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Sometimes technological breakthroughs are revolutionary – such as the development of the Internet and the personal computer.

April 27, 2011
By Laura King

Sometimes technological breakthroughs are revolutionary – such as the development of the Internet and the personal computer. More often, they involve taking familiar things and making them better. Forty years ago, few people imagined wireless phones on every hip and households abandoning landlines, or 500 channels of satellite television, or online banking, or iTunes.

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This photo illustration depicts electricity being used to extinguish flames through electrical bending, a process Harvard scientists say might be useful for firefighters who need to get into buildings, or get trapped people out of burning buildings.


 

But not all innovations are good ones. The world is taking a hard look at nuclear energy safety in the wake of the disaster in Japan in March. And fruit-flavoured potato chips? Betamax? Gone, but not missed.

The fire service is no different. Smart people do research in labs and universities on different types of fires, challenges created by fires and better ways to extinguish fires. Below are three dispatches from the research front. As a subtext to these innovations, consider that maybe for the fire service, the path to new technology is found by going back to basics. There’s a reason firefighters have been dumping water on fires for centuries – it works: wet stuff on red stuff, as the fire-service cliché says.

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Researching electrical pulses – as scientists at Harvard are doing – for a new application in the war on fire is great. But in the absence of a eureka moment that radically changes the way firefighters fight fire, maybe the future of fire technology lies in finding more efficient ways to improve old practices.

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In late March, just after 24,000 North American firefighters had tested dozens of new products and checked out displays of firefighting technology at FDIC in Indianapolis, a story crossed the wires about something called electrical bending.

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The invention of the mechanical pump is probably the most significant advancement in fire fighting, says the curator of the Nova Scotia Firefighter’s Museum.


 

The technology is not new – scientists have known for 200 years that electricity can manipulate small flames – but its potential use in firefighting is only now being explored.

Harvard scientists unveiled their electrical-bending research at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Florida on March 27. The scientists built a wand connected to a 600-watt amplifier – similar to one that powers a car stereo – that directs beams of electricity toward an open flame. From a certain distance, the scientists were able to extinguish the flame over and over again.

On its website, the ACS explains the potential use of electrical-bending technology in fire fighting.

“A curtain of flame halts firefighters trying to rescue a family inside a burning home,” the ACS said in a press release. “One with a special backpack steps to the front, points a wand at the flame, and shoots a beam of electricity that opens a path through the flame for the others to pass and lead the family to safety.

“Scientists . . . described a discovery that could underpin a new genre of fire-fighting devices, including sprinkler systems that suppress fires not with water, but with zaps of electric current, without soaking and irreparably damaging the contents of a home, business, or other structure.”

The Harvard scientists said electricity can manipulate flames, causing them to bend, twist, turn and flicker, and it can even extinguish fires. But so far there has been little research on the phenomenon.

Harvard’s Ludovico Cademartiri said the technology could be particularly useful for fighting fires in small places such as armoured trucks, planes, and submarines.

He explained that carbon particles, or soot, generated during combustion are easily charged, and once charged they respond to electric fields in ways that affect the stability of the flame. If that stability is shaken hard enough, the flame collapses.

The website Hypervocal.com noted, tongue in cheek, that none of the news reports about the electrical bending presentation discussed potential downsides of the technology, “you know, electrical pulses being blasted willy nilly, or what would happen if the Jackass gang got their hands on it.”

It all sounds a bit Harry Potter-esque. And, after eons of putting water on fire, it might be tough for some in the fire service to get their heads around the concept of using electricity to fight flames – not to mention the cost of introducing this sort of technology to the fire service, and training people to use it.

Indeed, the scientists said the electrical-bending process is complex and isn’t very well understood, which isn’t overly reassuring.

Still, with aerosol suppression devices becoming more popular for extinguishing certain types of fires (basement fires in particular) and with lightweight construction reducing the window of opportunity for firefighters to enter buildings, blogs and science websites pontificated about whether electrical-bending technology might be worth a look.

As Hypervocal.com noted: “Firefighting technology has changed greatly over the last century. There are flame-retardant materials, oxygen tanks, newer containment techniques and fire suppressant foams, to name but a few of the improvements that have helped save the lives of firefighters.

“In many ways, however, even with the newer technology, fighting a raging fire still boils down to the same methods of our Roman ancestors: dump massive amounts of water onto the fire. It ain’t elegant, but if it works why change it?”

Good point, but the website Popsci.com came up with some seemingly sensible reasons to consider electrical bending.

“Electrical bending can suppress or extinguish flames without flooding buildings or tapping a vast source of water,” it rationalized.

Popsci.com noted that while the Harvard experiments involved a 600-watt amplifier, the researchers said they could achieve similar effects with one-tenth the wattage. “That means a wave blaster could be pared down into a handheld unit or one carried on the back,” it said.

“And that could allow firefighters to open a path in a wall of flame in order to get inside (or out of) a burning building, or open a passage of escape for people trapped inside. The technology could even be built into ceiling-mounted fixtures like the sprinklers, saving entire buildings from getting drenched when a fire breaks out in one small corner.”

