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NFPA Impact: June 2012

The fire service has long been accused of not embracing new technologies but being trapped in old practices and methodologies.

June 11, 2012
By Sean Tracey

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The fire service has long been accused of not embracing new technologies but being trapped in old practices and methodologies. One area that generates regular inquiries is compressed-air foam systems and whether greater credit should be given to these systems in NFPA standards and in insurance grades.

Firstly, we need to understand the purposes of NFPA standards. These are used to standardize, or write into the fire code, industry best practices based on years of experience and scientific evaluations. The standards represent what the fire service wants to see promulgated as standards of practice. Should standards become the means to push the fire service to accept new technologies? I think this is not what is wanted, and when standards attempt to do this, the fire service often resists unless there are compelling arguments in favour of the change.

Secondly, the standards speak to common equipment expectations and resources. They do not speak to fire-ground effectiveness, tactics, or even SOPs; I believe this would be too difficult to do in our complex system of career, composite and volunteer departments whose resources can differ drastically. For this reason, standards such as NFPA 1710 and 1720 talk broadly about resources and response-time objectives, and we have standards on water supply calculations to help determine whether there are adequate fire resources. But this is where these standards tend to end, as we give room to communities for a broad range of alternative delivery practices.

The NFPA has standards on compressed air foams, notably NFPA 1145, Guide for the Use of Class-A Foams in Manual Structural Fire Fighting. This document is a guide. As the preamble to the standard states, “because the use of class-A foam and its associated hardware and proportioning systems was still evolving, the committee decided that a guide to the use of such foam would be of greater benefit to the many fire departments and agencies that were exploring the use of class-A foam for structural fire protection as well as fire suppression and extinguishment.” The standard remains a guide after three editions.

The use of foam has also had a direct impact on water supplies for fire fighting but both the NFPA 1 fire code and NFPA 1142 Standard on Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting have yet to consider the potential impact that foam may have on water-flow calculations. (The same committee responsible for NFPA 1141 on water supplies is responsible for the class-A foam standards.)

The NFPA standards do not generally speak to measuring operational effectiveness – if this falls to anyone, it is the purview of Fire Underwriting Survey (FUS). In Canada we generally accept FUS ratings on how fire brigades are scored for insurance ratings in communities. FUS grades tend to evaluate departments based on a number of NFPA standards. The problem is how to benchmark the performance of CAF systems, because effectiveness may vary greatly based on the operator and equipment. Also, can the CAF systems still fulfill all the requirements of areas such as water supplies and control of exposures? The bottom line is that there are still cases when water flow is required and the foam may not replace needed fire flows in all cases. FUS can now grade water-supply effectiveness using the superior tanker accreditation, but no equivalent accepted methodology has been put forward for CAF systems. So, FUS may appear to be slow to change but in its defence, there are many outstanding questions and more research is needed.

Many research entities and fire departments are advancing our understanding of the effectiveness of CAF systems. NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) hosted a workshop in December to look at the capabilities and limits of CAF. This was part of a two-year project to provide a comprehensive study on the use of CAFs for structural fire fighting. The workshop was open to the fire services, and the National Research Council’s Andrew Kim – a leading researcher in this field – presented information on recent evaluations. Results of the meeting can be downloaded from the NFPA website (www.nfpa.org).

So what are the next steps? As mentioned, more research is needed and NFPA’s FPRF does have a study underway, but the Canadian fire service should be looking at compiling its research and experiences. To help facilitate this, I have started a discussion thread in the NFPA forum of PTSC Online (www.ptsc-online.ca), including a  link to the FPRF workshop information and Kim’s presentation. My intention is to start a dialogue and catalogue the experiences of the Canadian fire service. I encourage you to get involved in this discussion.

There are many questions around CAF systems that prevent them from getting the credit they may need, but at least there is research and discussion about the benefits of these systems.


Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional manager of the National Fire Protection Association International and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at stracey@nfpa.org


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