. It is activated by pulling a nylon cord or by direct heat of 518 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Immediately it knocked it right down -to the point where it almost put the fire out," Kowal said. "The smoke went from black to almost pure white as if it was extinguished. It gave us 10 minutes to get our trucks in position and stretch lines all the way up to the third floor."
Covered With Powder
When an assistant chief reached the apartment that was on fire, he said the heat was minimal, the area was covered with powder and no fire was visible.
"We vented the roof, which is normal procedure for a fire of that magnitude," Kowal said, "and the powder started venting out and the fire started to burn a little bit. We used, at the most, 100 gallons of water to extinguish that whole room that was fully engulfed in flames."
As firefighters went through the apartment, a 20-pound propane cylinder was discovered in a closet, its paint partially burned off.
"We had people on the roof and inside the building and on the side walls with ladders," the chief said. "It would have been devastating if that propane tank took off."
Kowal called the incident a perfect example of a fire where the FIT-5 can be most effective. "It has to be a contained area." "It can't be a free-burning fire where it's vented through the roof and the windows are all blown out because the powder has to be contained for it to work, like in a basement fire or an attic fire."
He said representatives of the company that insured the house were as impressed with the performance of the FIT-5 as he was. "They reimbursed us $600 toward the purchase of another unit," he said.
Since that first deployment on Dec. 28, 2007, insurance companies have reimbursed many fire departments for the cost of their FIT-5s to enable the departments to replace them, according to Michael Gardiner, the company's marketing director.
"The amount of reimbursement varies by company, but most of the time the FIT-5 has been fully reimbursed," he said. "The adjuster says, 'We're happy to pay for that.' Our dealers work with fire departments to process that through the insurance companies."
Over the past year, he said, savings to insurance companies are well over $2 million based on reduced fire and water damage due to quick, early knockdown because of the device.
"People look at the price more than the device and say that's a lot of money," Gardiner said. "But we've had fires where the estimate of savings has exceeded $100,000 in a single fire."
The FIT-5 has a list price of $1,300. AFA Safety has sold more than 600 of them to more than 150 fire departments in the U.S. and Canada, and at least 36 have been deployed at fires. No injuries have been reported, but in two cases, Gardiner said the devices failed to discharge their powder for unknown reasons. He said those incidents are under investigation. Overall, he said, including training and testing, almost 200 units have been deployed.
The product is sold with a five-year warranty. If it is not deployed during that time, Gardiner said, ARA Safety will replace it. "Departments should not have so many on hand that they are not used in five years," he said.
A First-In Tool
Fire interruption technology, according to Gardiner, was developed in response to a 1994 ban on the production of halon, which had been widely used in fire suppression systems, but which contributed to depletion of the earth's protective ozone layer that filters potentially damaging ultraviolet light.
"That ban gave rise to a race to develop replacement technology," he said. "We looked at the technology and said if it can be that effective in fighting fires in installed environments, why wouldn't we give it to firefighters as a first-in tool for the first arriving crew to buy time for the trucks to get there and run water. So we acquired the rights to it."
Chief Kowal said he was introduced to the product at a fire industry trade show in Las Vegas.
"I happened to walk by this table," he recalled, "and they were showing a video of this unit being thrown into a burning building. I watched the thing knock the fire down, and I was just amazed by it. I said, 'Can I see that again?'"
He bought three units in return for a promise by the company that it would demonstrate the device for other fire departments in the Port Jervis area. But before the company had a chance to schedule its demonstration, he found out what the FIT-5 could do at the three-story house fire.
Radiating From Port Jervis
Many early sales of the product radiated out from the Port Jervis area on the New York-New Jersey border as word spread of its effectiveness.
Chief John DiCola of the Neshannock Township Volunteer Fire Department in western Pennsylvania heard about FIT5 from one of his department's suppliers. "We couldn't test it because it's an expensive piece of equipment," he said. "But we were interested in the philosophy and the manner in which it could be used in the right application. So we bought one and put it on one of our command vehicles."
About two weeks later, on Aug. 30 of last year, a Saturday morning, the department was called to a fire in a ranch house. Capt. Dave Congini, who responded in the command vehicle with the FIT-5, reached the scene before any apparatus, along with a police officer.
"I did a walk-around of the building and figured out it was a basement fire," Congini said, "and the police officer came up and suggested using [the FIT5] because we had a joint training with them on it."
