Fight Fire with Technology

Most everything burns, and when it does, disaster can ensue. Historically, there have been some big ones: Rome nearly burned to the ground. The London burnings were a catastrophe, and last century the Great Chicago Fire destroyed many homes and businesses.

Firefighter technology has come a long way. We now have dedicated fire brigades, but when they got started a few hundred years ago, they were mostly volunteers, and unlike today, those volunteers were unpaid, untrained civilians carrying around buckets of water.

Improved Water Pumps

We think the first water pump was invented in Alexandria around 200 AD, but when that civilization was lost, we didn’t see “modern” water pumps introduced until around 1600. Until then, water used to combat fire was carried by men and horses.

Heavy Duty Fabric

Even after we started getting trained firefighters in place, they didn’t initially wear protective clothing, which meant they had to fight the blaze from afar. After a few decades, they realized they could be far more effective by getting closer to the fire – they could put it out faster and actually go into burnings building for sweeps and rescues.

The first firefighter uniform was basically a leather trench coat with a wool liner. As rubber products became commercialized, one of the first uses was fire gear. Boy, they must have been hot!

One of the spin-off benefits of the space program that helped firefighters immensely in the 1970’s occurred when NASA developed durable fabrics designed for the harsh environment of space. The US Fire Administration teamed up with NASA and created a high-end fire-resistant fabric that was the precursor of what is being used today.

More breakthroughs in synthetic fibers followed, including materials that can protect against radiant heat while still being breathable and reasonably comfortable. These materials significantly reduce the dangerous threat of heat stress.

Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA)

Most of the firefighters tell us that their SCBA kit is one of their most important pieces of equipment. Various forms of SCBA gear go back to 1863 when James Braidwood put two canvas bags together lined with rubber, but tanks work better than canvas bags, and they were developed during WWII becoming a common piece of equipment by the 1970’s.

Any firefighter will tell you that SCBA kits protect in IDLH (Immediate Danger of Life and Health) environments, but they also help prevent long-term damage that may be caused by chemicals and carcinogens which are prevalent in the smoke.

Thermal Imaging Cameras

Thermal imaging cameras (TICs) were originally developed by the military and quickly found application in local fire departments. Being able to see where a fire is (and isn’t) before jumping into a dangerous situation is crucial to put out a blaze quickly and that it doesn’t spread too fast. Also, TICs help find victims trapped inside a burning building.

Computer-Based Readiness Systems

While much attention has been placed on giving firefighters better tools to fight fires, recently more focus has been placed on making sure all these tools are ready to use and that the firefighters are properly trained to use them.  Instead of using paper forms and clipboards, firefighters can perform checks using their cell-phones, tablets or any device with internet access. Tens of thousands of firefighters are already using this service. It reduces paperwork, gives an audit trail on checks, and gets faults fixed faster.

Why didn’t somebody think of that years ago?

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