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NFPA Impact: Embracing innovation: Changing tactics and tools


April 28, 2008
By Sean Tracey

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You have all heard the old line about the fire services boasting more than 100 years of tradition unheeded by progress. This may be true, in that as a group we tend to look with skepticism on any new technology. We, as standards development bodies, have also done a great job conditioning the fire services to always look for certification.

seantracey2You have all heard the old line about the fire services boasting more than 100 years of tradition unheeded by progress. This may be true, in that as a group we tend to look with skepticism on any new technology. We, as standards development bodies, have also done a great job conditioning the fire services to always look for certification.

The problem is that this can often result in the fire service not considering some of the newer technologies that are at our disposal. Codes and standards bodies are often no better at incorporating changes because we either wait for significant push from the fire services or broad acceptance of the technology.

When new technology is introduced, and it is held by one company, the standards are often not rewritten because of concerns about favouring one company. This should not result in these technological innovations being dismissed.

There are great innovations on display at your association trade shows, many of them from Canadian companies we can be proud of. Some of these innovations represent technologies that have evolved out of necessity because today’s fires grow faster and are more deadly than just 20 years ago.

The fire service needs greater innovation because the threats we face today are changing. We cannot assume that the standard practices we followed 20 years ago will continue to safeguard our personnel. We have more contents in our homes today and they are made of products that behave differently than when the building codes were being developed in the 1950s. We know from National Research Council of Canada and other testing that typical fires burn faster and hotter and produce more toxic products.

Part 9 of The National Building Code for houses has no stated requirement for minimum fire performance; therefore, many new construction products are being introduced without any need to consider their performance in a fire.

Many of our assumptions have changed, therefore our tactics and tools should also evolve. Furthermore, we are constantly fighting for resources in our communities with less funding and fewer volunteers. We need to continually upgrade our training, fire-ground tactics and use of new technologies.

Think of this being analogous to warfare – the tactics of warfare are constantly evolving and military forces constantly seek out and encourage innovation. Warfare of today is significantly different from the 1940s because of evolution in tactics, technology and training. We are in a battle against fire and we need to evolve. 

In my opinion, there are a number of gems in the current lineup of trade-show products out there that warrant a greater interest from the fire services. The makers of each of these products have invested significant resources and each innovation has the potential to push the fire service into modern times. These products therefore warrant closer consideration by the fire service. I won’t mention the company names because of concerns that it would be perceived as endorsement from NFPA but I will mention the technology.

• Training publications
While most training publications are still produced on paper, additional learning points are widely available from web-based sources. Today’s fire-service recruits are tech savvy so our teaching materials should reflect current publishing trends and Internet advancements.

• Internet-based training programs
Programs that are up to date and managed for the department via Internet delivery allow for uniform delivery across multiple sites. Training time for volunteers is at a premium so companies that facilitate this and assist in managing the process help set the new benchmark.

• Compressed-air foam systems
These are small units that can be run from a vehicle’s 12-volt system and small water supply. They can be deployed in any number of vehicles that can stop a fire in the incipient stages or handle a small car fire, and they multiply the effectiveness of limited personnel. Earlier suppression will alleviate pressures on volunteer resources. 

• Dry powdered aerosols
These non-toxic, portable devices can be thrown by a single first responder and knockdown or suppress a fire in a contained space up to 60 m3 in less than 30 seconds. Fire can be stopped in its tracks while resources are still mustering. Early suppression can help the volunteer resources and significantly reduce property losses.

I believe that all of these exciting technologies have great potential to advance our fire-service capabilities.

Unfortunately, we are often reluctant to buy into these innovative methods as we wait for others to lead the way. Do not ignore innovation: we need to evolve because fires have evolved.

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