In the face of extreme crisis, physical injury, and even death, firefighters selflessly move forward to save lives. These professionals, along with law enforcement officers and paramedics, participate in some of the toughest jobs in the world.
There is too much at stake, with sometimes, too little control over the outcome. Besides the obvious injuries from the fire’s heat and smoke, firefighters face intense exhaustion and mental stress. The National Fire Protection Association revealed that 2022 saw 96 on-duty firefighter fatalities.
Given the nature of their job, it’s challenging to predict the future. Sometimes, the inevitable happens, but changes are on the horizon to safeguard firefighters’ physical and mental health. The future of firefighting will be marked by at least three important shifts, as discussed in this article.
Fluorine-Free Firefighting Foam
Even in general, the firefighting industry is looking towards a more sustainable and greener future. An example would be the electric fire truck introduced by the Charlotte Fire Department. What’s most important is that ‘forever chemicals’ or PFAS are being taken care of.
Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS were used to manufacture Class B firefighting foams. This group of nearly 15,000 chemicals was also found in firefighting gear to make it oil and water-repellent.
However, tragic cases of cancer associated with the Class B or Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) have come forward. The US Fire Administration (USFA) lists thyroid, testicular, and kidney cancers among the negative risks of PFAS-containing firefighting foams. Firefighters and military personnel exposed to these foams, who later developed cancer, have filed an AFFF lawsuit to seek justice.
This lawsuit is currently active in the US Federal Court in the District of South Carolina. In the upcoming year, a Bellwether trial is to be scheduled for fair settlements. Besides the personal injury cases, TorHoerman Law states that local municipalities have filed water contamination lawsuits. There are at least 180 sites lined up on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Superfund list for cleanup.
In light of the devastating effects, countries worldwide have decided to ban PFAS by 2025. This means mighty efforts are underway to produce PFAS-free firefighting gear and foam. Fluorine-free foams containing polysaccharides are available in the market, developed by companies like BIOEX.
Even so, their efficacy is still being tested to avoid ‘regrettable substitution.’ As for the turnout gear, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) states that no PFAS-free alternatives are currently available. This is mainly because of the established standards for firefighting gear.
These include moisture-proofing and the ability to withstand 40 hours of exposure to UV light. Until now, researchers have not discovered any substance that matches PFAS to meet these standards for the gear. However, the industry is still hopeful of making a joyful discovery in the near future.
This technology is not too novel, as it was first introduced a decade ago. In 2012, the RS1-T2 Thermite emerged as a life-saver in hazardous situations where it’s too dangerous for firefighters to enter. These included fires that break out in airports or around nuclear reactors.
In 2019, the firefighting crew that tackled the flames of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris used the robot Colossus. This tank-like robot circled the perimeter of the Cathedral, providing vital information to the firefighters and remote pilots.
The tank allowed the crew to strategize themselves before going inside the emergency scene. Plus, these robots make all information available at the same place as opposed to different sensors carried by each member. As of now, Thermite has evolved to become the Thermite RS3.
This robot has a current flow rate of nearly 2,500 gallons per minute. Besides, it can pull heavy objects up to 8,000 pounds or even push vehicles lying in its path. Such high-profile systems will not replace precious firefighters, but their increased usage will support them and keep them safe.
They may be used in the following scenarios –
- To facilitate safe interior operations in case of widespread commercial fires
- To handle fires breaking out on under-construction wooden structures
- To create a structural defense against wildfires
- To complete missions where the rescue of large animals is involved
- To extinguish fires in fuel tankers
- To put out auto storage fires
Furthermore, ongoing research and development are directed towards releasing a fleet of fully autonomous robots. They will be able to perform their tasks despite harsher environments and uneven terrains. Not to mention these robots will be smart enough to follow GPS directions accurately.
Firefighters usually need to carry equipment like a flashlight and radio with them. It is expected that each will soon get to carry a thermal imaging camera as well. Up until now, most fire departments only had their officer in charge carrying a thermal imaging camera.
However, this device’s benefits will amplify when each member is given one to carry. Let’s look at how personal thermal imagers will support firefighting missions –
- The device will help firefighters locate the fire’s source and scan for pets and people in the vicinity.
- It will also work as a self-rescue system. Firefighters can use it to locate cooler areas, windows, and hose lines during low visibility.
- The team can also identify hidden problems such as faulty wiring, hotspots, etc.
- Since every member will have a thermal imager, the sheer increase in the number of eyes searching for hotspots will give confidence that the fire is out.
- The device can also be used to find missing people in the dark.
- It may be used by fire departments to train their teams about fire dynamics.
- In moments of high smoke and low visibility, the device will enable firefighters to keep visual contact with each other. This improves the team’s overall efficiency and situational awareness.
Thermal imagers can detect objects as close as 12 inches to as far as 1,800 feet. These devices are water-resistant and can easily survive temperatures as high as 1,022◦F. They even run non-stop for 3.5 hours with a rechargeable battery.
The firefighting industry is experiencing numerous changes, especially in terms of tech usage and sustainability. The EU even doubled its fleet in preparation for climate change-related fire breakouts.
Hopefully, 2024 and onwards will witness these changes taking place rapidly across the world. This will make it possible to dream about a future where citizens and firefighters enjoy greater safety.