CAFS Research for Structural Firefighting

As departments around the country move to using compressed-air foam in municipal fire operations, fire officers typically have several technical questions about its effective and safe application for structural firefighting.

To provide qualitative and quantitative answers to questions regarding foam application rates, the CAFS Institute is conducting fire testing and research in a new project to determine how effective compressed-air foam systems (CAFS) can be for structural firefighting.

The CAFS Institute’s founder, Dominic Colletti Jr. (my son), developed the Delivery Rate Research Project to better understand how water delivery rates—gallons per minute—affect flame knockdown when comparing legacy water application with compressed-air foam application.

The basic questions behind this research project are gallon for gallon, how much more effective is compressed-air foam compared with applying water alone? What’s more, what are the effects of compressed-air foam agent delivery rates measured against conventional hoseline water delivery rates in the real world? The goal is to understand the fire suppression capability of compressed-air foam over legacy water hose streams in day-to-day structural firefighting activities.

The institute initiated the Delivery Rate Research Project last October, in Erie, Pennsylvania. A pilot test was conducted in conjunction with an ad-hoc fire industry group that included Erie International Airport Fire and Rescue, Hale Products Inc., Butler County Community College, and the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy. A single-family, wood-frame dwelling slated for demolition because of an airport runway expansion project was prepared for fire testing over several days. This culminated in a live fire test, where the structure was allowed to become fully involved prior to fire attack with compressed-air foam. Data were collected using video, weighing various quantities of different types of fuel loads, thermocouple instrumentation, and capturing real-time agent delivery rate data. Preliminary test results and flame knockdown with compressed-air foam can be seen in a short video on YouTube™.

Why is there a need for additional fire testing when it is generally accepted that CAFS is up to five times more effective than water applications? Additional clarification is needed to define what is considered an acceptable water delivery rate (gallons per minute) and required total water supply (gallons) when using compressed-air foam for structural firefighting. This topic is a source of hesitation today among fire officers who use or want to become involved in the future with implementing CAFS technology.

Several details of the Delivery Rate Research Project test process are making this project different from those conducted by other agencies in the past. The institute’s tests are performed outside of the traditional small and mid-scale laboratory fire test environment. No laboratory tests will be conducted—just realistic acquired structure real-world comparative burns. Unlike other fire tests done in the past using primarily wood pallets for a structure fuel load, the Delivery Rate Research Project uses a predetermined mix of natural and synthetic fuels. This is important, as there is much discussion in the fire service today with regard to how synthetic materials have changed fire spread characteristics and shortened flashover times, compared with all-natural materials. All fuel set materials used for individual room fire loads, synthetic and natural, are weighed prior to ignition.

After an extensive preburn time on the fully involved test structure, a two-person hose team (simulating two-in/ two-out) aggressively advances a hoseline inside the structure to simulate a real-world coordinated aggressive attack. It is important to note that these fire tests are not considered live fire training but rather live fire testing, and they are conducted by industry professionals.

The most important item, as stated by Colletti Jr., that makes the Delivery Rate Research Project different from other test programs is that the fire tests imitate the fashion in which the fire service actually uses compressed- air foam and water in real-world fire response. The goal is statistically significant data that represent what typically happens when these technologies are deployed daily in almost any town in North America. This should provide fire officers, insurance companies, and town and city administrators with the required information, understanding, and clarity when reviewing the case for investing in CAFS technology, including a better understanding of its return on investment.

As CAFS continue to evolve and integrate into fire operations, tests such as those discussed here become even more important with regard to accurately understanding the advantages and limitations of new technology. Research and development of new firefighting technologies can pave the way for a better future in increasing firefighter safety and reducing community fire loss. Facts and data can help fire service stakeholders make more informed decisions to improve fire protection.

Over the past 10 years, the state of Texas has benefited by legislation that was passed to provide significant ISO public protection classification (PPC) credits for fire departments that use CAFS for first-out response to structure fires. In most other areas of the United States, the ISO now plans on implementing “extra credit” on PPC ratings for departments meeting CAFS equipment and deployment guidelines, tentatively planned to take effect next year as part of a larger overhaul and changes to the ISO’s PPC system. This is good news not only for public property protection but for firefighter safety as well.

DOMINIC COLLETTI is the author of two books, The Compressed Air Foam Systems Handbook and Class A Foam—Best Practice For Structure Firefighters. He is a former assistant chief and serves on the technical committee of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. He is a fire instructor with more than 20 years of CAFS firefighting experience.

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