The future of firefighting is defined by the endless challenge to improve upon today’s technologies, policies, and procedures, as well as to create new and more effective solutions to the world’s fire problems. Looking back over the last century, we see leaps and bounds so great it’s hard to imagine “building a better beast”. Often it seems as if every good idea has already been thought of, and as though every angle has been identified.
Specifically, this post will highlight four emerging technologies. One is a new version of an old idea. Two are closer to reality than we might have imagined, though still have many years of development ahead of them.. The last one (some pretty slick engines) already being used in limited practice, but may never actually see American soil.
Often times the best ideas are the simplest. A new device called the FIT-5 highlights that notion, at least in its use. Though the science behind the FIT-5 is not as simple as dousing a fire with water, its concept is just as simple. During a fire, the fire itself becomes its own sustained heat source. Water removes this piece of the fire tetrahedron (oxygen, fuel, a heat source, and a chemical chain reaction). In the case of the FIT-5, it’s the oxygen that is removed from the equation. ARA Safety who manufactures the FIT-5 says “the device can fully extinguish a class B (fuel-based) fire in a room 2,100 cubic feet (60 cubic meters) or less and reduce fire temperatures from 1,000 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit (540 to 150 degrees Celsius) in less than 10 seconds. The FIT-5 is also designed to control class A (ordinary combustibles) fires enough so that firefighters can douse them with water.”
As explained by Larry Greenmier of Scientific American “the FIT-5 releases a wispy cloud of potassium carbonate, a flame retardant that suppresses combustion and disrupts fire at the molecular level.”
The FIT-5 has it’s limitations of course. While it’s a great tool, it’s not ideal for fires in wide open spaces and like traditional fire extinguishers, it won’t last that long before it runs out of extinguishing agent. Still, it has some very convincing uses including being an agent of egress when fire is blocking an exit. Also, in cases where it may not be able to extinguish a fire altogether, it can buy firefighters additional time by offering at-the-moment suppression of a flame area or by delaying flashover in cases where water may not yet be available.
Another exciting and useful technology working its way toward completion is the TRX’s Firefighter Sentinel System. This is essentially a tracking system that works like GPS, except on a much smaller basis. Rather than road maps for the country, and a dot to show where your car is, the TRX system creates maps of buildings and structures and dots showing where firefighters are. PASS devices are great tools for finding downed firefighters, but if you’re not within earshot or the building is large, it may not be enough.
The Sentinel system works by having firefighters wear a small tracking beacon/ communication unit on their gear. A signal is sent from this unit to a base station where their exact location and movement can be tracked. If they are in a structure for which floorplans are available, directing them or finding them (if downed) is very easy. If there is no existing floorplan, the devices create one based upon the movement of firefighters throughout the structure.
In an interview with Firehouse.com, Steven T. Edwards of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute said “This represents the future of firefighter safety. You look at the firefighter fatalities throughout the country and there are trends,” he said. “(Firefighters) are disoriented; they come into an area of the building where they get away from their crew and the hose line where no one knows where they’re at… You might have a few minutes to attempt a rescue, and to have that location and direct a rescue team to that specific location is a huge step forward.”
While the Sentinel tracking system isn’t quite ready yet, it’s much closer to implementation than our next future technology. Get ready to delve into sci-fi land as we discuss Robotic Exoskeletons.
Straight out of the Terminator movies, exoskeletons are just what you’d think: “Robotic …human performance augmentation systems worn by humans to enhance mechanical strength and power.” Among a number of well-funded private companies, the University of Berkeley Robotics Laboratory has been making significant progress is the development of exoskeletons. They’ve already completed their first “Bleex 1” (Berkeley lower extremity exoskeleton) and are working on the second version.
The most significant benefit of a robotic exoskeleton for firefighters would be the ability for them to climb many flights of stairs with multiple times the weight (in hose, gear or even rescues), without fatiguing.
The challenge faced in making this sort of technology realistic for fire fighting is to make the designs lightweight, efficient, reliable and of course safe. In addition they’re going to need to be affordable and have gone through extensive testing before cities would be willing to dish out the money required to buy these fantasy-like machines.
Many of these challenges are being attacked in the construction of the BLEEX 2. The focuses for improvement for this version include a lighter and quieter hybrid engine, and extended range, flexibility, and agility of the system. I believe it may be decades, or even a full century before we see exoskeletons perfected, but that at some point they will be put to use in reality. Firefighting, combat, and construction are just a few realistic places this unique technology could make history.
Learn more about Exoskeletons in this article by Scientific American.
The final future technology we’re going to consider is one that is the stuff of little boys’ dreams – yes, the big red machines. There are a number of truck and engine manufacturers in the U.S. and around the world, but one of the worlds largest is the Austrian company, Rosenbauer. Though their apparatus are seen primarily in other countries, I believe it’s likely that within the 21st century, we’ll see trucks like theirs being built by American manufacturers.
Rosenbauer’s vehicles are more than just slick-looking futuristic machines. Advantages include compact body dimensions, decreased body weight, streamlined roll-up doors without the need for additional step-boards, premium stowage systems and tons more.
I could list multiple pages of highlights and feature, but that’s all available in their website. In the end, the sum of their design means that firefighters will be able to get to fires faster and fight them more efficiently. Access to equipment and tools will be faster and often with less effort and risk of injury.
In conclusion, it is definitely a very exciting time to be in the fire industry. I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into the future of firefighting. Comment below and let me know your thoughts!