Cantankerous Wisdom: Foam and Fire Trucks—Part 1

By Bill Adams

Attention, fire truck and foam vendors and purchasers—it’s time to get on the same page. Although I hold no aversion to the aforementioned and have nothing but praise and admiration for foam experts, I believe all parties may, inadvertently, be doing a disservice to fire departments when specifying onboard foam for new apparatus. Make life easy for us who are either too old, not experienced enough, or don’t have the time or ability to comprehend a 200-page technical dissertation on expansion ratios, application rates, percentages, properties and proportioners. We need a primer and an elementary one at that.

Now that I have your attention, look at what some in the fire service do not or will not address. First, some firefighters don’t know crap about foam systems. I said some, not all, so you airport rescue firefighting (ARFF) people, don’t get your proximity turnouts in a twist. It’s the new fast-paced generation of firefighters who hold two jobs, have busy social schedules, and read up on foam just enough to get by. Second, usually outside of the career sector, there are older generation firefighters in the positions of specifying and purchasing foam systems. They think the best foam system ever was the old hopper fed mechanical type where you had to turn over the foam pails twice a year so the powder didn’t cake up. If they think all good foam is protein-based with the smell and consistency of camel snot, they shouldn’t be writing purchasing specifications.

They tell stories but can’t remember the name of whoever had the brilliant idea of using the booster tank to premix the “animal-blood- and soybean-based” foam solution at 200 psi and 2,000 rpm—turning the rig into a giant foaming brillo pad and how it only took three weeks before paint started peeling off the truck.

Not all apparatus vendors are technically up to date on apparatus foam systems. Some promote what they think you need and not necessarily what is best for you. And when confronted with a serious questions, may try to flub their way through it. Couple that with a purchasing committee that’s equally uninformed (or gullible) and you could have a recipe for a very expensive foam system with unknown capabilities that no one knows how to use, when to use it, and what to use it for. There are real foam experts out there. Look them up. Ask them. You’ll not be the first to ask—nor will you be the last.

The novice purchaser needs a basic primer to help determine what type of foam system is applicable for his specific hazards. Who is a novice purchaser? He has only used foam three times in his career. Two were on car fires; one was at a junkyard where something nasty smelling was burning that gave off humungous clouds of multicolored smoke. At one, some white stuff did flow from the nozzle. On another, the pick-up tube was plugged up. It never worked. At the junkyard, before the eductor was placed into service, the second due engine hit the fire with its deck gun—snuffing it out and flushing contaminated water throughout the neighborhood. Residents’ headaches only lasted a week and most skin rashes dissipated within a month.

The department trains with portable eductors once a year and as long as white bubbly flows, everyone is happy. Unfortunately, no one knows if that particular white bubbly stuff is effective. How do you tell? Is there an in-the-field litmus test to use when training with foam?

In this tirade, I only address Class B foam. Leave Class A and CAFS for graduate studies. We’re in the preschool primer stage here. This particular department’s main hazard is vehicle fires—automobiles and perhaps a semi with dual fuel tanks. Forget about cargo; that’ll be addressed in post graduate studies. What size foam system is recommended for this purchaser? Should it be based on so many gallons of finished product per minute? For how long?

For 20 years, both pumpers carried a 95-gpm portable eductor with three pails of six percent Class B foam plus two spare pails on a squad car. If they want an onboard foam tank on a new rig, what size is recommended? What’s needed for a full sized burning SUV with 20 gallons of blazing gasoline flowing down Main Street?

What if a car rams a truck’s 90 gallon diesel fuel tank and both light off? What’ll they need to put that out? Does anybody do an analysis of a fire department’s foam requirements? Is it free? National Foam has published “A Firefighter’s Guide to Foam”—an excellent primer on foam in general. Is there anything similar describing “what” to buy? Comments? We can keep this one going for a long, long time.

is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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