There’s a lot of science behind firefighting. To the naked eye, it may seem like firefighters simply spray water on the fire and leave. Today’s fire departments, however, use advanced technology to increase the safety and effectiveness of their firefighters.
Foam is one such technology. Firefighting foam, also known as Class A foam (used for Carbon fires), or Class B (used to fight Hydrocarbon fires), has proven to be more effective than water alone at fighting fires, which could reduce the amount of damage, losses, and the size of smoke and fire damage insurance claims. Unfortunately, fire departments across America rarely use foam effectively.
One fire chief decided to find out why.
El Paso Texas Fire Department Chief Roberto Diaz recently partnered with West Texas A&M Professor Xiangyu Li to publish a paper called, “Fighting Fires and Cancer with Class A Foam.” The paper explains the many benefits of using foam to fight fires. It also explores why fire departments continue to avoid using foam.
Class A foam has proven benefits. Foam can significantly enhance the safety of firefighters, for example, and minimize their health risks. It can also protect a building from water, fire, and smoke damage, creating less of a mess as an end result.
Despite these proven benefits, some fire departments do not promote using foam, putting the lives of civilians and firefighters at risk.
Keep reading to discover the surprising results of the research paper. Learn why foam – not water – might be the preferred firefighting tool of the future.
Modern Fire Departments Avoid Using Foam, and That’s a Problem
Chief Diaz was motivated to work on the research paper after discovering that many fire departments continue to avoid using Class A foam – despite growing research that foam is a safer and more effective firefighting tool, when used in conjunction with water.
Fire departments cite two main reasons for avoiding the use of foam:
- It’s more expensive
- It requires more training
Both of these assumptions are true: foam tends to have higher upfront costs than other firefighting tools. And, firefighters may require additional training before effectively using foam.
However, Chief Diaz’s research paper finds that the benefits of foam outweigh the negatives.
6 Surprising Benefits of Using Foam to Fight Fires
Class A foam has proven to be one of the most effective firefighting tools on the planet. Using Class A foam, firefighters can minimize damage, maximize safety, and perform their job more effectively.
For all of these reasons, the downsides of Class A foam – like higher costs and more training – are easily outweighed by the benefits. The primary benefits of using Class A foam to fight fires include:
1. Fewer Health Risks to Firefighters, Including a Reduced Risk of Cancer
Firefighting is one of the most dangerous professions in the United States. We should be doing everything in our power to limit health risks for firefighters. Unfortunately, firefighters face health risks both while the fire is burning and after the fire is extinguished.
Chief Diaz’s research paper argues that Class A foam is one of the best ways to reduce health risks for firefighters:
“Multiple studies reveal that foam can help protect firefighters from the high prevalence of rising cancer rates. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported that “there is a suspected correlation between exposure to off-gassing and rare, aggressive cancers that have stricken firefighters at an alarming rate.”
Sadly, 61% of line-of-duty firefighter deaths from 2002 to 2016 were caused by occupational cancer, according to the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF).
Additionally, cancer rates among firefighters are rising at such an alarming rate that the Centers for Disease Control is starting to get involved.
2. Water-based Firefighting Techniques Spread Carcinogens Across Cities
As Chief Diaz’s research paper explains, water actually increases the spread of carcinogens – cancer-causing agents – during and after a fire:
“Toxins that are carried out of the fire area by smoke or water run-off… are a real threat to rescue personnel. This is not limited to only the fire personnel on the scene, but also includes civilians that were inside or close to the fire area while it burned as well as citizens that were far from the fire.”
Because of water-based firefighting techniques, many of these carcinogens end up in the sewage system of a city, where they can cause problems among people who had nothing to do with the fire.
3. Class A Foam Mixed with Water is Significantly More Effective than Water Alone
Class A foam isn’t just safer for firefighters: it’s also significantly better at fighting fires. Class A foam can be mixed with water to create an amazingly effective firefighting compound. The research paper mentions several major improvements in Class A foam technology over the years:
“Foam has greatly improved since its beginnings. Modern fire engineering has resulted in the design of more accurate and improved nozzles. Class A foam, when used with water, acts as a surfactant.”
