Where’s the Air?

By Robert Tutterow

Many veteran firefighters may remember the 1971 Iowa State University film titled, “Where’s the Water?”

The film opens with a firefighter on the end of a nozzle waiting for his line to be charged. With a degree of frustration, he turns and yells, “Where’s the water?” The film illustrates the hydraulics of water with great clarity. If you haven’t seen it, look it up on YouTube.

The fire service has come a long way since the days of the bucket brigade to get water on a fire. Underground water systems, hydrants, fire hose, rural water sources, fire pumps, and sprinkler and standpipe systems have made water readily available for most fire suppression operations. But, what about air supply? Have there been advances in getting breathing air to firefighters? In reality, no. Certainly, steel bottles have been replaced with lighter weight bottles and high-pressure self-contained breathing apparatus and air cylinders have lightened the weight of a firefighter’s air supply.

However, readily available replenishment air inside large big box, warehouse, manufacturing, and high-rise buildings has not been on many radar screens in the fire service. Think about it-what are the two most important expendable things a firefighter needs inside a large structure? Water and breathing air. Isn’t there a better way to get air to firefighters than lugging air cylinders up multiple flights of stairs? What about an air standpipe-similar to a water standpipe?

A short case study: In 1988, the 62-story First Interstate Bank Building caught fire in Los Angeles, California. The fire started on the 10th floor. More than 600 air cylinders were used by 383 firefighters who fought the fire. Air replenishment was a major issue as you might imagine.

I readily admit that I had never given the concept any thought until being at a luncheon presentation at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Technology Summit earlier this year in Oakland, California. Today, we generally think of technology as electronic computer-driven applications, but an air supply standpipe is also a technological advancement. Yet, the collective fire service has never given such technology much thought.

Supplied Air in Buildings

Such a system is available. It must be firefighter-related because it already has an acronym: FARS, or firefighter air replenishment system. FARS is a permanently installed air system that delivers safe breathing air to firefighters. It can be used in immediately dangerous to life or health atmospheres and can refill an air cylinder in less than two minutes. The cascade-based system is constantly pressurized and is constantly monitored for breathing air quality. It can be integrated into a building’s fire alarm system and command control center. An audible and a visual alert will activate if there is a breach in air quality. The system is recharged by the fire department’s mobile air supply unit.

Many may argue that extending breathing air supply can be a hazard. It might cause firefighters to get too deep in a structure and get lost or overexert themselves, causing cardiac issues. That is understood, but sound air management principles should nullify this argument. This system is designed for structures that will likely cause firefighters to expend all their air just getting to the point of attack. Pause for a moment and think about the structures in your jurisdiction where firefighters might have a need for an air replenishment system. Now think about the all the structures in all of your neighboring departments that might have such structures. You’ll likely be going in those should there be a working fire. Major urban fire departments should lobby strongly for the installation of FARS from a legislative angle as well as independently with property owners. Smaller departments should band together and do likewise. In addition to firefighter health and safety, the property conservation benefits as well.

FARS was recently adopted by the International Building Code, appendix L. Many fire service organizations lobbied hard for the adoption. They included the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Association of State Fire Marshals, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the Fire Smoke Coalition (FSC), the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. No doubt, it is a system that benefits firefighter health and safety.

Air and water. Water and air. Why one but not the other?

ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).

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