ON MNN: More on kitchen exhausts, exploding hoverboards and fire trucks

kitchen without hood
© What, no hood at all? (Photo: Sarah Greenman/Houzz)


A roundup of posts Lloyd Alter has written for sister site MNN.com about technology, boomers, and whatever.

Hyperventilation about kitchen ventilation

After writing the post "Worrying about kitchen fans is exhausting," where I talked about how important kitchen exhaust was, I got a comment from a reader who said that recirculating fans were OK if they were combined with a proper ventilation system. For me, this was heresy; I have always been totally dismissive of recirculating hoods, considering them little more than noisemakers, or as one expert, Brett Singer, put it, "forehead greasers." So I asked a couple of people in the biz and was surprised at the lack of consensus about this issue. This really needs work. More on MNN: Hyperventilation about kitchen ventilation

How the hoverboard became a parable of modern life

Hoverboard© Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images It is “the modern economy in a nutshell — viral trends, massive manufacturing hubs, IP disputes, weak regulation, immensely powerful businesses, and global ripple effects.” And a fiery end. More on MNN: How the hoverboard became a parable of modern life

What does Zappos' story prove? Some people don't like change

Tony Hsieh© Charley Gallay/Getty Images Really, Zappos is nothing more than an online shoe store with a very high profile because of Tony Hsieh and his happy-wacky culture. He keeps experimenting and innovating and yes, the company keeps growing. Change is hard, it’s not for everyone. But this experiment is one to watch, a window into a different way of working. I, for one, hope it succeeds. More on MNN: What does Zappos' story prove? Some people don't like change

Why do we have such big fire trucks for so few fires?

european fire truck© Rosenbauer

This is an issue I have wondered about for a while, so I finally pulled all the threads together, wondering why we always seem to have these rules on road dimensions and curve radii to make the fire department happy and easy to drive their big trucks everywhere. How "our fire trucks should be designed around the needs of our city, not vice versa." I wondered why we don't have smaller trucks like they do in Europe, that do the job but don't take up so much space.

I also questioned how these big trucks are being used most of the time for other functions, such as medical calls. I got into real trouble here, quoting a biased article, and had to do a bit of a revision. I also got a long and thoughtful response from John Zimmerman of the Westhampton fire department, which I publish below. More on MNN: Why do we have such big fire trucks for so few fires?

I am a volunteer firefighter Certified at Firefighter Level I and II, in a small town in Western Massachusetts, and I also work designing and specifying firefighting apparatus as a Design Engineer. I have been a firefighter in one form or another for 42 out of my 68 years, in four different Departments, and in the US and England (one…in 1966-’67). I have traveled widely, always noting and admiring Fire Departments and their apparatus and equipment. I am most avowedly not a Luddite or a Traditionalist.

The article about firefighting apparatus makes some very good points, many that I agree with, but it leaves out a couple of very major and important considerations, which I will try to explain in the following:

1.) Our firefighting apparatus, the “Engines” or “Pumpers” (an “Engine” has a water pump; a “Truck” does not, but carries more ladders)…in fact almost all of the apparatus in the USA, and most of the apparatus in most of the world…MUST CARRY LARGE AMOUNTS OF WATER. In the European cities…and in much of Europe and G.B., for instance…and in almost all larger metropolitan areas, they have FIRE HYDRANTS. They carry very little water, and often none. We carry as much as we can design space for in our Pumper-Engines.

2.) Because of budgetary and staffing constraints, we need to run “all purpose vehicles”…especially in the smaller departments in cities of, say, under 30,000 to 60,000 population. These vehicles need to be able to carry a minimum of a crew of four (including Driver/Pump Operator…the “Engineer”), being a “Class-A” configuration, with a large high-pressure firefighting pump (used to be 500 to 750 G.P.M.; now usually 1250 to 1500 G.P.M.), and as much water as possible (used to be 500 gallons, now usually 750 gallons). But to be an “all purpose vehicle” they also need to carry ladders (usually at least two or three), lengths of suction hose (large diameter 5” or 6”, enough to draw water from ponds, streams, etc., or to connect to hydrants), all kinds of firefighting tools, rescue tools…power saws, often portable sump-pumps, portable generator-lighting units, blower fans (for ventilating), spare SCBAs (“Self Contained Breathing Apparatus”) and spare SCBA air bottles (cylinders), and all sorts of other tools and electronics…a separate engine-mounted or chassis-mounted electric generator, vehicular accident extraction tools and power-heads (pump or whatever), and this same vehicle must carry some of the basic emergency medical response equipment to be able to respond to accidents and medical emergencies…”jump kits”, back-boards, etc. All of that barely fits into a “standard size” Engine!

