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T he 1970s gave birth to Earth Day and the environmentalist movement. Since then, society at large – including the fire service – has been reducing, re-using and recycling as they “go green.”In the 1970s fire service, diesel apparatus were making inroads, but many rigs were still powered by gasoline engines for which “gpm” could more likely have stood for “gallons per mile.” In fact, at one protracted incident early in my career, a special call was made for diesel-driven pumpers because they possessed one property their gasoline-powered cousins did not – the ability to pump all night without being refueled.
Live burns were viewed as excellent training opportunities, but safety issues had not yet been adequately addressed. Since many safety issues are also environmental issues, it should be noted that these fires were frequently started with a flammable liquid and there was likely little formalized check for asbestos or other hazardous substances. Tires were added to thicken the smoke and tarpaper and shingles were left intact. Whatever was in the building, good or bad, to quote a movie title of the times, went “Up in Smoke.”
But smoke was good for you – if not for your health, then at least for your reputation. Breathing apparatus was for sissies. And what smoke you didn’t get from the fire you got from your non-filtered Camels as soon as you took “a blow.” In any event, we were told that with all those new extinguishing agents like halon, soon we would not have to go in at all – the fire would be out by the time we got there.
It’s Cheaper to “Go Green”
A lot has changed since then, and 21st-century fire departments have experienced a global warming toward the cause of environmental accountability. Now, this conversion wasn’t immediate, nor is it complete. However, as more regulations enter the picture, the cost of going green comes down and economic pressures force agencies to look for alternatives, it’s safe to say that significant inroads have been made in many areas. One of these areas is apparatus; as outlined in “Going Green – Environmentally Friendly Apparatus” in the November 2010 issue of Firehouse®. That article covered the topic in depth, so many of its contents will not be repeated here, but it is important to understand the major role apparatus play in the movement toward a greener fire service.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), motor vehicles produce roughly half of pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. About three-quarters of carbon monoxide (CO) emissions come from motor vehicles. Rural areas are less impacted than urban, where harmful automotive emissions are responsible for anywhere between 50% and 90% of air pollution. These numbers vary worldwide, but are indicative of a major source of certain types of unwanted discharges.
As noted above, the fire service has migrated from gasoline to diesel engines, which has had the positive effect of improved fuel economy. Still, in the 1970s, even better efficiency was sought from diesels with the release of a special class of engine. While primarily targeted at over-the-road truckers, some found their way into the fire service with lackluster results. Most critics pointed toward reduced power as the primary reason for their short-lived popularity. Despite the declining emphasis on speed, carrying and pumping large amounts of water remain base functions of fire apparatus. These tasks can prove challenging to alternate technologies. Still, the U.S. Department of Energy has run experiments on hybrid “haul trucks.” These are the dump trucks typically used in major mining operations and are significantly larger than most fire service apparatus.