New firefighting foam worth a closer look

Robert Avsec

Many firefighting foams are based on synthetic substances, such as perfluorochemicals. These are highly effective, but toxic to plant and animal life.

It can take these foams more than 200 years to completely break down. During that time, the residues penetrate soil and water. That allows the toxic elements to accumulate in living things, including humans.

Phys.org reported that in 2015, a group of scientists from the International Laboratory of Advanced Materials and Technologies (SCAMT) at ITMO University in St. Petersburg, Russia, and research company SOPOT devised fast-hardening, fully biodegradable foam for firefighting. Good news for sure.

But the real story is that FHF has demonstrated a greater fire suppression capability. After the fire is extinguished, the substance actively absorbs water, softens and falls apart into bioinert silica particles. And even when the foam accidentally enters living organisms, it poses no danger to them.

According to Phys.org, FHF is based on silica nanoparticles, which create a polymer network when exposed to air. Upon contact with a burning object, the foam embraces and adheres to the burning object and rapidly cools it.

Simultaneously, the foam itself hardens. The inorganic nature of the foam enables it to resist temperatures above 1,800 F (1,000 C) and stick to surfaces.

"Most existing foams are made of organic materials and quickly deteriorate when temperature approaches 300 degrees Celsius,” Alexander Vinogradov, deputy head of the SCAMT laboratory told Phys.org. “In our case, the foam creates a hard frame that not only puts out the fire, but also protects the object from re-ignition. With ordinary foams, re-ignition occurs within seconds after flame is applied to the object again."

The scientists who developed FHF conducted a series of large-scale experiments to test the foam’s capabilities. One of those experiments was imitating a forest fire. In it, the foam was used to create a flame-retardant belt around the fire’s perimeter to stop the spread of the fire.

Researchers said the FHF fire-line easily localized the seat of the wildland fire. And, the barrier remained active during the whole fire season.

Potential uses

This sort of development could have a huge impact on fire suppression capabilities in the United States and Canada, particularly for firefighting in the wildland-urban interface.

The increased heat absorption capabilities and persistent nature of FHF could provide structural and wildland firefighters with a tool that could help them accomplish a host of tactical objectives. Some examples would include:

  • Rapid suppression of a well-involved room or rooms or an entire structure using far less water.
  • Protection for adjacent structures exposed to radiant heat or flying embers from a fully involved structure fire (without the need to reapply).
  • Protection of structures and vegetation in the path of an advancing wildland fire (without the need to reapply).
  • Establishment of a perimeter fire line for wildland fires (that will stay intact).
  • Protection of evacuation routes in wildland fires from fire spread (without the need to reapply).

FHF could support a completely new paradigm for fire protection by homeowners living in the WUI. Think about it.

A local government, with the encouragement of the insurance industry through significant premium discounts, strongly encourages homeowners in its community to purchase a residential FHF protection kit (when, and if, they become available) to protect their home in the event of a wildfire.

That local government could also enact an ordinance to charge homeowners a set amount if they had not purchased a kit and the fire department had to protect their home from a wildfire.

This plan would offer both a reward and punitive financial incentive to homeowners to protect their property.

Making it work

Here’s how the scenario could play out. A developing wildfire is predicted to move in the direction of residential property in a community.

Local fire officials notify the homeowners in the projected path to act to protect their homes with their FHF kit, and then evacuate the area along the defined evacuation routes, which are being protected by firefighters using FHF from their apparatus.

Consider that for a moment. Instead of homeowners staying behind after an evacuation has been ordered and putting themselves – and firefighters – in jeopardy while they try to protect their homes using garden hoses, I suspect that many would promptly evacuate knowing that they’ve done something that has a high likelihood of protecting their home.

Once the evacuation routes have been protected, firefighters could then direct their efforts toward protecting those homes where the homeowners had not done so, if safely possible.

Sound far-fetched? Maybe so, but then again so was putting a man on the moon at one time.

Whenever I see or read about technology advances like this for firefighting, I always think, “Who wouldn’t want that on their fire truck?” The sad reality is that our fire service culture is too often resistant to change. Take, for example, the adoption of Compressed Air Foam Systems.

  • What percentage of fire departments have CAFS on their fire apparatus?
  • For those that do have CAFS, how routinely is it used for structural firefighting?

Our fire service culture causes us to adopt new technologies at a glacial pace. Our current turnout gear ensemble, routine use of SCBA, portable radios – and the list could go on and on – are just a few examples of how slowly we adopt new stuff.

Think about this: we, for the most part, still extinguish fires using the same basic methodology as our predecessors who responded to fires with horse-drawn steamer engines. Only our delivery systems have gotten more sophisticated and expensive.

How long (if ever) will it take for FHF to become our go-to fire suppression and protection tool?

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