3.) OK, a couple of things to note:

a.) Approximately 72% of all Firefighters in the U.S. are “Call” (paid call, but “on call” via a pager or other service) or “Volunteer” (“on call” via a pager or other service). These Departments depend on enough people showing up…responding…and multi-purpose apparatus that can be quickly manned and rolled out for almost any kind of an incident.

b.) Approximately (typically) 50% to 65% of all calls run by a “combined” Fire and EMS (Emergency Medical Service) Department are MEDICAL.

c.) MOST of these Departments either do not have their own Ambulance, or run a Rescue Truck instead of an Ambulance, or only run an Ambulance part-time. For an Ambulance they depend on another bigger Department under a Mutual Aid Contract, or they contract with a private Ambulance Service with Mutual Aid backup. (My Department runs an Ambulance from 4:00 PM until midnight…the busiest time…and runs a Rescue 24/7)

d.) If at all possible a Department as described herein will always run the most appropriate vehicle first. That means for a medical call, running EMS with the Ambulance, or the Rescue; for a Fire call, usually running an Engine first, a second Engine second, the Tanker (the main water supply!) third, and the Rescue fourth; for a vehicular or other accident, usually running an Engine first, the Rescue or the Ambulance (if it is “on”) second, possibly a second Engine or the Rescue next, and sometimes the Brush Truck next…in the chance that there may be a secondary brush (“wild land”) fire, but also to block and/or manage traffic, etc.

e.) That being said, ALL Volunteer or Call Departments that I have ever talked to or been a part of are almost always under “staffing stress”…there are almost always anxious moments where we wait to see that we get enough responding volunteers to staff enough “responding units” to adequately address the emergency. This has become worse and more dangerous as more and more people need to commute farther from home for work, and more individuals and families need to work longer hours or more jobs and have less time for volunteering in their community…or in many cases, do not have an interest in volunteering in their community. This is a sad reality of modern life, and is forcing more and more Fire/Rescue/EMS Departments to combine with other neighbouring Departments under some sort of a mutual aid compact if not actual “combination”. It is standard operating procedure to have automatic Mutual Aid compacts wherein different Departments respond to each others emergencies with specific apparatus and crews.

f.) Even as it is…with an Engine carrying 750 gallons of water and 40 gallons of foam concentrate…that water only lasts for about 8 or 10 minutes under “initial attack” conditions in a fire. Even the state-of-the-art Engines equipped with the newest “wonder pumps” using compressed air injected with the foam into the line (and which most Departments do not have!) and 40 or more gallons of foam concentrate only buy you another 10 to 20 minutes. The Tanker usually arrives more slowly and must set up a “drop tank” for the Engine to draw from, which might add another 10 to 20 minutes to it’s response time…in other words, just as the Engine is running out of water, ideally there is another 2500 to 3000 gallons of water available. But then the Tanker must go to refill! Depending on the Town, the distance, and whether the water source is easily accessible and adequate, this can take 15 to 30 minutes for a “turnaround”…needless to say, at some point one runs out of water. That is why we go to an “Automatic Mutual Aid” system for a “Tanker Shuttle”…calling in all available Tankers from surrounding Towns…which takes TIME. It is also why we retrofitted our primary (newest, and Class A) Engine with a Compressed Air Foam System (C.A.F.S.) at a cost of over $30,000 (on top of a $450,000+ Engine!)…which may Departments do…and also why when specifying a new Engine Departments are trying to carry the most water that they can given the chassis size and road weight constraints.

g.) By the way, our Town has only one place with fire hydrants, and that is at the Regional High School, which also has…to supply their sprinkler system…a 100,000 gallon underground water tank to draw from, and a large water well. But that can be a 30 to 40 minute turn-around from a fire scene. Therefore we depend for our water supply on streams, ponds, beaver swamps, even swimming pools, which is also why our new Tanker (called a “Tanker” in the East, “Tender” in the West) will be equipped (at some extra expense) with a vacuum-suction-filling pump and system, so that it can fill itself from a less than ideal water supply (think of an oversized sewerage septic system pump-out truck…a “honey dipper” as they are called around here).

