Apparatus Electronics Enhance Safety

FDNY Tower Ladder
FDNY Tower Ladder 111 operates its 75-foot 2002 Seagrave/Aerialscope on March 1 at the scene of a three-alarm fire on Troy Avenue in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The fire involved a one-story laundromat. (Fire Apparatus Photo By Adam Alberti)
Hydrant Master
Task Force Tips applied electronic technology to develop the¬†Hydrant Master, described as the world’s first remote-controlled hydrant valve.
bumper-mounted Elkhart Brass Sidewinder EXM
A bumper-mounted Elkhart Brass Sidewinder EXM monitor with “intelligent control” is remotely operated from inside the cab.

The fire service is tradition-bound, and its members often prefer tried and true methods and tools to those that are new on the scene. But electronic technology is gradually changing how firefighters do their jobs.

Apparatus and component makers have embraced technological advances to make their vehicles easier and safer to operate and to provide more information to firefighters. From pumps and pump modules to valves and monitors, electronics have become an integral part of apparatus components.

Manual deck guns mounted on top of pumpers have always been a potential hazard because firefighters have to climb the rig to direct the water stream. Electronics can take that risk out of play with the use of remote controls.

There are several reasons for the success of remote control equipment, said Rod Carringer, vice president of sales and marketing for Task Force Tips.

“Part of the impetus is the staffing levels on apparatus,” he said. “There are not as many firefighters on trucks, and the firefighters on the scene often are fewer.”

Electronics, he said, provide tactical flexibility and the safety of not having to climb on top of the truck. In addition, he said, “Remote control takes the firefighter out of a crappy position where he might not be able to see because of the smoke.”

With a portable monitor, he pointed out, remote control allows a firefighter to place the unit and then operate it from a distance in order to get a better view.

However, that flexibility comes at a price. Carringer said a remote-controlled monitor might cost $7,000 to $9,000 more than a manual monitor, depending on the pump and the monitor’s flow range.

Task Force Tips has also incorporated electronics into intake valves and integrated them into pumping systems, according to Carringer, allowing the valves to be remotely opened or closed, making a pump operator more effective. Remote controls, he said, also can be wired into a truck’s CAN BUS system.

Task Force Tips has applied electronic technology to what is described as the world’s first remote-controlled hydrant valve – the Hydrant Master, which was introduced at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis in March.

“It makes no sense having a firefighter standing at the hydrant, waiting for the signal to open the water flow,” Carringer said. “The Hydrant Master goes on the steamer connection, and the hydrant is opened, bringing water to the valve, but not charging the hose. It transmits hydrant pressure to a handheld remote that shows the valve condition, open or closed.”

The Hydrant Master, he said, is battery-operated, provides for slow open and slow close of the hydrant and has been field tested up to 2,000 feet away from the hydrant in an urban environment.

“Because different cities have different hydrant pressures, from 20 psi to 300 psi depending on location and type of geography, the unit senses the pressure and opens slower at 200 psi than it does at 50 psi,” Carringer said. “You don’t want a large slug of water coming into the pumper from opening the hydrant too fast.”

Eric Combs, product market director for Elkhart Brass, said the big push with technology and electronics in the last few years has focused on valves and monitors. Elkhart launched its Sidewinder EXM last year, a monitor line with sensors that use what Combs calls “intelligent control.”

The company describes EXM technology as “plug and play” digital communication and control architecture that simplifies installation while expanding options.

This year at FDIC, Elkhart launched the Scorpion EXM, a remotely-controlled monitor that can flow 2,000 gpm. The intelligent control system uses modern processor memory and builds it into the monitor so sophisticated logic can be used to control it, Combs said.

“From a simplistic device that moves left or right, up or down, fog or straight stream, the EXM monitors now have absolute position feedback built in,” he said. “The sensors tied to the rotational axis allow the monitor to know its orientation at all times. Before that, monitors used a mechanical stop that limited rotation or proximity sensors that gave limited data.”

By building the sensors into the monitor, an OEM can set rotational limits, particularly if there is potential interference from something on the truck. The monitor can be programmed to block out that area of use.

With an intelligent controller providing positioning information, Combs said motor speeds can be changed as needed. For instance, he said an intelligent control monitor on a brush truck could be configured to cover a large area with a small volume of water.

“A piece of apparatus is a big investment, and monitors and valves are critical pieces of it,” he said. “Being able to customize them because of technological advances makes them a more effective tool for the end user.”

Combs pointed out that the intelligent controller can broadcast its information – pressures, flow rates, where the monitor is pointed – and tie into a CAN BUS network or central processor devices. Electronic valve controls can be incorporated into the monitor controller, he said, allowing them to be operated and adjusted in any fashion.

The technology gives the end user the option of where the control points are located – pump panel, cab, turntable, basket or remotely from the ground by a hand-held unit.

The EXM line has made improvements to the hand-held units, Combs said. Where they commonly were powered by AA or 9-volt batteries, he said the new EXM hand-held has a docking station that can be mounted on the pump panel or in the cab where the controller is housed. The docking station maintains a full charge on the unit’s lithium ion battery.

