CAFS: So Effective It Changed The Rules, So We Changed The Laws

Once in a great while, a new firefighting technology comes along that is so revolutionary it forever changes our industry. For us here at the Travis County Emergency District 2 in Pflugerville, TX, just outside Austin, that technology is the compressed air foam system (CAFS).

I’m sure the firefighters who used the first engine-driven pump or aerial-mounted waterway felt the same way we did when we first saw our CAFS equipment work. The result literally makes the uninitiated stand there staring in disbelief. After having seen how effective CAFS is, it is inconceivable that our department would ever give it up. CAFS not only changed the way we fight fires, but the entire way we think about fighting fires.

Using Class A foam in conjunction with CAFS has the ability to soak the fuel and choke the oxygen out of a fire far beyond the capabilities of water alone. Because removing fuel and oxygen is basic firefighting theory, there isn’t a fire that occurs in this district in which we don’t apply foam. CAF systems have a tremendous reach that keeps firefighters at a safer distance from the flames. Plus, its ability to quickly knock down flames reduces smoke, which improves visibility for firefighters.

Because of our experience with CAFS and its incredible effectiveness and reduced property damage, our department and district supervisors felt strongly enough about CAFS that we retrofitted every pumper in our department. But we didn’t stop there. We felt it was our duty, as firefighters, to tell others about the effectiveness and benefits of CAFS.

We worked with key district administrators to provide compelling evidence to the Texas Legislature. As a result, the governor of Texas signed into law our bill requiring that insurance companies give homeowners a reduced rate on insurance premiums in cities and areas protected by CAFS. This is significant because Texas is a large state both in terms of size and population.

This new law is plain economics. If your department uses CAFS, the total fire damage during a year in your service area will be less and therefore the amount insurance companies will have to pay will be less.

We didn’t start out to change the whole state. We just wanted a CAF system to increase the effectiveness of traditional Class A foam systems on the numerous dry grass fires we get in the rural part of our district. We serve a 100-square-mile urban interface area of Travis County. We’d used foam as a wetting agent to prevent grass fires from spreading. The Hercules CAF system, manufactured by Pierce Manufacturing, is at least five times more effective than water alone. When we began researching CAFS, we were introduced to Clarence Grady, lead foam systems manager for Pierce and a pioneer in CAFS development. Grady began educating us about the effectiveness and the multitude of uses of CAFS. I became a CAFS disciple.

Originally, I convinced my commissioners that with CAFS we would be ahead in the long run. But after a short time, our success was such that our commissioners ordered all of our existing trucks to be retrofitted with CAFS. We think this additional investment could be paid back through reduced damage in just a single large fire.

When we spoke to the Legislature, we cited several examples. The Pflugerville and neighboring Austin fire departments responded to a call to a large commercial carpet warehouse with flames coming out of the roof. It was big enough that it was first spotted by someone on the other side of Interstate Highway 35, which runs through the middle of the district. Austin brought two aerial units and two additional pumpers. We responded with two CAFS-equipped engines. Because of how far the fire progressed, we discussed whether we should set up a defensive position and focus on protecting the adjacent property. We quickly decided to take an attack position using only two 13¼4-inch CAFS lines.

We were running a 4/10ths of 1% foam mix through the CAFS. At that rate we don’t use much foam solution and it provides good coverage. The fire was extinguished in about 10 minutes by basically smothering the fuel with compressed-air-driven foam. The foam bubbles clung to the carpet, not allowing flames or oxygen in.

Water flow was held to a minimum and never left the property. The call came at 2 A.M. and by 5:30 everyone was at home in bed. In the past, we would have left a fire watch for 12 hours or longer.

Before CAFS, we would have fought that fire defensively. But, as I’ve stated, it has changed the whole way we fight fires and, as a result, our strategy for fighting fires has drastically changed. Our members talk about the occasional “big burners” like times gone by because we simply don’t have them anymore.

We’ve had other examples, too, including a three-story wood-frame apartment complex that was struck by lightning. High storm winds fanned the flames across the roof of the complex. Because of the long reach and effectiveness of CAFS, the fire was contained quickly and to such a small area that several neighbors had no damage at all – not even water damage.

An insurance adjuster later said he originally expected a multimillion-dollar loss before he arrived to survey the damage, but it turned out to be less than $500,000 – all due to the fact that CAFS extinguished the fire before it got out of hand. Afterwards, some of firefighters told us they couldn’t believe it until they saw CAFS for themselves.

Recently, we added a new Quantum rescue vehicle with CAFS to deal with the numerous – and frequently complex – emergency calls that occur on I-35. In the past, our department had to dispatch multiple vehicles to every emergency on the highway because of the potential for fire, hazardous materials and injuries. Now, we just send the Quantum, knowing that it can single-handedly take care of virtually all situations, although we can always send back up. But sending a single apparatus has saved us an enormous amount of money.

I’d like to add that CAFS also saves natural resources as well as human resources. Where we are in Texas, water is a precious commodity. The water savings with CAFS technology is significant. Last year, we were asked what we would do if Y2K problems shut down our water supply. I knew that we could provide protection for days with what was in the tanks.

I feel that if you’re going to run firefighting apparatus down the road these days, it ought to have CAFS on it. And, officially, so does the State of Texas.