Handling the Heat

Safety first! This phrase is decisive in the fire service. Rigorous training, perfectly maintained equipment and technological innovation all aid in improving safety on an emergency call-out.

Every movement is rehearsed – such as here, in an aircraft engine fire. Photo: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

Every movement is rehearsed – such as here, in an aircraft engine fire. Photo: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

“Driving to the location of the fire, we concentrate fully on the impending task as an entire team. There isn’t a second to be spent thinking of anything else.” Justin Kubek is a firefighter in New Haven, in the US state of Connecticut. Here – around a two hour drive north-east from New York City – the same applies to a deployment as it should for fire services around the world: Safety first!

For ten years, Justin Kubek earned his crust as a graphic designer, and spent his evenings dreaming of his ideal job – that of a firefighter. Then came the decision: “I’m going to do it!”
Kubek studied intensively for 24 weeks in preparation for the ‘Standards for Firefighter Professional Qualifications’ of the NFPA, the National Fire Protection Association. Hazardous goods and rescue service qualifications followed. In addition, tactics seminars and hard physical training – one has to be fit to carry the almost 20 kilograms of personal equipment! Finally, after three years came the so-called Q-Endorsement, the permit to operate the fire extinguishers.

Self-protection plays an important role

In Germany too, it takes three years before the new recruits can don the uniforms and pick up the extinguishers. “The topic of personal protection is playing a more and more important role in our training,” confirms Andreas Rudlof, Director of the Fire Service at Stuttgart Airport. While the heat and smoke resistance of protective clothing has dramatically improved over time, firefighting tactics have also developed and are rehearsed regularly. Airport fire services, for example, simulate cabin and engine fires.

The "Everyone Goes Home" program is committed to reducing the number of avoidable fatalities among firefighters. Photo: Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

The “Everyone Goes Home” program is committed to reducing the number of avoidable fatalities among firefighters. Photo: Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

Many airports feature their own fire simulation facility, or as is the case in Stuttgart, a mobile facility consisting of several containers is built. This provides space for a range of different scenarios to be simulated. The aisles within the containers are modelled on aircraft interiors, including a mock toilet cubicle. Passengers are replaced by 70-kilogram test dummies in the rows of seating.

Rudlof: “Once a year, each of our colleagues need to complete such a ‘hot’ exercise. For personal protection, the operational tacticians take part in groups of three or five.” Modern vehicles – the Ziegler Z8 – with articulated extinguishing arms carry up to 19,000 liters of water on board and keep firefighters at a safe distance from the life-threatening seat of the fire. Since 2004 in the USA, there has been an initiative to reduce the number of avoidable fatalities among firefighters: ‘Everyone Goes Home’ is the maxim, and the name of the program founded by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Every firefighter should be able to return home after a deployment. Back in the 1980s, the NFPA states that an average of 150 firefighters died at or after call-outs. Today, it has fallen to less than 70 such fatalities, almost half of which are due to sudden cardiac arrest.

Technology for more security

The Everyone Goes Home program offers further education and has devised 16 rules for regional fire services to follow – the Firefighter Life Safety Initiative. They begin with a transparent team culture that is open to constructive criticism. They address continuous education and physical training, and lead into the psychological support of the team, aiding in the processing of traumatic events. The program also requires the implementation of modern technology, wherever it can have a contribution to health and safety. Andreas Rudlof too sees great potential for prevention in the onward march of digitalization, as well as for firefighting itself. Assessments with drones facilitate the real-time evaluation of the situation. In the USA, for example, Unmanned Aerial Systems (or UAS) have been in operation for years, primarily in wildfires, complex buildings and tunnels. Professional copters feature systems for collision avoidance and can be fitted with a zoom- and thermal imaging camera, which provide stabilized video feeds.

ScanEagle is fitted with infrared cameras and GPS and is used for fires covering large areas. Photo: Boeing Thermite is the name of the remote controlled tracked vehicle that can throw up to 5,000 liters of water per minute up to 80 meters. Photo: Howe and Howe Technologies

One UAS that has proven itself in large-area fires is the ScanEagle. This 1.5-meter long metal bird has a wingspan of three meters. It is catapulted into the air from a starting ramp, can stay airborne for around 20 hours and features infrared cameras. Pilots on the ground navigate the drone and give both video and GPS data to the firefighting services. “This allows us to find pockets of fire and hotspots as small as a dinnerplate,” says J. D. Morton, an employee of the Bureau of Land Management in Fairbanks, Alaska. On the ground in North ­America, the mobile and remote-controlled firefighting vehicle of market leader Howe and Howe Technologies is currently the non-plus-ultra in effective fire extinguishing and protection of the firefighters. The ‘Thermite’ tracked vehicle can throw almost 5,000 liters of water per minute and up to 80 meters. The maneuverable vehicle can withstand great heat and be controlled remotely from distances in excess of 1,000 meters. It is fitted with cameras and sensors, which even allow it to work reliably in poor visibility. “Such technologies provide valuable information for our jobs and improve safety overall. And development will only continue,” reasserts ­Justin Kubek, the freshly-minted firefighter from New Haven.

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