Red Engines, Green Strategies

  The 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...


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The 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.

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.

Saving Water = Saving Money

Of course, water is also used for a variety of daily tasks and necessities, and fire departments have responded by making improvements to their stations to reduce this usage. In Baltimore, MD, these improvements include solar water heating and reduced-flow plumbing fixtures, along with the filtering of non-potable water for use in washing apparatus. Raleigh, NC, is well on the way to more efficient energy management as part of an overall city commitment to the environment. The city, for example, has gone so far as to remove light bulbs from vending machines in public buildings on its path to energy reduction. All told, the Raleigh Fire Department has solar panels in place at one station, with plans to add six more. Rainwater catch basins are being installed at others, with a major cistern planned for the training academy. A garden roof has been placed on yet another station. All of their facilities are being converted to LED lighting and motion-sensor switching.

“The fire service, like everyone else, is affected by the rising cost of energy,” Chief John McGrath said. “By being smarter, we can redirect our resources to other areas while saving the taxpayers money.”

Pump testing is also an area where departments have been cutting down on water use. While facilities that allowed the discharge of hoselines back into the drafting pit have existed for some time, there are private services that will now deliver a closed-circuit testing unit right to the fire station to accomplish the same results.

In 2005, Livermore-Pleasanton, CA, constructed a fire station that meets Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold standards. As such, a significant amount of planning went into both materials and design. Three-quarters of the occupied space receives natural sunlight, and extensive use was made of photovoltaics, or solar panels. Interior finishes had low off-gassing characteristics, and recycled materials were heavily used. This ranged from the inclusion of fly ash in concrete to the products chosen for flooring, ceiling, and walls. A low water landscape was installed and Energy Star-qualified appliances specified.

The “Greening”

Of Fire Stations

San Diego, CA; Cincinnati, OH; and a number of other U.S. cities have also completed “green” fire stations. Some came as part of strategies that encompassed all municipal construction. Scottsdale, AZ, became the first to receive a LEED Platinum certification for its Station 2 in 2009. Platinum is the highest ranking recognized by the Green Building Council, which uses a rating scale to rank facilities in a number of different categories. (For more information on the Green Building Council and previous eco-friendly fire service facilities, see “How Green Was My Station?” in the January 2008 issue of Firehouse®.)

According to Interim Fire Chief Garret Olson, “It would be irresponsible in this era to build new fire stations in extreme weather climates, like we have in the desert Southwest, without considering design and construction modifications that minimize the aggravating and maximize the benefiting factors of our environment.”

The interim chief pointed out another prime reason for going green – firefighter safety – and provided the following background from their construction project: “Firefighters are exposed to a variety of potentially harmful chemicals, smoke and other environmental risks on the job. The fire station was built using low-carbon-emitting materials, including adhesives, sealants, paints, carpet and wood. Prior to occupancy, the building was flushed for two weeks with outside air to improve indoor air quality by removing any remnants of construction dust, odor, particulate matter and contaminants.”

In 2010, Madison, WI, followed suit with Station 12. Geothermal energy is used to reduce dependence on natural gas, a big benefit during the long Wisconsin heating season. Emails sent from the Madison Fire Department bear the slogan “Sprinklers are green. Save your building. Save our environment,” presenting yet another take on the subject. Oakland, CA, Station 18 – a LEED Gold building – shows the diversity by which energy reduction and recycling can be combined – the insulation in that building comes from repurposed denim.

Not every fire department building is a station. To that end, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority in Ontario created a training academy that received a LEED Silver rating. Among the features touted for the Toronto facility are a “green” roof that blends into the surrounding landscape, a thermal solar wall and the recovery of heat from the concrete structural mass. North Metro Fire Rescue in Denver, CO, also has gone green for training, but with a slightly different twist. Its burn evolutions use propane rather than other fossil fuels, and evolution areas are sloped to direct runoff into holding ponds.

Fire headquarters facilities are also going green. An early entry was the City of Santa Monica, CA, Public Safety Building. Constructed in 2003, it houses both fire and police administrations within its 117,000 square feet. As of December 2009, nearly 90 fire service related-facilities in the U.S. had earned some form of LEED recognition. This number does not count the ongoing efforts of the London Fire Brigade and others like them around the world that have made major commitments in this area.

Raising Funds by Recycling

Since the fire station has long served as the center for neighborhood and community activities, many departments’ environmental efforts extend outside of their agencies. San Rafael and neighboring California departments coordinate a battery-recycling program. The Perkins Township Fire Department in Sandusky, OH, uses donations of recycled aluminum cans to help fund fire prevention activities. Hinesville, GA, uses donated cans to support a burn center, as do firefighters in Watauga County, NC; Florham Park, NJ; and Fairfax County, VA. Penn Township, PA, uses recycling proceeds to offset department operating expenses. These are but a few of many such former and current initiatives nationwide.

Although construction of a facility is obviously a major undertaking, energy efficiency does not require a new building or a major project. There are many examples of the application of LEED-certified practices used in rehabilitating existing structures. However, not every building or project must be LEED certified. Much can be gained through simple common-sense practices. Seemingly small jobs can have a major local impact.

The Indiana Office of Energy Development has used American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants to help several fire departments replace inefficient furnaces and even change light bulbs. While such savings may be considered minimal in larger municipalities, they can make a big difference where donation-funded volunteer departments are involved. From cutting back on response assignments to less-frequent washing of trucks, more fire departments are going green every day. And, this increase can be seen in reverse proportion to the decrease in “green” of another kind – the money needed to finance operations.

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