"Are you Gellin'?....I'm Gellin'."
By: Mark B. Fowler
Well, thus far in our pursuit of Fire Suppression perfection, we have been presented a “veritable pantheon” (to quote Alton Brown) of foams, wet chemicals, dry chemicals, nozzles, eductors and bears! Oh my! (Sorry, got on a roll there. But I’m sure you get the point.) We have spent the last century trying to find the perfect product for fire suppression.
We have definitely not failed in our endeavors. I am quite certain that old Benjamin Franklin would be quite proud of our efforts and many of the resulting products. Our best and brightest have continued to develop products better than their predecessors for the better part of the last century. Which may lead some to question, “where do we go from here?”.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, the future of firefighting is HERE! (and if you call right now, we’ll double your order and throw in a special gift for free!!! Ha, ha ha!.....okay, well, not quite.)
In the last three parts of the “Changing Gears” column, we have looked at how water performs its job, how foam changed what water can do and how dry chemicals can either stand alone or be used in conjunction with the other two. In all of our studies, trials, triumphs and failures we have to remember one key principle….FIRE has not changed! We have tried everything to fight it more effectively and more efficiently but fire itself has not changed. Of course the fuels we are combating now are different and create another variable to be considered, that goes without saying (although, I just said it anyway…)
Fire still has four basic components that allow it to grow and thrive: Heat (from any one/more sources), Fuel (the reducing agent), Oxygen (often the catalyst) and an on-going Chemical Chain Reaction. As firefighters, we are taught that the removal of any one of these individual components will cause flaming combustion to cease. We have also learned that water is still the best, most plentiful resource by which this goal is accomplished.
Dry Chemicals may interrupt the chemical chain reaction or smother the product (excluding the oxygen). Foams have cooling properties and for B-class fires, can blanket the fuel, thus cutting off the available oxygen supply (however, water is still the primary component of foam solutions, so IT is actually doing a lot of the work). The primary function of foam (whether A or B concentrates) is to reduce the surface tension of the water, making it lighter so it will either float on a fuel surface or creep into the pores/crevasses of solid fuels.
Agents such as Inergen, Halon or Carbon Dioxide have been used as “flooding” agents to displace the oxygen in a given space, basically asphyxiating the fire. These agents do not fare well out in the open but serve a great purpose in preserving electrical and computer equipment.
With all of that being known…what is next?........
………..enter Fire Suppression Gels to the market!
Gelling agents are not exactly new to the fire service. We have been seeing that “red stuff” (PhosChek) dropped from C130 aircraft for a few decades now. Barricade hit the market hard during the Florida Wildfires of 1998. Other new gels have reached the market over the last couple of years as well (i.e. - Tetra KO, ThermoGel and FireIce). The gel revolution is here! Now! We are no longer waiting for the next advancement in Fire Suppression technology.
Traditionally, Gel Products have been utilized for structural protection (medium and long term) or as a fire retardant ahead of an active fire. This is where we have seen the utilization of U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Air Force aircraft. For the past 3 decades, there has been a push toward “green” products. The environment has become a deeper concern to everyone and the impact of fire suppression and protection products has come under harsh scrutiny by several organizations, including the Department of Environmental Protection.
Although gels have been around for a bit, they have not gained much notoriety in the mainstream fire service. You will be hard-pressed to find a municipal fire department which routinely carries a gel product in their arsenal. It’s time for change!
Finally, gels are making it into the arena of Fire Suppression rather than being relegated to protection. FireIce Gel (a Geltech Solution) has bridged the gap between being a retardant and a suppressant. When utilized in different mix ratios, the product can easily work for both applications.
(Author’s note: As a fire service member for 26yrs and having worked as a Company Officer and Fire Instructor, I have had the opportunity to utilize most of the products on the market in live situations. While, my intent is not to “bash” other products, I have intimate knowledge of FireIce, have used it in live fire settings and can attest to its power and efficiency. My intent is merely to educate the reader, utilizing my own experiences.)
What is FireIce and how does it work? It’s very simple! FireIce is a powder product that when introduced to water, absorbs 400x its own volume, thus forming a gel. The components are very simple: Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Potassium. It has been tested by the U.S. Forest Service (extensively) and is classified as safe for the environment.
FireIce is classified as a “water enhancer”. Rather performing as a water “additive” with its own properties, FireIce enhances the properties that water already has. By binding the water together into a gel form, the product has the ability to absorb more heat, more rapidly than straight water or even a foam solution. In addition to the cooling effect, the product also adheres to the surface of combustible materials, excluding oxygen and preventing the off-gassing (pyrolysis) of the product any further.
It has been debated for years that the utilization of a straight or solid stream (which holds the water together longer, while reaching the seat of the fire) will produce less steam in the firefighter’s environment and make it the firefight more tenable. It is a well-known fact that smaller droplets of water will vaporize more readily than larger droplets. Due to the binding capability of the product and how the water molecules stay more intact while traveling to the fire, less water is lost on the way to the seat of the fire. This translates into more water hitting the seat and absorbing the heat (while stopping further fire growth simultaneously). This also means that less water can be used to extinguish the fire, due to the fact that we are not losing water to the atmosphere, prior to reaching the “real problem”.
Are there other “good” products on the market that will extinguish fire? I would be a liar if I said there weren’t! What I am saying is simple: this argument can be likened to something we can all understand. We all know things that are good but if we had our choice, we would choose something else that is better.
Gels are still new to the mainstream Fire Service but they are getting around and being utilized by some departments, with great success. The Fire Service is ever changing and WE don’t like change! That is well understood. I am part of the “traditional” Fire Service myself. But, I have made this statement before, “I’m not telling you to throw out your Leather New Yorker or stop being aggressive firefighters”. It’s simply time to open our minds (like our Father’s did) to new suppression technology.
There’s a NEW water in town……are you Gelling yet?