The Challenges of Using Foam in the Fire Service

The use of firefighting foams has had its moments of where it appeared that it could become more mainstream and part of day-to-day operations. But it never seemed to get a good hold on everyone in the fire service.
Since forever, water has been the agent of choice for fire extinguishment in almost all cases. This is obviously because of its availability and effectiveness.

The use of firefighting foams has had its moments of where it appeared that it could become more mainstream and part of day-to-day operations. But it never seemed to get a good hold on everyone in the fire service. Now this does not include the use for flammable liquids or at airports. Crash fire rescue units have always used foam and will continue to do so, as it is very effective for the fires encountered. But fire departments should continue to ask questions and evaluate whether or not their organization can benefit from the use of foam on various fires.

The purpose here is not to give a class on the variety of foams available. The objective is to create questions that lead to discussion so that good decisions are made for each individual department. Fire departments will continue to require the use of foam for flammable liquid fires. There is no doubt that a large liquid fuel fire, regardless of if it is on the highways and byways or in a fixed facility, will require the use of foam in the extinguishing effort.

For those departments with a higher risk of having a potential event, planning and training most likely will be part of the regular and routine operation. It is those departments with a very low probability of an event that have the most challenging job of determining what they will have as resources. It is difficult for departments that have a lot of work and busy schedules to put forth the effort needed when the frequency is extremely low. But this could be classified as one of those “what if” scenarios that require a minimal level of preparation.

Most, if not all, agencies with responsibilities to respond to liquid fires have probably initiated replacement of PFAS. These are the AFFFs that have received a lot of attention for a variety of reasons. Departments that don’t have a plan by now should put this to the front burner. There are two issues—finding a replacement that is fluorine free and disposing of what you have. The second will be more challenging and could be very costly. Do your research before you are forced to take action and pay a high price.

Regarding the Class A foams, one might wonder why they never really caught on at the grass roots level. There can be a variety of reasons—from cost to different equipment needs to added training time. There is also consideration for possible premature damage to some hose, nozzles, and fittings if not properly cleaned after use. Some may have even argued the possible hindrance to fire investigation.

In the end, it could be as simple as it involved change from what was widely accepted as standard practice. Maybe it never received its proper consideration and what could be offered to the extinguishing efforts. Yet, this tool is like any other and should be evaluated to determine whether or not it fits into the operation of a department.

There are some obvious advantages to the use of Class A foam, and some departments swear by it. The benefits can include quicker knockdown while using less water. The features of the product are intended to enhance the properties of water that make it so effective. One could argue that areas without fire hydrants or a fixed water distribution system could benefit from a product that requires less water to reach the same outcome. It could be that not enough investigation has taken place to make an educated decision. The product is available and has merit. Perhaps it is time to take another look to see if it is right for your organization and there is a good return on the investment.

There are considerations. What additional equipment will you need? How will it affect the existing equipment in your department? Will it alter your approach to firefighting so that additional training will be needed? How much time will be needed for ongoing training to maintain competence? Do you need to “reprogram” personnel so that this becomes more natural in its selection as a viable option? Is it the right choice for all fires? And, of course, will the budget support it?

Departments will have differing views of this and goals and objectives based on local conditions, resources, and expectations. One may also need to consider the potential for future environmental issues. The point is that foam is a tool and, as with every tool, there is a place and a time. Organizations need to do their homework and continually evaluate their circumstances.

Foam is effective. There is not much debate about this. If you are considering it, find some departments that have had success with it. Be prepared to ask questions. Many of those listed here are applicable. Somewhere along the line you may have heard some horror stories. You need to look more deeply into those. How long ago did that happen? Do solutions exist today to address previous challenges? Did the department follow the manufacturer’s recommendations? There are definitely a lot of considerations, but informed decisions are the best.

You can probably think of some products in this business that were not widely accepted in the fire service when initially introduced. It takes time in this industry to change habits and perspectives. And, we all know that one size does not fit all.

The use of foam in fire extinguishment has proven to be effective. Yet, the fire service as a whole has not embraced its use for regular and routine fire suppression, regardless of the type of fire. There may be some reasons, some legitimate and some that need to be further explored. You should know the entire cost and time and compare them to the expected benefits. This will include more than the foam itself and is to be weighed against the commitment the department is willing to make.

Fire departments need to look at the pros and cons to see if this product will improve service to the communities they serve.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief (ret.) of the White Lake Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member, 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 has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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