Fire Fighting in Canada

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The age of electrification

After decades of R&D, the future of green apparatus is decidedly on board with batteries.

November 4, 2021 
By Laura Aiken

Pierce’s Enforcer Volterra pumper prototype is in operation in Madison, Wis. Photo credit: Pierce mfg.

A fire truck is like an elite athlete: performance and maximum uptime are paramount. Downtime has a high cost. There’s a lot of tinkering to ensure the mind and machinations are simpatico. They are both entities with a mission, a job to do. But unlike athletes, traditional apparatus have been consuming a rather dirty petroleum based diet. Technology has reached a turning point that’s made it practical for fire trucks to starting eating clean and green.  

Improvements in battery technology have been the game changer that vehicle makers are uniting towards. The industry on wheels has long been looking seriously at many alternatives to the combustion engine and their petroleum fuels that belch vast swaths of CO2 from their underbellies.    

To consider how mainstream batteries are poised to become, consider that while Tesla and Prius are commonly entrenched names in electric cars and hybrids, Ford recently announced an $11.4 billion plan to create three factories that will make batteries and another plant to make an F-series of electric pick-up trucks with an eye on 40 per cent electric vehicle sales globally by 2030. That’s only eight years away. General Motors has set a global sales target of 100 per cent emissions free vehicles by 2035. 

Commercial fleets and city buses have played a part in paving the way for larger vehicles and now three fire truck manufacturers are leading the charge to the electrification of fire apparatus in North America. The Rosenbauer RT was the recipient of a prestigious Red Dot Design Award and toured its design in 2020.  The REV Fire Group (E-ONE, KME, Ferrara, Spartan Emergency Response) and Pierce Manufacturing have designed their own unique electric fire trucks and the options are looking more plentiful than ever. 

Pierce ENFORCER Volterra Pumper
Pierce Manufacturing has a zero-emissions fire truck in service in North America with the placement of its Enforcer Volterra pumper in Madison, Wis. The Volterra runs on a patented Oshkosh parallel electric drive-train. This parallel system runs in place of the Allison transmission that would typically be on the truck, explained Mike Feduniw, an apparatus specialist with Commercial Emergency Equipment, Canada’s largest dealer for Pierce. This drive-train is the secret sauce that allowed Pierce to build a configurable North American style fire truck with a North American range of products, but still operate on strictly electric power while being an overall hybrid model. This means the truck can run on electric, run on diesel, or run on a combination of the two. There is, as there is on all electric fire trucks, a small diesel engine on board. The electric motor is part of the parallel system. Pierce integrated a high capacity lithium ion battery system into the chassis, so there are lead acid batteries on one side of the chassis and lithium ion batteries on the other. The lead acid batteries are dedicated to the starting procedures and components that run while driving. The lithium ions are set up through a battery management system that was developed in-house through Pierce’s existing commands technology. The lithium ions provide total voltage to all systems when the truck is shut down, which avoids depleting the lead acid battery power.

The battery capacity is dependent on application, said Feduniw, lasting from “155 kilowatt hours up to an infinite number of hours as long as we can store that amount of energy on board.” The truck will switch automatically and start the diesel engine on its own, if required, which disengages the electric motor completely. 

“That’s the parallel drive magic,” he added, sharing that the prototype in Madison has run about 1000 calls and only run the diesel engine a handful of times. 

And the less the diesel engine runs, so it follows, the longer interval between oil changes, a service that’s one of the maintenance differentials between electric and traditional fire trucks. Feduniw said the numbers aren’t in yet, but the observation is significant increases in uptime and decreases in maintenance costs. 

The Volterra is an intelligent truck, calibrating functions such as heating, air conditioning and engine temperature to stay in a stable range despite the weather. The question of how electric fire trucks fare in a Canadian climate is the biggest question of concern Feduniw fields, and the answer for Pierce lies in the ability of Pierce’s technologies to talk to one another. 

While there is a lot of fancy footwork happening inside the Volterra fire truck, the goal is for fire departments to see little that is different from what they’re used to. 

 “We want to make it as easy as possible for fire departments to integrate this new technology in their fleets. We’ve got so many of the things we need to worry about on a scene, the truck really shouldn’t be one of them – just need the infrastructure at the station to charge it up.”

Rosenbauer’s RT rolled out in 2020.
Photo credit: Rosenbauer

Rosenbauer RT
Brampton fire department became the the first in Ontario to sign up to put the electric Rosenbauer RT in its fleet. Brian Innis, president of ResQTech Systems, who distribute Rosenbauer’s electric hybrid in Ontario, explained that it’s “more than just an electric fire truck, it’s a totally new concept.”   

Ergonomics played a significant role in the creation of the Rosenbauer RT, which stands for Revolutionary Technology. Kyle Innis, ResQTech’s vice-president, pointed to the diverse workforce in fire departments and how features such as all air suspension ensure everyone reaches the top of the compartments as well as providing flexibility in operations. The Hendrickson air suspension can be lowered to a mere 6.9 inches or raised as high as 18.5 inches, providing ease of access for the crew and adaptability in situations such as flooding. The crew have a variety of seating configurations to allow for face-to-face discussions from all positions during planning or debrief. The driver and officer seat face forward but rotate inward creating a central command area with a 20-inch screen in the centre dash. Volva Penta, a subsidiary of the Volvo Group, is the partner on the electric power train side. 

