Editor’s Note: In this article an expert makes a statement about the quality of the air that’s emitted from 2010 EPA compliant fire apparatus. He says people could stick their heads in diesel exhaust and not feel any ill effects, except a headache. No one is advocating that be done, and the statement was made to illustrate the point that technology has dramatically reduced environmentally harmful pollutants. There are other harmful contaminates in diesel emissions, including benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde, which are harmful to humans and potentially deadly over time. Normal ventilation and commonly practiced exhaust precautions are always recommended.
The sworn duty of virtually every firefighter on Earth is to protect life and property, so it makes sense that firefighters would want to protect the planet with green apparatus.
There's a bit of a disconnect, however, when it comes to the equipment needed for controlling emissions and the firefighting mission. Firefighters have the impression the technology impedes apparatus performance, but that's not exactly correct.
In 2010, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is requiring near zero emissions from diesel-powered equipment, at least those on the road. Off-road applications are slightly more relaxed.
To meet the 2010 standards, engine manufacturers have developed complex systems that convert toxic pollutants into essentially harmless components - like water, nitrogen and carbon dioxide.
Many of the systems run seamlessly, in the background, using chemical reactions and heat to either burn off the pollutants or convert them into less harmful pollutants. On over-the-road vehicles, like tractor trailer trucks and commercial vehicles that run at highway speeds for long periods, the systems require little or no intervention from the operator.
Fire apparatus, however, are different animals than big rigs. Consequently, there is a little more operator involvement required.
"We don't fit the heavy-duty, over-the-road, Class A truck model, traveling 500 to 1,000 miles at a time," said Anthony Bulygo, a retired certified California mechanic and ASE Master Truck Technician.
Bulygo said longer travel times means hotter exhaust temperatures which means the emissions are burned off and converted more easily than on apparatus which spend a long time idling, or stationary pumping.
By way of explanation, today's on-road diesel engines require exhaust after treatment to meet the EPA standards. To do that, trucks typically have Diesel Particulate Filters (DPF) to remove the solids from black soot and Selective Catalytic Reduction systems to reduce the amount of mono-nitrogen oxides (NOx) in exhaust emissions to near zero. NOx is a byproduct of internal combustion engines and is a significant component of smog and air pollution causing lung tissue damage.
Bulygo said the technology is in its infancy, much like it was in the 1970s when the automotive manufacturers first installed emissions controls.
"Firefighters aren't happy," Bulygo said. "And the mechanics aren't happy with it either."
The after treatment systems cost between $8,000 and $10,000 per vehicle, according to Bulygo, who added it will pay firefighters to learn to live with the technology and how to maintain it because it's not going away anytime soon.
After treatment systems on today's apparatus are efficient he said, noting that the DPF and SCR treatments have reduced emissions, even since the 1970s, to one five hundredth of what they were.
"It's clean enough now that you can stick your head in the exhaust on a diesel and breathe it for a long time and you might get a headache," Bulygo said. "It certainly won't kill you."
Bulygo said that even though the systems are reasonably good at their missions, many fire departments have been resisting purchasing apparatus so equipped by pre-ordering apparatus before the 2010 standards were in place, or ordering apparatus with "new-old-stock" engines that were bought, but never installed, before the 2010 emissions regulations were effective.