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I have been involved in fire service training and education for more than two decades and have seen many promising innovations come and go.
But few technologies have represented as significant a step forward as Class A foam and compressed air foam systems (CAFS). The technology’s roots are in wildland fire operations, but it has proved to be a revolutionary breakthrough in structural firefighting.
Compressed air foam technology causes a significant amount of controversy in the fire service. Not since the debate over which is the “best” nozzle, a smoothbore or a variable pattern, have we seen so many opinions regarding the use of technology. The pro- and anti-CAFS camps can both explain their positions – why the technology does or does not work and how it improves or reduces firefighter safety. Both camps are correct. While the appropriate use of CAFS has dramatic positive effects, the reality is that undertrained departments struggle and fail to reap benefits after trial-and-error foam applications.
As with many emerging fire service technologies, there is a good deal of misinformation on CAFS application for structural fire suppression. Advances in CAFS apparatus design make it suitable for structural firefighting, but the fire service’s ongoing challenge is to provide widespread access to effective training and education on fireground foam application strategy and tactics.
For nearly 25 years, I have been an end user and fire instructor, conducting hundreds of fire attacks and developing CAFS strategy and tactics for structural fire suppression. These live-fire-training and test evolutions, conducted in acquired structures, have ranged from residential room-and-contents fires to fully involved large commercial occupancies. Compressed air foam has been applied via exterior, transitional and aggressive interior fire attack.
Developing effective compressed air foam application has been an iterative process spanning many days, nights and weekends. As attack line instructor, I led crews down dark, hot hallways under severe fire conditions, resulting in instant feedback on what works and what doesn’t. This feedback led to continuous improvement in strategy and tactics, and development of foam application best practices. These practices have been documented and delivered at onsite departmental training sessions across the United States and Canada, and will soon be available in an online eLearning program.
Of the many compressed air foam application best practices, the following five should be top-of-mind for every fire officer whose department uses CAFS for structural fire attacks.
Best practice 1. Match the compressed air foam delivery rate to the fire challenge.
Since CAFS has roots in low-flow wildland firefighting apparatus, the use of low delivery rate has carried over into structural firefighting. This is a dangerous practice that must cease.
We’ve all heard that death and taxes are the only guarantees in life. I’d like to add a third: Inadequate compressed air foam delivery rate will cause excessive structural fire loss and compromise firefighter safety. For example, I received a call from the chief of a small career department who had recently taken delivery of a CAFS-equipped structural pumper. He complained that firefighters had received burns through their turnout gear during live-fire training. When I asked the chief about foam delivery rate, he said that they had applied a 50-gpm/50-cfm delivery rate, with Class A foam concentrate injected at 0.5% through 1¾-inch attack hose.
The choice of delivery rate was strange, because prior to CAFS, the department’s standard operating procedure (SOP) was water delivery at 130 gpm with 1¾-inch hose. When I asked him why the delivery rate was significantly reduced with CAFS, he responded, “The technician from the apparatus manufacturer who delivered the engine told us that’s how you use CAFS.” He then added, “Isn’t that correct? Aren’t you supposed to reduce delivery rate to save water when using CAFS?”