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Putting out fires while using less water

April 12, 2011
By Brad Bauer ( , The Marietta Times

The concept of "surround and drown" has been a basic firefighting concept since the first fire brigades formed.

But relatively new technology that utilizes compressed air and fire retardant foam is starting to prove it can be more effective in some instances.

John Finley, president and CEO of Finley Fire Equipment in McConnelsville, said compressed air foam systems (CAFS) have been around for about a decade but the technology is starting to gain popularity with area fire departments.

"For years, the concept has been to put the wet stuff on the red stuff ... That's what puts out fires," he said. "And foam has been used for years to help with some fires. It has the ability to cool and really cool or smother a fire. When you add an air compressor to the mix, it greatly increases the foam, making for even greater cooling capacity."

Also, the systems are capable of putting out a fire using 75 percent less water than traditional firefighting methods. That can mean less property damage and less fatigue for firefighters.

Because the technology is relatively new and expensive, only a handful of area fire departments have such systems. Warren, Salem, McConnelsville-Malta and Belpre volunteer fire departments have upgraded to CAFS systems in recent years, Finley said.

Fact Box

About compressed-air foam systems:

Fighting a fire with water requires a lot of muscle. The heaviness of water boosts the weight of the hose, increasing stress on firefighters. Compressed-air foam, on the other hand, is much lighter, easier to control and more effective, resulting in fewer injuries and health-related issues.

With a foam system, you get more performance from a truck and crew, while conserving water.

It takes tons and tons of water to extinguish many fires. But once water penetrates the char, where does it go? Some becomes steam, but gravity handles the rest, causing additional water damage to the structure, displacing residents and increasing private and municipal insurance costs. Traditional foam systems offer an improvement; you use only half the water and none of it is displaced.

With compressed-air foam system, firefighters need only one-quarter of the water to extinguish fires.

Source: Pierce Manufacturing.

A CAFS system adds about $40,000 onto the price of a new fire pumper. Some late model trucks can be retro-fitted with the technology, but it can add to the cost, Finley said.

Officials with the Marietta Fire Department said they do not have such a system, but that it will likely be added as an option when it is time to replace a truck.

After a recent natural oil and gas fire near Caldwell that also involved massive explosions, Caldwell Volunteer Fire Chief Rick Starr said the situation would have been much worse if it had not been for assistance from Finley Fire Equipment and Malta-McConnelsville fire crews, who responded with a CAFS system and a fresh supply of foam.

In all, six fire departments and more than 50 firefighters responded to the March 26 fire.

Starr said traditional foam systems were being used to try to extinguish the large blaze and to keep the battery of storage tanks cool.

"One of the lines in there had been broken off or burnt off and product kept coming out of the line and the only thing we could do was try to keep everything as cool as possible," he said.

"Once the CAFS system got there, it really smothered it."



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