By Sam Goldwater
Samuel Goldwater and Associates
The title of this column is “Fire Industry Today.” When you hear those words, most people think of a fire engine and the people, companies, and businesses that support that fire engine. But when you think for a few moments more, you think, “Well maybe it would include trucks/aerials, probably rescues and ambulances, wildland/brush trucks, and maybe chief’s vehicles,” and all the personal protective equipment for those people operating all those units. Don’t forget the fire prevention folks. And the staff at training. All of a sudden, if you allow your mind to wander, you realize that the “fire industry” has a much larger footprint than you first thought. In fact, the fire service industry has a very wide footprint. It ranges from combat firefighters to educators to engineers to sprinkler contractors to those in the business of supporting the footprint. It’s even wider than that.
For example, the list of members of the National Advisory Committee of the Congressional Fire Services Institute consists of more than 40 fire service entities and does not even cover the entire footprint of the fire service industry. Who could it possibly leave out? How about the Fire Protection Committee of the Edison Institute; the fire guys for the electrical power industry; and the Associated Aerial Firefighters, the pilots who fly the air tankers for wildland firefighting? Or how about the National Wildfire Suppression Association, which represents the contractors who fight wildland fires and fight 30 percent of federal fires in the west?
Another wildland fire organization is the Wildland Firefighters Foundation, an organization similar to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation except that it has a wider charter to help wildland firefighters no matter what the need is. What about the M-21 firefighters in the Army? These are combat (real combat) troops that protect the convoys, the forward operating bases (FOBs), and our troops while they are overseas in hot zones. They have counterparts in the other branches of the military. Federal Civilian Firefighters protect federal installations worldwide. In addition, some federal facilities are protected by contract firefighters (NASA, for example). There is a whole cadre of training entities ranging from colleges and universities teaching fire protection programs to private companies and individuals who teach fire protection subjects.
So where is this all going? When we look at the field of fire protection, whether we look as end users, manufacturers, sales entities, teachers, or students, we are looking from our own perspectives. As emergency responders, we must have a very wide viewpoint on life, as we never know what we will be up against. When we look at ourselves, we must also take that wide stance. Not only do we need a wide stance, but we need to be prepared to get wider to include emergency management, safety, and other related fields that impact what we are all about—protecting the public from harm.
Now that we have this wide base for our viewpoint, what does that mean for this magazine? It means that emergency equipment is used by, engineered by, taught by, and sold by a large number of people with a broad base of needs and perspectives worldwide. These needs are caught up in a whole host of terms such as structural firefighting, hazardous materials, EMS, safety, industrial firefighting, wildland firefighting, rescue, USAR, ARFF, and so on. So when we want to look at what is new in the industry, we have to turn over a lot of rocks. Let’s take a look at a few of these terms and see what’s new.
HAZARDOUS MATERIALS: There are a few exciting new technologies to look at in this field. One is sonic and another is laser-based. Up until now, we really haven’t had the ability to see what’s inside an unknown container. What if I told you that technology exists as a result of the war on terror trying to find those weapons of mass destruction? There currently exists technology based on sonar that can identify what a liquid is in a closed container. All you have to do is touch the container with a probe and know the dimensions of the container. The technology measures the speed of transfer of the signal through the liquid. It turns out that every liquid has a fingerprint. Not only can it tell you what it is, it can tell you—perhaps more importantly—what it isn’t. In addition, it can tell you if there is a void or container in the drum or tank car.
Another exciting technology in the hazmat world is laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS). New research funded by the Department of Defense demonstrates the ability to use lasers to identify hazardous materials from a distance by focusing a laser beam on the material. This same technology is currently available in a laboratory capability and in a portable capability. The portable capability will be available in a Pelican case-size device—again, the importance of this device might be to tell us what something isn’t. Imagine being able to take a material in the field and drop it into a Pelican case, identify that it isn’t hazardous, and send everyone home. Think of the arson investigation implications.
Finally for hazardous materials there is simple technology in a new configuration—mobile decon units that are self-propelled (vehicle-mounted) or trailer-mounted. These are complete turnkey units that have hot water, showers, and all the materials needed for true decon that can be parked in the cold zone to do a proper job of decon.
RESCUE: Probably the newest technology in rescue is battery-powered hydraulic tools. These tools have taken battery power, which has been available for a long time using larger batteries, and put it into smaller, commercial-size batteries to allow smaller, quieter applications. The trade-off is ultimate capability, but generally, they will perform on most rescue jobs. The second area to keep an eye on in the field of rescue is patient transport. New items here range from plastic stretchers that wrap around the patient to new off-road wheeled stretchers for use in remote/rough terrain to some really cool tripods.
There is a desperate need for research in the field of rescue for developing information for extrication from armored vehicles such as Humvees and MRAPS. The rescue industry is willing to do the research if someone is interested in providing the vehicles.
FIREFIGHTING: Not necessarily in the new category but an area that we are still struggling to get a grip on is in the area of blended gasolines and polar solvent fires. These fires require special firefighting foams—plain AFFF does not work. How do you know what foam to use? How do you write specifications? UL listings do not necessarily apply to fighting these fires in the middle of the street. The best advice is to get the foam that works on polar solvents with the longest quarter life. Make sure you store the foam properly. Aerate the foam using a foam nozzle. However much concentrate you have, it’s probably not enough. Here is a great place for a specialized trailer. This is an area that everyone needs to reevaluate what they are doing.
WILDLAND FIREFIGHTING: The issues are new and outdated at the same time. Many agencies are looking at “outlawing” ATVs for firefighting applications because of the high rollover risk. That is combined with the very small payload. Agencies are looking to the larger UTVs and, in some cases, the Israeli TomCar for ultimate off-road capability with very high payload. Research is currently underway to configure this vehicle for firefighting and rescue applications. The draw is primarily the extremely low center of gravity. Also exciting in the wildland field are protective curtain technology and protective wraps for exposed fuel and hydraulic lines under the vehicle (stay away from plain aluminized cloth).
TECHNOLOGY: We are getting really close to being able to track firefighters within a building or within an area. Several technologies are very promising. Most are breathing apparatus-driven, but some are freestanding systems. Keep an eye on this changing technology. Also available are some interesting training technologies that allow you to fight fire as an individual, a team, and an IC all on computers that are linked together using real-time gaming technology. This technology is still rough around the edges but certainly worth keeping an eye on.
In 2007, NFPA 72 recognized video image smoke detection (VISD). This is a software-based method of smoke detection that can use existing analog cameras or purpose-made digital video cameras. Able to see into large areas with high ceilings, VISD has applications in warehouses, commercial properties, and other vast expanses of space. Also in the building protection category are systems that will notify, through the fire alarm system, when a fire extinguisher is moved or needs servicing. This allows the fire department to be notified immediately when an extinguisher is used.
SAM GOLDWATER’s fire protection career spans 40 years. He has been assigned to engines, trucks, heavy rescues, and ambulances. While on the staff of IFSTA, he worked with many fire departments in North America developing training materials. He has sat on several NFPA committees and has worked with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the Wildland Firefighters Foundation. He has worked with manufacturers and distributors of fire equipment, is a past recipient of the Joe Fishelson Award, and is president of Samuel Goldwater and Associates.