Foam: An Additional Tool in Your Toolbox

Firefighting used to be quite simple—put the “wet stuff” on the “red stuff.” Even the support functions, like forcible entry and ventilation, were pretty straightforward and just required a lot of brawn. You took an ax to the roof and chopped a hole or used that same ax to enter through a door. There is a saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail! But, everything is not a nail, and many tools are needed to do the job correctly.

Today there are many more options to perform these functions based on advances in the service from experience, studies, and new equipment. For example, power tools have made it easier and faster to ventilate a building. With these advances have come choices and the need for more training. It is rare to find a circumstance where one size fits all. Not all fires are the same. Not all staffing is equal. Decisions need to be made that make sense based on the resources available.

Foam has added a tool to the toolbox of firefighters, officers, and incident commanders (ICs). When used properly and under the right circumstances, foam can produce outstanding results. It is not the answer for everything, and there is a learning curve. When applied as intended, foam can speed knockdown, which reduces damage from fire and water application. It can maximize extinguishing capabilities when water supplies are limited. If this is true, then it also can enhance performance when water supply is limitless. There is added value when using foam. Departments must ask whether that value is worth the added cost—direct and indirect.

Although foam will help with knockdown, what else must departments consider? After foam application, there is a period of time before the foam dissipates. This could extend scene time but may be made up with shorter extinguishing time. If a department uses hydraulic ventilation in certain situations, foam in the hoseline will delay this until firefighters purge the foam or stretch another line. The staying power of foam may also delay fire investigation. This may or may not have a negative effect on determining the cause of the fire. With respect to the investigations, the investigators may need to explain the effect of foam on the findings that determined the most probable cause and the origin. None of these issues is a “deal breaker” but must be considered before deciding to use foam on a fire.

All personnel must be trained in the operation of the foam system to be used and the situations that best warrant its use. Like everything else in the fire service, failure to adequately train will lead to poor performance. Departments will not reap the benefits of foam if they are not willing to commit the time to training. The training needs to include the properties of the foam, its recommended uses, relevant pump operations, and restoration of the system. Departments that do not have the time or are unable to commit the needed time for training should evaluate their need for foam and its potential value.

Fire investigators must be familiar with foam operations so that they can explain its effects on their investigation. Defense attorneys may choose to pursue the expertise of the investigator regarding foam. It may not have any effect or impact on the investigation, but not being prepared to answer the questions could jeopardize a case. An investigator may be asked to explain how the foam affected any samples taken from the scene or how it could have changed traditional flame spread. Defense attorneys try to create doubt so this line of questioning could be used.

Funding is an issue and needs to be strongly considered when making any decision regarding foam. This can apply to the decision of a department as a whole to transition to this method and to ICs establishing their strategies and tactics. Can the department quantify the use compared to the cost? Is the added expense made up sufficiently with the quicker knockdown? When considering the cost, don’t forget the price of training.

There are also hardware requirements with foam. Consider the space needed for storage. You need to know how much you will need to carry to make a difference and where it will be carried. Will there be any special hardware requirements for the pump (possibly drains that adequately drain the pump), nozzles, or proportioning devices? If so, consider not only the initial price to acquire but any cost that would go into servicing or maintenance. This is another spot for proper training. If the foam needs to be flushed from the system to avoid damage to pumps, hose, or nozzles, then personnel must know the proper way to ensure that everything is done according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Sometimes departments are looking for an easy fix to a problem. Things can present themselves as simple and cheap. More often than not there are hidden costs, both direct and indirect. Departments need to take a big-picture look at the advantages and disadvantages of everything they buy. The benefits have to be weighed against the costs. There are good products that appear to have minimal issues. However, regardless of appearances, departments need to fully investigate the pros and cons of anything they choose to use to see if it is right for them. Just because others choose a route does not mean it is the best fit for all. Due diligence is needed.

Professional carpenters, plumbers, and electricians have more than one tool in their toolboxes. They know that to do the job correctly takes many tools. They need to be competent in the use of all their tools and when they are to be used. Having the right tools for the job makes the job go smoother and more efficiently. Knowing how to use those tools is equally important. The same is true for extinguishing fire. Firefighters need to have all the tools to do the job along with the training and knowledge to properly use them. Foam is one of those tools and can make completion of the job more professional. Just remember to do your homework before you add this tool to your toolbox.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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