Story & Photos By Keith Klassen
Class A foam, particularly when used through a compressed air foam system (CAFS), is a highly effective tool in a fire department’s firefighting and exposure protection arsenals. But when a department makes the decision to purchase CAFS, there are several pitfalls they must be aware of to ensure that the implementation of the technology will be smooth and effective.
1. Lack of understanding of Class A foam (CAF)—There are many myths and misconceptions in the fire service concerning CAF, so it’s imperative that the department has a solid understanding of how and why CAF works. Start by speaking to both foam experts and users. Develop realistic expectations about what foam can do for your department and your specific fire problem. This is particularly important if your department currently only uses water. The move from water only to CAFS is a quantum leap, so it’s often better to master the step to Class A foam (CAF) use before introducing CAFS. CAF is another tool in the toolbox, but it’s not a silver bullet. It can have dramatic effects, but don’t expect it to solve all of your problems.
Look at all of the nozzles on the market aimed at the CAFS consumer. Then ask nozzle representatives for demo nozzles, and spend some time with them. Then select the one that best fits your department’s needs.
Advanced foam training, including live-fire training, is imperative to departments that will regularly be using foam in real-life situations. Live-fire training provides crews with a proper understanding of how to apply foam and what its effects will be.
The department must provide guidelines as to how and when CAF will be used and which foam to employ in specific fireground situations, such as during a motor vehicle accident.
If your CAFS isn’t maintained properly, it will eventually fail. Proper maintenance starts with crews properly operating and checking the system on a regular basis, which should be once a week at minimum.
2. Lack of research prior to purchase—Learn about the product you’re about to purchase. Start with the salesperson, but don’t stop there. The salesperson may not fully understand either the technology or your needs—and they’re always considering profit margins. Look to other users and learn from their experiences. Ask what they like about their system and what they would change. Remember: CAFS comes in many forms. The primary differences: the size of the system and how it’s powered. Select a system that matches your apparatus mission. Purchasing a compressor system or a proportioner that’s incorrectly sized for your needs will lead to long-term problems.
3. Incomplete spec writing—If your specs simply state that the apparatus will be equipped with CAFS, there’s no telling what you’ll end up with, so be specific about what you want. Take a class in foam and CAFS specifications to learn what the specifics are. As they say, “the devil is in the details.” How the system is specified can mean the difference between a user-friendly system and a nightmare.
4. Incorrect selection of nozzles—There are numerous nozzles on the market aimed at the CAFS consumer—look at all of them. Then ask nozzle representatives for demo nozzles, and spend some time with them. After fully assessing the products, select the one that best fits your department’s needs. Keep in mind, however, that smooth-bore nozzles are the weapons of choice for CAFS, as well as the cheapest option.
5. Incorrect selection of concentrate—CAF concentrates are not created equal—there are the good, the bad and the ugly. CAFS will not produce good bubbles without a good concentrate. When selecting a concentrate, first refer to the U.S. Forest Service Class A Foam Qualified Products List. Products on this list have successfully completed a battery of tests and are approved for use on federal lands. This is important, even for municipal departments, as this testing ensures that the product is safe for personnel to use, and it won’t damage the foam system or the environment. That said, this testing will not tell you how well the concentrate makes foam bubbles. Remember: After selecting an approved product, test it prior to purchase to make sure it performs well.
6. Lack of Training—The single biggest reason that foam programs fail in fire departments: lack of or improper training. To avoid this, provide delivery instruction in your CAFS specs on site by a qualified CAFS instructor who’s also a firefighter and CAFS user. Then allow crews to practice extensively with CAFS to achieve competency in operating the system in various situations. Advanced foam training, including live-fire training, is the next step. This will provide crews with a proper understanding of how to apply foam and what its effects will be.
7. Lack of department SOGs—The department must provide guidelines as to how and when CAF will be used and which foam to employ in specific fireground situations. Tip: Obtain some boilerplate guidelines from other CAFS users and modify them to fit your situation.
8. Lack of understanding and support throughout the organization—Support for the use of CAFS must go from the firefighter all the way to the fire chief. This means that all levels of the department must be included in the training so that they understand how foam operations affect their position in the organization. Groups that must be included are line personnel, all chief positions, fire investigators, public education personnel and EMTs.
9. Lack of maintenance—If your CAFS isn’t maintained properly, it will eventually fail. Proper maintenance starts with crews properly operating and checking the system on a regular basis, which should be once a week at minimum. The Emergency Vehicle Technician responsible for the truck must also provide maintenance at proper intervals and be capable of troubleshooting any problems that occur.
10. Lack of use—The worst thing a department can do to a CAFS is fail to operate it. Regular operation is critical to keeping valves free of debris and the system functioning properly. Operate the system once a week to keep valves clean and clear and to keep the operator fully prepared for the next incident.
Keith Klassen is a career captain with the Summit Fire District, a rural combination department bordering Flagstaff, Ariz. He has 33 years of volunteer and career experience in both structural and wildland firefighting, and a background in mechanical and vocational education. Klassen is also an international fire service instructor and a member of the IAFC.
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