There has been also been a great deal of focus put on driving dynamics and vehicle stability. Conventionally, fire trucks have the water tank and hose up high and thus have a higher centre of gravity. The RT is designed to equalize the weight between the front and rear axle while also centralizing and lowering the weight to improve capabilities and safety. It makes for an improved driving experience, said Innis. 

“The only learning curve I’d say is the enhanced driving capabilities available to you,” shared ResQTech’s president. “The all-wheel steering and having control over independent axles — right now, if you were to cut across the lanes of the 401, you’d only have your front wheels turned towards that way. Now you can actually turn the front and rear and drive diagonally. It makes it a little bit easier to enter into tough positions, as well as exit from those conditions.” 

When you climb in, that engine tunnel is no longer there, creating a large, flexible interior. And, like all the electrics, it will be a quiet ride without the sound of the engine, reducing the noise at the scene for people in distress. 

Pricewise, departments can expect perhaps 30 per cent more cost than a traditional fire truck, but should also factor in cost of over the life of the apparatus. The apparatus is no longer reliant on a combustible engine, using on board batteries and a range extender to handle a multitude of situations. 

The two batteries on board give a driving range of about 129 kilometers, after which you’ll be depleted to the 35 per cent level and the range extender will kick in, giving you an additional 499 kilometers.

Charging is one concern for potential electric vehicle owners, power being another. The Innis’ said you’re not giving anything up power-wise and the acceleration and power can be even greater than with a combustible engine. The apparatus on battery alone goes zero to 60 in 30 seconds. 

ResQTech’s leaders said the RT concept will eventually be developed through all types of apparatus, and the roads will one day see electric aerials and rescues too. 

The REV Fire Group (E-ONE, KME, Ferrara, Spartan Emergency Response) recently introduced their fully electric North American designed fire apparatus to the market called the VECTOR. Roger Lackore, senior director of product development at REV Group, spent over a year leading the development team in partnership with Emergency One Group in Scotland, who successfully delivered a fully electric fire apparatus for the London Fire Brigade in the UK (ZEPA-Zero Emission Pumping Appliance). The first REV Group apparatus (pilot/test) is in final stage of completion and will undergo comprehensive testing before its unveiling at FDIC in April 2022.

REV Group’s approach to the fully electric fire apparatus has been to have significant kilowatt power through the batteries, six large ones to be precise, aboard with the intention on having the apparatus always operate solely on electric power, to and from the response as well as pumping on all electric power on scene, unless there was a very specific situation such as a major fire that called for lengthy continuous long term pumping where an optional on board EPA approved 6.9L Cummins diesel engine is installed to recharge the batteries. 

“The trucking industry have been developing green trucks for a long time,” he noted, but there were plenty of challenges to shifting away from tradition. Diesel suited fire apparatus well; diesel “ticks a lot of boxes” in terms of availability and the fact that it is less flammable than gasoline. Now, the energy you can get out of a lithium battery has improved every year for past decade or two, he said, making their use more practical.  

That being said, times aren’t at the point where you can just go out and buy an electric fire truck and park it in the station. You’re going to need the right infrastructure and potentially a utility upgrade to make it practical, said Lackore, including investing in DC fast charging stations.  

 John Witt, president of Safetek Profire, a key dealer for Rev Group in the Canadian market, and who has been consulting with the REV Group on integrating this technology into the fire service, said that “Canadian cities are initiating climate emergency policies, with so far over 500 municipalities and districts doing so. We know of cities that are building new or rebuilding existing fire stations for the future and are going to integrate the power system as well as other improvements to achieve a net zero emission rating. But there’s no miracle fire apparatus, currently. This is just another positive way we can do to make our planet greener by reducing green house gases. There’s no sort of illusion this is the be all end all; it’s a work in progress and I see almost daily articles on batteries and drive system components tailored to the electrification concept as well as other benefits such as reduction in moving parts and components thereby reducing PM servicing and other costs savings such as fuel and regen, oil changes, etcetra.”

“Departments interested in the technology should understand that it’s new technology and they are early adopters,” said Lackore. “Purchasers must have the mindset of being willing and interested in being part of a new solution, while also realizing that the manufacturers working on this are also new adopters. It’s really a partnership. There are compromises and trade-offs and we all have to work together on that.”

Witt points to many benefits beyond contributing to a reduction in green house gas emissions, such as the elimination of diesel smoke that will make for a healthier environment at the fire station and on scene for all. In addition, there is also far less noise level generally, making for a significantly quieter apparatus on scene and during pumping operations.

From a design perspective, REV Group’s apparatus has kept the midship pump, hose bed, water/foam tank(s) ladder complement/location, and the equipment storage capability design of the apparatus the same. The componentry is off the shelf and in current use in urban transit buses and delivery trucks and is not proprietary, so REV dealers are prepared to service what they sell and have the warranties to back it up, said Witt. One thing is for certain, the move to battery power is going to produce a quantity of design specific batteries. Lackore said that the batteries can be recycled, though the technologies and uses for them are not at a mature state and there is still plenty of research going on. REV Group has also addressed the Canadian climate. Lackore explained: “Just like you cool an engine with a radiator and a liquid coolant. Same thing with the batteries. You run liquid coolant through the batteries too, but in cold weather you’re running warm coolant through them and in warm weather you’re running cold coolant through them, to stabilize the temperature essentially.”

Currently the technology is best suited for urban response situations, consisting of short distance responses where you are back to the fire station regularly, as well as in an area with a good hydrant pressure system and a stable electric infrastructure in the fire station. 

The foundation for an electrically driven world is well underway. Technologies will continue to improve batteries and tackle the new demands on the grid, making for an interesting road ahead. 

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