Foam Is Not Free: An Analysis Of Cost

Is Class A foam right for your organization? Almost always that question is best answered by the individual department. While test results and opinions would indicate that Class A foam can speed extinguishment and improve effectiveness on deep-seated fires, there are costs and operational considerations that must be evaluated to determine if there is significant return on investment.

Water is a very effective extinguishing agent. Its properties and abundance make it the primary choice of firefighters when attacking most ordinary fires. It operates under a relatively simple premise – apply enough water until the fire goes out. Hose is stretched, a pump is engaged and a nozzle is opened. While a basic understanding of friction loss is helpful, the training is simple. As the fire grows, the concepts remain the same – to overcome the BTUs by applying still more water.

Class A foam will reduce the knockdown time in most cases. It will reduce the amount of water needed. It will minimize flare-ups and reach deep-seated fires more quickly. It may also speed up the overhaul process as less of the structure and contents will require moving to reach the “hidden” fires.

With these obvious advantages, one would assume that foam would be part of all standard operations and would be a mainstay in virtually all departments. Yet, the use of foam is not yet considered an industry standard because of two main reasons – the cost and the extra time needed to train and become proficient. There are other reasons that will be mentioned later, but these are the two most often mentioned.

What is the actual cost of using foam? Besides the foam, there is the need for the ancillary equipment needed to make it work. Whether it is nozzle- aspirated or compressed air, different equipment is needed, and there will be some considerations for your apparatus.

How much foam you need on hand and what type of equipment you will need must be determined to estimate your start-up costs. Obviously the amount of apparatus to be outfitted also comes into play. Your run volume and expected amount of use – as in how many fires do you respond to that would be better extinguished using foam – are also factors in your cost.

How much inventory is needed? Your budget and your ability to convince the policy makers who control your budget may determine whether or not you can afford the advantages offered by Class A foam.

If you are serious about pursuing this option and working toward getting the resources, you may want to consider the extinguishing advantages in your budget appeals.

A faster knockdown with less water causes less damage to the structure and contents on fire, resulting in lower fire losses and less insurance payouts.

It may also mean less time on the scene so that personnel and apparatus are placed back in service more quickly. In addition, you should be able to convince others that the quicker knockdown improves life safety, not only for the occupants, but also the firefighters.

Of course, these costs are not as easy to quantify and may not be effective in convincing the “bean counters” to part with more money. In these difficult economic times, potential savings may not be enough to sell the need for the upfront investment of resources, especially if the savings are to others, such as the insurance companies, and not to the department.

Training on the basics, maintaining core skills, maintaining EMS licenses, and complying with mandates are some of the essentials within required training for most departments. There are certainly others determined by the level of service provided and basic requirements of your state.

Often times, departments are challenged to find the time necessary to meet even the most basic needs for training. Emergency run volume and budgets also must be factored into the equation. Now consider whether or not you want to add the training needed to be proficient with Class A foam.

This is not to make a value judgment as to the benefit of Class A foam versus the added time and expertise need to train. This is the choice that your organization needs to make. Will the commitment translate to better performance day-in and day-out? When all is said and done, you probably will need to show significant improvement. How will you measure this and how can this performance enhancement be demonstrated to those who need to know it?

Salesmanship Needed

When considering Class A foam, make a note as to whose idea it is to make it an option for fire attack. It might be the chief’s idea. Depending on the origin of the idea, or concept, there will be some salesmanship needed.

More than likely, the average veteran firefighter will need convincing. Firefighters who read the literature and attend conferences to learn about advances in the profession will sign on quickly. The typical employee just wants to do a good job and go home and will require some salesmanship. This firefighter probably thinks water does fine and foam may be another “gimmick” requiring more training and more work – cleaning and maintaining.

In cases with a low-run volume, the firefighters may question the expense. When companies respond to more fires, the belief may exist that their experience is adequate and performance very good. These companies may not be convinced that they need the help.

Now reverse the origin of the suggestion to add Class A foam. Assume it is the firefighters, training officers or company officers who suggest to the chief the need to change the operation.

Will the chief see enough benefit to add the cost to his budget submittal and be willing and able to present this to his superiors? An old-school chief or newer chief without much exposure to new concepts may not be willing to support any changes to the operation.

There are also some lesser considerations including the effect on equipment and apparatus. If used and maintained properly, there is probably minimal impact. It’s important that cleaning and maintenance procedures always be followed.

Other things to keep in mind include the need to change the department’s procedures if it uses hydraulic ventilation. Think about the impact foam may have finding the origin and cause during investigation. Foam will dissipate, but it will take longer than water.

Tests and experience seem to indicate that Class A foam offers advantages in fire extinguishment under normal circumstances. Yet, these advantages must be weighed against the costs, both in money and in time.

It is the return on investment that must be considered before making the change in operation and procedures. Know what you will gain and what will change. Your department will need to determine what is best for your organization and your community.

Editor’s Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department, a position he’s held since 1984. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999 he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He holds three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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