Green Fire Service: Red Engines, Green Strategies

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...


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Until such options are offered by a majority of manufacturers, departments are reducing their carbon footprints by using alternative-fuel vehicles for ancillary purposes like supply, support and inspection. The Los Angeles County, CA, Fire Department, for example, uses a fleet of 45 hybrid SUVs as emergency response units for lifeguards. It is estimated that this action saved about 5,000 gallons of gasoline during the first six months of service. On the East Coast, Englewood, NJ, has commissioned three similar vehicles for its Fire Prevention Bureau, and dozens of departments in between have followed suit.

No discussion of environmental impact would be complete without touching on particulate matter that is discharged as part of the exhaust from a combustion engine. As a rule of thumb, diesels release more particulates than do gasoline engines, although the specific make and model of engine has a direct bearing. It should also be noted that the U.S. was the first country to regulate diesel emissions and that these engines are becoming cleaner all the time. That notwithstanding, measures are typically taken to protect firefighters from additional exposure to the exhaust from any vehicle. This can be evidenced by the removal of fire poles or placing sealing devices around them, by exhaust systems in the station and by secondary filtration systems on apparatus themselves. This issue is addressed by National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards and by a variety of other documents, including Diesel Exhaust in Fire Stations from the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.

 

Recycling & Repurposing

When it comes the recycling, fire departments have a unique history of passing along used, but serviceable apparatus and equipment to agencies in need. There has long been a market for both big-city and volunteer apparatus, especially those from warmer climates where de-icing agents are not typically used on roads. However, with economic times being what they are, refurbishing existing apparatus is attracting increasing interest. In fact, NFPA Standard 1912 specifically addresses the subject and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) website carries links to a research paper. The Tappan, NY, Fire Department has a tradition of favoring Mack apparatus. Even though the manufacturer stopped production more than 20 years ago, all five of the department’s front-line pieces bear the Mack bulldog on their noses. The cab and chassis of the rescue truck started life as a pumper in another department in the county. Work was done both in-house and outsourced to bring these units up to modern specifications.

The State of Texas Forest Service, through its “Helping Hands Program,” releases donors from liability for contributed items, which are then redistributed. Breathing apparatus are inspected prior to release. Since its inception more than a decade ago, almost 4,000 SCBA and more than 170 rigs have been placed into service. Previously, this equipment typically was destroyed.

 

Contamination Concerns

One natural resource most closely associated with the fire service is water. For centuries, firefighters have “put the wet stuff on the red stuff;” and in most cases we still do. However, over time, there has been a realization that it is environmentally more responsible to let some fires burn. Although this is contrary to many of our instincts, the burning of flammable gases in these instances is preferable to the contamination of soil and water caused by runoff from extinguishment efforts. And where exposures or other conditions preclude a monitored burn, the careful use of dikes or other barriers to control the scene has arisen as another viable tactic.

In the United Kingdom, documents such as The Environmental Protection, Fire and Rescue Manual – Volume 2: Fire Service Operations specifically target such considerations. Of course, when it comes to reducing environmental hazards, fire departments do have experience. The Los Angeles, CA, Fire Department, for example, has enforced an underground-tank ordinance since 1983, and there are many other examples of codification that exist much earlier than that.

Class A foams and other agents help conserve water, as do properly trained firefighters in conjunction with another old saying: “Put the water on the fire and not the smoke.” Still, there are numerous ways in which we are dependent on water, and as many ways by which it can be saved. Fixed fire protection systems such as sprinklers obviously use water as an extinguishing agent. However, regular testing – which is required to ensure proper operations – can also use water. Following a period of extreme drought in Australia, the Victorian Plumbing Industry Council studied this problem as part of an overall government conservation initiative. Its widespread recommendations covered a range of possibilities, including less-frequent testing and methods for water re-use.