Because Class A foam acts as a surfactant when mixed with water, it’s able to more effectively penetrate deep-seated fires, including fires within mattresses, sofas, vehicle seats, and other challenging items. These fires are difficult to extinguish with water alone.
4. Class A Foam Increases Survivability for Civilians and Firefighters
Fires are toxic environments for civilians and firefighters. The sooner the burning material can be extinguished, the less water and smoke damage there will be to the property and its contents. Less smoke and fire damage means, “better survivability for firefighters and civilians.”
5. Class A Foam Doesn’t Just Extinguish Fires; It Prevents Other Surfaces from Catching Fire
Another important point made in the research paper is that Class A foam is more than just an extinguishing agent: Class A foam can also protect surfaces from catching fire as the fire spreads.
“When Class A Foam is aerated with a Compressed Air Foam System (CAFS), to a thick “shaving cream like consistency,” it can be applied directly on an exposure for protection, with the goal of preventing its consumption by fire. Those structures that are located in close proximity to the first fire are susceptible of consumption of fire, by the original fire, via radiated heat (thermal radiation) – i.e. heat that traveling via electromagnetic waves, causing secondary fires.”
6. Class A Foam Decreases Damage to Homes and Businesses
Because of all of the advantages listed above, Class A foam can significantly reduce damage to homes and businesses. It puts out fires more quickly while requiring fewer firefighting personnel on the hose. It protects other surfaces from catching fire, localizing damage to a small area.
So Why Aren’t America’s Fire Departments Using Class A Foam?
Chief Diaz’s study cites dozens of studies to enforce all of the benefits mentioned above. But then it comes to a critical juncture: why aren’t America’s fired departments using Class A foam all the time? Why is Class A foam not used by every fire department in America?
To answer that question, Chief Diaz conducted a study among the El Paso Fire Department. Firefighters were asked about their experience using Class A foam and the training they have received.
Key findings include:
- The study involved both active and retired firefighters, with a total of 197 firefighters from the El Paso Fire Department involved in the study
- 49% of respondents received a “moderate amount” of training using Class A foam, while 35% indicated that they had received “a little” amount of training
- Stated another way, 84% of respondents received “a little to moderate amount” of training regarding the use of Class A foam
- Firefighters were asked why they avoided using Class A foam to fight fires; respondents mentioned issues like a lack of training in handling foam and improper storage and maintenance of Compressed Air Foam Systems (CAFS)
- Despite these issues, many firefighters reported that they appreciated the benefits of Class A foam, claiming that it made hoses lighter while making it easier to knock down fires
- 95% of respondents indicated that they were concerned with toxic residue left on their protective gear after a fire
Proper Foam Storage and Education is Crucial
One of the key problems identified in the study was with foam storage and maintenance.
One firefighter claimed that the Class A foam used in one department was so old that it had gelled:
“The quality and availability of firefighting foam in our area is not reliable. I have witnessed foam solution so old it has gelled and is unusable. I have also witnessed circumstances where large amounts of foam are requested and denied due to lack of availability.”
That’s where there’s room for better education: Class A foam lasts 20 to 25 years when stored in the original, unopened, airtight container.
Chemguard, one of America’s leading providers of Class A foam, describes the shelf life of their product like this:
“If kept in the original, unopened and airtight container, and stored within the temperature range 32°F-120°F, the shelf life of 20-25 years can be expected”
Chief Diaz’s study indicates that firefighters appreciate the benefits of Class A foam. Unfortunately, due to improper storage and training procedures, many fire departments are unable to use foam effectively.
These problems are fixable – and that’s why foam may be the preferred firefighting tool in the future.
Conclusion: Fire Departments Across America Should Being Using Class A Foam
Chief Diaz’s research paper sums up its findings with a powerful conclusion:
“This study suggests making Class A foam a Standard Operating Procedure both in the El Paso Fire Department and across the United States.”
Based on all of the benefits above and the limited downsides, Chief Diaz and Professor Xiangyu Li came to the conclusion that fire departments across the United States can experience enormous benefits by making Class A foam a part of their Standard Operating Procedures.