“Aerial applications tend to be where a lot of this new technology is first accepted,” Combs said. “With intelligent control, the position and flow feedback is being captured and used by the aerial operator. That same information is capable with a pumper or brush truck application, but is not used as much in those areas yet.”

He noted that Elkhart has been involved in an ongoing research project to get all fire suppression components melded into the system, including hand line nozzles.

“The engineer has to be expert on equipment and doing calculations on friction loss, the amount of hose out and the number of stories,” Combs said. “We want to give that firefighter the information so he can focus on the tactics and the situation itself, and not have to do all those calculations manually.”

Sean Tillinghast, vice president of Weldon Division of Akron Brass Co., sees the value of electronics as helping a fire apparatus to have thousands of component parts function better as a whole.

Akron makes a number of electronic component products, for applications from controlling monitor positioning to valve operations. The company also manufactures a line of electronic devices that communicate with each other, and it builds displays for the cab or pump area to control functionality from a central location. Those displays might show GPS information, a backup camera image, details of the pump controls, engine information or water flow rates, depending on how the apparatus is being operated at the time.

“The long-range goal is to help drive down the costs,” Tillinghast said. “By consolidating the resources available on the system, hopefully the cost becomes lower at the end of the day.”

Akron’s electronic control interface also can be used to develop diagnostic information for troubleshooting, and its D-Tek unit can wirelessly download vehicle information to a personal computer for maintenance recordkeeping.

Tillinghast noted that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 apparatus standard’s new requirement for data recording caused some consternation in the fire service. But, he sees the requirement as a means for creating safety-related data for fire department use.

“We supply a vehicle data recorder (VDR) for the fire service that maintains information on the operational performance of the vehicle and reports back to a management point,” he said. “It records data such as seat positions and violations to determine if seatbelts are properly buckled, brake application, vehicle speed and emergency lighting data.”

Tillinghast believes manufacturers are very careful about the technologies they are bringing to the fire market because it is so demanding.

“There are a lot of things on the horizon,” he said. “So it’s up to companies to bring them to market in a safe and usable way.”

Steve Schultz, chief engineer of W.S. Darley & Co.’s fire truck division, said technology has made components easier to put together, control and use, resulting in more efficient and safer products.

“There are smart valves available where you can program in a certain flow or pressure that you want to achieve,” Schultz said.

He pointed out that W.S. Darley worked with Fire Research Corp. to develop a pressure governor that uses electronics to interface with a vehicle’s J1939 data bus – the data link with which diesel engines are controlled. The governor uses pressure and intake transducers to send signals to the pressure governor about increasing or decreasing pressure settings, meaning the engine speed will be increased or decreased at the same time.

Chuck Hutchins, electronics application manager for Hale Products, Inc., said the electronics option ties everything in a fire truck together – electrical and mechanical – and provides better overall performance, as well as a much more intelligent vehicle for operators.

Hale’s Total Pressure Governor systems, TPG and TPG-Plus, are electronic engine controllers that control pumps to maintain hose line pressure and also control the vehicle’s engine to maintain proper pump pressure. Hale also uses an electronic controller in its foam extinguishing agent delivery system for Class A and B foams – FoamLogix, as well as in its compressed air foam system – CAFSPro.

Other electronic controllers are used in its ES-Key multiplex system providing apparatus-wide control and in its Intelligent Tank Level gauge, the ITL-40.

“There are two distinct advantages to using electronics in products,” Hutchins said. “They allow the operator to make more intelligent decisions based on all the data that is available on his apparatus, and they are reliable. Electronically-controlled components are much easier to diagnose, so there is less downtime and more accurate information is returned to the operator because there are fewer mechanical components.”

Steve Morelan, service manager for Waterous, said his firm has been using electronics since 1956 when it released the first electromagnetic pump with electrically-operated accessories.

“In those days, it was all done with limit switches and electric motors,” he said, “but today it’s all done with electronics and circuit boards.”

Morelan considers the Waterous Advantus foam proportioning system, which handles Class A and B foam, one of the biggest advances in electronics in the last few years.

“It has a microcontroller and sensors in the water to measure its conductivity when the water first enters the system,” he said, “and it uses that calculation to know how much foam to inject into the water stream to get the proper concentration. Sensors measure again after injection to make sure the proportion is right, taking the measurements many times a second.”

Pumps using electronic circuit boards allow Waterous to have multi-position indicators on its valves to show if they are a quarter, half or all the way open.

“We’re finally seeing a good response to electronic valves compared to manual ones,” Morelan said. “It took the fire service awhile to get there, but I think they’re now accepting the technology because it’s been proven to work.”

He said Waterous worked with Allison Transmission Inc. a couple of years ago to develop enhancements to help when shifting from road gear to pump gear or back again.

“Gears have to mesh, and if they’re rotating or don’t line up, you don’t get a solid mesh,” he said. “We have software installed in Allison automatics to jog back and forth to help those gears line up, which has benefited everyone.”

He said Allison calls it the “fire pump shift enhancement,” and it’s been a standard feature since 2009.

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