CAFS Pioneer Mark Cummins Followed Father’s Path

Thirty years ago, Mark Cummins saw the potential for a new firefighting technology – one that added a foaming agent and compressed air to the water in the hoseline.

The systems and hardware have since improved, and Cummins today says he is still learning more about a technology he came across quite accidentally – and later patented – that became the basis for today’s CAF systems. And 30 years later, the man considered one of the inventors of modern CAFS, sees even more potential for its use.

“Believe me, it’s just beginning to get started,” said Cummins, one of the CAFS experts invited to address the 2007 Southwest CAFS Symposium Feb. 9-11 in Rosenberg, Texas.

Cummins, 61, grew up in the oil fields of West Texas, where his father, Phil, fought oil fires. He followed in his father’s footsteps, first in the oil fields, then into industrial firefighting. He later started Cummins Industries Inc., a research and development company, and CAFSCO, which focuses solely on CAFS.

In 1976, he developed what became known as WEPS – a Water Expansion Pumping System – the forerunner of today’s CAF systems.

Cummins said he was working at the time with his brother who had started a security company. One of the clients was a lumberyard, and its owners wanted to deploy a firefighting system, something portable, lightweight and easy to use that could be mounted on a pickup truck.

His father had invented the “FireBoss,” a “twin-agent” unit that used dry powder in one line and a foaming agent in another line. That system, however, was impractical for the lumberyard, Cummins said.

Additionally, though foaming systems had been around since at least the 1930s, such systems typically came with a complexity that made them difficult to maneuver and costly to maintain. They also required more complex nozzles to produce the foam.

Simple To Operate

“They wanted something that was lightweight and simple to operate,” Cummins said of the client. “That’s how we invented the little CAFS Unit… It was really a shaving cream can, a pressurized container with soapy water and air. It was just a super-simple system.”

What Cummins developed was a system that operated with a minimum amount of pressure to pump the foam and generated the foam without the need for special nozzles. It was also capable of being used as a portable device or fixed to fire trucks, using conventional fire hose and conventional truck pumps.

“One day, when I was filling that thing, this overfill line made an incredibly dense foam,” he said. “The difference in the foam that came out the bleedoff tube was it was more like shaving cream… I realized very quickly that the small bubble size was something very unique and completely different.”

In March 1982, Cummins received a U.S. patent for his “Foam generating fire fighting device.” The company later secured patents in the United Kingdom and Australia.

“That was the beginning, and I took that to the Texas Forest Service,” he said. “They had an urgent need to put that on their firefighting bulldozers.”

Applying Technology

Cummins said he has been researching CAFS ever since, applying the technology to mine fires, landfill fires, hazardous materials incidents and other applications. One plan in the works is to use CAFS, in the event of an outbreak Avian Influenza, or “Bird Flu.”

“That was really the beginning of CAFS as we know it today,” said John Gill of the Fire Fighters Tool Co. of Katy, Texas. He is a CAFS proponent and an organizer of the 2007 Southwest CAFS Symposium.

“[Cummins] was definitely one of the pioneers,” Gill said. Others, he said, included Clarence Grady, who is now foam system manager with Pierce Manufacturing and wildland firefighting expert Ron Rochna.

Grady credits Cummins with reviving interest in foam in the 1970s.

“He was one of the early, if not the earliest one, to go back in and start the renaissance where we started using it again,” Grady said. “Mark was, as much as anyone, the inventor. He was the one really, he and his dad, that began to experiment with it more and more.”

Though CAFS has become more widely accepted as a tool for structural firefighting, there is more to do to increase awareness about its effectiveness, Cummins said, in part because change comes slow to the fire service.

“Nobody believes it until you see it,” he said. “It’s hard to change from water.”

And even after more than three decades of CAFS research, Cummins says there is still much more to learn.

“I feel very strongly that it’s beginning to take hold,” he said, “that it’s not a fad anymore.”

Greg Patty, right, and Patrick O’Connell, both of the New Braunfels (Texas) Fire Department operate a handline under the watchful eye of Mark Cummins, a pioneer in the development of today’s CAF systems. Cummins was one of the experts who spoke and offered training tips at the 2007 Southwest CAFS Symposium Feb. 9-11 in Rosenberg, Texas. (Fire Apparatus Photo by David Smith)

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