David Darby, curator of the Nova Scotia Firefighters Museum, says electrical-bending technology sounds far-fetched but it piqued his interest as an innovation that could potentially revolutionize the fire service, similar to the invention of steam pumpers in the early 1900s. 

“The technology in the steam pumpers was amazing to draft the water and pump it on a fire,” Darby said in an interview. He said the switch to mechanical pumpers from hand pumpers was probably the most important change the fire service has experienced.

While there have since been technological improvements in the fire service, Darby said the basics of fire fighting haven’t changed.

“Basically you put water on the fire and the fire goes out,” he said. “Mind you, how they do that is improving, with bigger pumps, and how firefighters are trained to do that is improving.”

As for electrical bending, blogger and Fire Chief Adam K. Thiel of Alexandria, Va., is skeptical and his online comments bear repeating.

“For literally hundreds of years, firefighters have been charged with putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. Just imagine how our strategy and tactics might change if we didn’t have to carry water on board our engines, pumpers, tankers and tenders; or worry about establishing a reliable supply from hydrants and static water sources?

“The technology . . . was used to extinguish a very small fire under controlled conditions, but the underlying principles certainly seem scalable to larger events if a delivery mechanism can be devised. (Maybe 22nd-century fire engines will carry generators instead of water tanks?)

“The bigger issue is the role of technology in modern fire suppression. Although we have much better equipment, apparatus, and training than our predecessors, the basic aim of fire fighting hasn’t changed in centuries.

“Can you think of anything else that’s been done (essentially) the same way, for that long?”

*    *    *

Meanwhile, as most North American firefighters are aware, scientists in Worcester, Mass., have been working for a decade to make a better locator device for downed firefighters.

We all know the story of the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire in which six firefighters died. In December 1999, the six became lost in a vacant, windowless warehouse that flashed over.

Now a team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is looking to commercialize a personal locator device and other safety equipment. The locator was demonstrated for scientists and others in August at WPI’s annual conference on indoor location tracking for rescue workers.

More recently, a November story in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette quoted WPI’s David Cyganski, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and a member of the team developing the Precision Personnel Locator for First Responders. After a presentation to members of a tech group, Cyganski told the newspaper that a piece of rescue equipment the WPI team has been developing is being tested by a private company to see if it meets the company’s standards for commercialization. He declined to say more about the equipment or identify the company, but said there could be an announcement shortly.

Cyganski said the WPI team is also developing a sensor that would alert fire officials to flashover conditions, as well as telemetry equipment worn by firefighters that would transmit vital signs to a computer, alerting officials if any are reaching critical stress levels.

The locator devices would transmit data to receivers placed around the building or on fire trucks, with a command staff monitoring the data on a laptop computer.

Although the locator technology has not advanced to commercialization, in the most recent tests (conducted with firefighters searching multi-storey buildings wearing masks that obscure their vision) rescuers found lost victims before using up a bottle of air.

*    *    *
We’ll give the last word on firefighting technology – or the challenges thereof – to Capt. Mike McKenna, chair of the NFPA 1971 task group on gloves.

In an article on FireRescue1.com, McKenna notes that recent media attention to The Glove Corp.’s Blaze Fighter structural gloves raises questions about what’s practical and appropriate in the trade-off between thermal protection and dexterity in structural gloves.

McKenna wonders if glove manufacturers are at their technological limit to provide higher dexterity while maintaining thermal protection.
“What if the fire service has ‘demanded’ itself into a corner?” McKenna asks.

He notes that in his 32 years of service, glove dexterity has always been a complaint but never a problem.

“Then,” he says, “a few years ago, tighter-fitting structural gloves with new, stretchy textiles and thinner leather were introduced. Firefighters now had a taste of improved dexterity, and the market exploded.

“Firefighters were searching for and purchasing these new, more dexterous gloves, but with them came some faint whispers of hot hands.”

Sure enough, McKenna says, manufacturers had a new market for structure gloves and new designs began arriving, combining new fabrics with exotic leathers, offering more dexterity. And dexterity became a “problem”. “What if the fire service was and is asking too much from their gloves, given the technology currently available?” McKenna asks. “What are the most important functions that need to be met by structure gloves? The job hasn’t really changed too much over the past few years — do our gloves really need to?”

As all firefighters know, and as McKenna points out, certain tasks, such as changing the channels on a radio, are challenging while wearing structural firefighting gloves.

“Is the fire service willing to lower the bar on thermal protection for better dexterity, and deal with hot hands and burns?” he asks. 

McKenna says the fire service needs to determine whether it is ready and willing to educate its members about thermal saturation and limitations of gloves.
“If more instruction is given on the limitations of PPE, especially gloves, there’s a chance we would see fewer burn injuries,” he says. 

“Certainly having improved dexterity and thermal protection is a worthy and admirable goal, and it may be achievable. But for now, we need to be confident that it’s not realistic given current technologies before adopting new products en masse. We must ask ourselves where the line between thermal protection and dexterity falls, and be prepared to accept that we may not be able to have both.”

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