Fire service technologies are constantly evolving. From the early days of incorporated fire departments to the present, no aspect has remained untouched, from the fabrics used for protection to the way fires are approached and dealt with.
Specifically, improvements have been made that have increased safety for the fire service, improved their effectiveness and saved countless lives. Here are five of the most significant technological changes.
1. Fire apparatus
The earliest fire apparatus was a water pump invented in Alexandria, Egypt around the 2nd Century BCE. The technology was lost, only to be reinvented in the 16th Century. Then, mobile pumps were moved first by men and later by horses.
The first self-propelled engines, developed in the mid-1800s, were steam powered. They were employed in several major cities and used in the Great Chicago Fire. But it wasn’t until the advent of internal-combustion engines that such mobile engines became commonplace.
Since the 1970s, more robust regulations and marketplace competition have led to changes in nearly every aspect of the fire apparatus. This includes a greater use of aluminum and stainless steel in the chassis; switching to automatic transmissions; roll-over protection systems; and increased regulation on design. They also updated the line-voltage electrical systems.
2. Fire dynamics research
Understanding how a fire starts, spreads and consumes materials in its environment is a critical, if often under-appreciated, aspect of firefighting. Fire behavior is affected by many things: the weather, nearby materials and the direction of the wind, to name just a few.
As knowledge regarding these variables grew, the traditional fire triangle evolved into the tetrahedron, which added the chemical reaction to oxygen, fuel and heat. Lightweight residential construction and a move from organic home furnishings to petroleum-based plastics have been game changers for firefighters.
Modern research is now showing the value of understanding how to control air flow through a fire structure and the importance of quickly cooling the fire room to delay flashover.
3. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)
SCBA protects firefighters from the contaminants present in IDLH (immediate danger to life and health) environments. The respiratory system is the largest in the human body — and by far the most fragile. It doesn’t take much to cause serious damage, especially where smoke and fire are concerned, which is why proper protection is so important.
SCBAs were once fairly rare in the U.S. As the technology developed and they became cheaper and more widespread, nearly every fire department acquired them. Now, their use goes beyond just protecting the user’s air supply. With features like PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) devices and ADSU (Automatic Distress Signal Unit), they can be a firefighter’s best friend.
In addition to keeping firefighters safe in IDLH environments, it also protects firefighters long past retirement. Research has shown that products of combustion from modern fuel loads contribute, if not directly cause, certain cancers in firefighters. Even after the fire is out and overhaul is under way, those carcinogens are still present — giving SCBA a new and important role on the fireground.
4. Thermal imaging cameras
Originally devised and used by the military, thermal imaging cameras are now a boon to firefighters and the people they rescue across the U.S.
The FDNY was the first to use SCBAs when they employed them in a 1988 fire, representing a leap forward in firefighters’ ability to quickly locate the seat of a fire or perform a rescue in difficult conditions. Many departments now equip each rig with at least one TIC; in the future, look for TICs to be integrated into firefighter PPE.
5. High-tech fabric
Perhaps more than any other aspect of firefighting technology, fabrics have provided greater protection and gone through more significant changes over the years.
For many years, firefighters wore no protective clothing at all, as they fought fires from outside of buildings. The first forerunners to what might be called personal protective equipment were leather trench coats with wool liners. These were later phased out in favor of rubber coats.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that firefighters began to use a more high-tech solution. Pioneering fabric technologies designed to withstand the intense temperatures of space, NASA was quick to find a more terrestrial use for them.
This research, in partnership with the U.S. Fire Administration, led to the development of Project FIRES. The objective of the project was to codify a systematic approach toward the development of improved protection for structural firefighters. The standards that were garnered from this research lead to the adoption of the thermal protective performance test in NPFA 1971.
Since the first development of heat-resistant materials, PPE has continued to evolve as new technologies were brought to bear on the issue of firefighter safety. Fiber blends created in a lab are able to do things that natural fibers never could. Now, fabrics are designed to be resistant to radiant heat, while being breathable and lightweight, helping to combat one of the biggest issues firefighters face: heat stress.
Firefighter technology has been as dynamic as the fires it was developed to put out. It continues to change, drawing in materials, research and understanding from a variety of fields to accomplish one mission: to more effectively fight fires and save lives.