Fire Department, Special Operations Hazmat, Trailers

To Foam or Not To Foam? That Is the Question!

Issue 7 and Volume 19.

Richard Marinucci   Richard Marinucci

Since the beginning of time, almost, water has been the choice for extinguishing fire. Even with the advent of foam, most departments have not deviated too far from the most basic extinguishing agent.

Even though the use of foam has demonstrated improved extinguishing power, it has not yet established itself as a “must-have” tool to put in the toolbox. Still, fire departments must continue to evaluate foam’s benefits compared with the cost of adding another option for fire attack.

Foam Usage

There are many types of foam to choose from, but they essentially break down into use on either Class A or B fires or both. I believe a majority of departments have access to Class B foams for use on flammable liquid fires. They may have only a minimal amount or perhaps enough for a more significant fire. There seems to be a need for at least some basic capabilities to address flammable liquid fires regardless of where a fire department is. Fires involving liquids are possible wherever you are, so most departments anticipate the need and opt for this resource.

In a bit of a contrast, many departments have not chosen to adopt Class A foam as a component of their extinguishing capabilities. This could be for various reasons, including cost issues, adequate water supply such that a department does not feel compelled to add foam, or an organization does not fully understand what foam adds to its capabilities. Regardless, it is prudent to regularly evaluate an organization’s needs and make a conscious decision regarding the cost/benefit appraisal of whether the time is right to add foam to the repertoire.

Justifying Enhancement

There is no doubt that using foam can enhance a department’s capabilities. This does not always justify the costs and additional training and maintenance required. Departments must make their own decisions but should do so based on the latest information and their own specific circumstances. Like so many things, foam products and technology are changing rapidly. As such, departments should visit this issue frequently and make an informed decision.

Research into foam and its capabilities is essential. There are many types of foam, and they have different uses. A quick review of even the most basic information available will reveal many options. Internet searches will provide much information. There is also much to be learned from trade magazines and also from manufacturers and suppliers. Although much information is available, some misinformation exists. Learning as much as possible allows departments and end users to make informed decisions. This may be a topic to assign a suppression officer who can continually monitor the available information.

Departments must know the various options for foam available to them. Obviously there are foams for Class A and B fires. Foam can be low-, mid-, or high-expansion. Compressed air foam systems (CAFS) are an option. There are protein foams, fluoroprotein concentrates, film forming and aqueous film forming, alcohol-resistant, and synthetic detergent foams. Each has a purpose, benefit, and some features that are not as good for certain fires. There are physical characteristics to consider such as flow and knockdown speed, heat, fuel, and alcohol resistance, along with vapor suppression. The more an organization knows about its choices the more likely it will make the best choice for the department.

Equipment Considerations

Using foam requires additional equipment including a proportioner-either an inline eductor or an around-the-pump system. Departments will need to make that decision as it affects not only equipment but apparatus. They also need to evaluate nozzles, which vary based on the type of foam being used. These decisions add to the expense and must be factored into the decision.

Departments must realistically evaluate foam’s potential uses based on run volume, the types of fires likely to occur, and the frequency of various fires. For example, departments with a threat of wildland fires will consider Class A foam’s benefits. Organizations with significant industrial risks will need to have Class B foam capabilities commensurate with the hazards faced. Departments with a history of low fire call volume will need to evaluate the cost vs. benefit to see if the added expense is justified.

Training and Maintenance

Training and maintenance are important components of any foam system evaluation. Firefighters must be trained to a minimum level of competence and must maintain that competence. This, in itself, is not a big deal. But, it must be factored into other training and the time available to add it to a sometimes already full training program. In some cases, fire departments must consciously decide what this training will replace. Regardless, departments cannot assume that adding another suppression option will not affect training, nor can they assume that firefighters will be competent without quality training.

Equipment used to deliver foam, whether through an eductor or around-the-pump system, requires maintenance. Also included will be any other equipment used as part of the system including hose, the fire pump, and nozzles. The maintenance will take time and could require funds. Again, the point is to consider all aspects when looking to add capabilities.

Cost Consideration

Clearly cost is the most significant consideration when evaluating using foam. If there was no need for funding, there would be little reason to not use foam. Most of the other issues would not be as critical if using foam was free or at least cost-neutral. The costs would include the foam and related equipment, replacement costs, new foam if existing foam exceeds its shelf life, training, and equipment maintenance. Departments should also consider if using foam will shorten the expected life span of apparatus components or other equipment. This is not necessarily a “deal breaker,” but in a realistic evaluation everything must be put on the table.

This has been a very basic and simplistic view of whether or not to add foam capabilities to a fire department. If an organization considers the use of foam without investigating the total impact on the department, then it may be surprised after the fact. Certainly foam improves on the ability of water to extinguish fire in most cases. There are situations where foam may be the only option for effective extinguishment. There are also improvements being made on a regular basis. Is foam right for you? Complete a proper assessment and decide, but don’t take any shortcuts in the process.

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 Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, 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 a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.