Congini said he went into the house with the device and encountered considerable smoke coming from the basement, but could not see any flames. "I was able to get about halfway down the basement staircase," he said, "and I just threw it as hard as I could."
He went outside and could see powder coming out the chimney, as well as out of cracks around doors and windows. "I knew that it had worked," he said. "I just didn't realize how good it had worked until later, how it just knocked the fire right down instantly."
The mop-up required less than a gallon of water from a pressurized water extinguisher, he said.
Less than two weeks later, the department deployed another FIT-5 while responding to a fire in a large house in a rural area where the water supply was limited. Flames were through the roof when the first units arrived, according to Chief DiCola.
The FIT-5 was tossed into a room, he said, and the visible flames died.
"It wasn't until we did our cause and origin that we realized the fire extended into some other areas of the roofline," he said. "The residue chemical went up into this attic area, and you could see where it immediately knocked down whatever was burning up there."
He estimated the FIT-5 bought firefighters an extra four to eight minutes, enough time for three apparatus to arrive with enough water to finish the job.
The department was reimbursed by insurance companies for both deployments. "In the first case we were able to sustain virtually no water damage to the structure, and the insurance company was quite amazed at that," DiCola said. "They covered the entire cost in the first incident. In the second, they gave us a reimbursement of $1,000."
Because of his department's positive results with the FIT-5, he said, one nearby department purchased two of them and another is considering it.
Buying Some Time
"Because we're so traditional in this business, a lot of people will have a hard time with it," he said. "They'll also have a hard time with the price."
DiCola called the FIT-5 another tool in the arsenal for the right applications. "It was basically designed to buy some time," he said. "I wouldn't waste one on a shed or a car fire. You've got to draw a line on when it's appropriate."
Gardiner, the ARA Safety marketing director, emphasized that device is most effective when it is used early and in confined spaces. And he stressed firefighter safety as an important attribute of the FIT-5.
"The challenges of entering modern structures to fight fires, especially those that start in basements, are so dangerous," he said. "In the basement fires that we've had, the device has basically put the fire out in every case. They've had to spray a few gallons of water here and there rather than entering a hot dangerous basement with a big cloud of smoke coming up into their faces full of heat and toxic chemicals."
As for dangers associated with the FIT-5, Gardner said ARA Safety cautions that deployment of the device has a potentially life-threatening impact by churning thermal layers. "When this goes into a room at 1,200 or 1,400 degrees fehrenheit at the ceiling, what very quickly happens is the temperature at the ceiling comes down and the temperature throughout the room ultimately comes down," he said. "If you leave it 30 seconds, it will come down to 400 or 500 degrees very quickly."
Some firefighters who have done demonstrations with the company describe it as similar to what happens when they fog a room in one corner and it causes the air to move, he said.
"The chemical itself is not toxic to an individual," Gardiner said, "but we're very clear that in a very hot room, if there is someone still alive, there should be an attempt to recover them before deploying the device."
Changing Thermal Layer
However, he said, if someone is trapped in one part of a building and the fire is in another part of the building, deployment should not endanger that person. "You're only changing the thermal layer in the area where the fire is," he said, "which could then allow a firefighter to get through and rescue someone in the other part of the building."
Kowal, the Port Jervis fire chief, said he has been so impressed with the FIT-5 that he is working on a local law that would require them to be placed in multi-family houses, apartment buildings and hospitals.
Only For Firefighters
"We get a lot of calls for one-room fires caused by cooking, which is a major problem," he said. "Elderly people cook and then they forget they've got something on the stove, and the next thing you know, you've got the kitchen on fire. Instead of using extinguishers, it's a lot safer to just deploy this unit. Anybody can do it. You just pull the string and toss it inside and close the door."
The fire would be knocked down, he said, and fire department would mop up.
"Eventually," he said, "we'd like to get them into each residence, and I think insurance companies would like to see them in every household."
Even if a person was not around to deploy the unit, he pointed out, the FIT5 is designed to self-deploy at a high temperature. "It will take off by itself and disperse the powder," he said, "and hold the fire until we get there."
However, Gardiner cautioned that the FIT-5 is intended only for use by trained firefighters in full turnout gear.
He said the company is working on a safer home version that could be mounted on a wall for "passive protection," but whether home units will make it to market depends on how economically the company can produce them.