4.) All of that being said, my Department…probably like all Departments, and certainly like all small and/or Volunteer/Call Departments…will always try to run the most appropriate apparatus for the incident that is being responded to, but beyond that the choice is always to run the apparatus that is easiest to manage and maneuver, given the expected situation to be encountered.

5.) But beyond that, why do we in the Fire Service buy and run apparatus that is so big that it seems difficult to drive (which these days it really is not!…and it is just ignorant to say that these vehicles cannot be “backed up”…it is the driver who needs training! All of our Firefighters who want it get that training) and which takes up so much road space? Primarily because of all of the above…because of what we need to carry, to get into the “vehicle package”. The European (and Oriental, etc.) apparatus that is referred to in the article carry MUCH LESS EQUIPMENT and MUCH LESS WATER…if ANY! These smaller apparatus are generally much more “operation specific”. And these smaller apparatus are primarily run by paid full-time Departments, or at least run by Departments that have a very large population of responding personnel, wherein they most often have multiple vehicles responding, and they carry little or no water.

6.) If we…and all Fire Departments…had unlimited (or one might argue, ADEQUATE) budgets and garage space, we would be glad to buy and run apparatus much more specifically tailored to the (expected) tasks that we are responding to. BUT we do NOT have that luxury, so we are stuck with what we have and can get. It should be noted that Departments are…or have been…evolving toward even larger apparatus, especially out of the big cities. There is an ever-growing need for more gear and equipment to be carried, with less funding for multiple apparatus in a Department, and less (or more expensive) building space to park it in. Back up through the 1980 the “standard” Engine was usually a two-person cab; now it is usually a 4 to 6-person cab…with all seating inside…no more “tailboard riders”! And for our Department, for example, we cannot even buy a “standard” modern new Engine because our Fire Garage is too small…we had to pay extra for a “custom” configuration to knock about 10” off the length of our newest Engine! That is typical for older (and outdated!) buildings.

7.) OK, that is the story. Do I think that there is room for improvement? Of COURSE I do! But the changes will tend to be quite slow, for a number of reasons:

a.) The fire service is notoriously conservative and tradition-bound, especially in the U.S. The “machismo” has prevented or at least slowed many proven improvements being implemented in the past. But that is and has been changing as the fires get hotter, the chemical make-up of the products of combustion have become much more toxic, and maybe the staffing gets more problematic. Federal regulations and ESPECIALLY Federal Grants have had a significant impact and made significant changes on and in the fire service in the U.S. We are slowly replacing older equipment and more “traditional” gear with the better and more “modern” stuff…with the possible but notable exception of helmets which…for “traditionalist” reasons we lag far behind the rest of the world.

b.) Fire equipment and apparatus is still really BUILT TO LAST! The expected useful life-span of an Engine or a Tanker is 25 years, but most Departments must stretch that, too. For example, our Engine 1 is about a decade old, our Engine 2 is almost 30 years old and must last (remain in service) at least another five years, our Tanker is almost 35 years old, our Ambulance is almost 30 years old, our Rescue is over a decade old, as is our Brush Truck…and we are quite typical! Fire Apparatus is (usually!) very well maintained, and does not have a huge number of miles put on it each year. The oldest piece of apparatus in our Department is an Engine from 1957…only a few years ago retired to what is now “parade duty”.

c.) Fire equipment and apparatus is REALLY EXPENSIVE! NO Town or City has a huge surplus of funds these days, and for the smaller or poorer Towns or communities there is often simply not the funds to replace what seems to be ancient equipment or apparatus.

8.) One other thing that I would like to mention: there IS considerable interest and investigation in the U.S. in the development of the “future apparatus”, and all sorts of options are being investigated, some of which are being implemented. And we would all like to see smaller, more compact, less expensive, and more “mission specific” vehicles and apparatus put in service and deployed. The concept of “Fast Attack Vehicles”…usually built on much lighter and smaller chassis, carrying much less water but with compressed air and foam…is making some inroads into the Fire Service, in some applications and some Departments. Time will tell if/when these concepts make further inroads into the Fire Service, but I suspect that they will. And someday we may even see all-electric fire apparatus that can perform the firefighting tasks autonomously for a few hours at least, before spooling up its solar-nuclear electric generator unit. Right?

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