This article was motivated by a recent Facebook post showing an elevated platform capable of reaching heights over 360 feet (110 meters). Most of the comments centered about the impracticality of it, with some downright negative comments.

Although I know of no fire departments operating platforms anywhere near this height, taller platforms (not necessarily this tall) are common outside the United States. This was coupled with some personal experiences with fitness coaches where one would think the advice of another was the most ridiculous thing in the world. Being able to accept other ways of thinking can lead to better overall fire protection, or else unique solutions to unforeseen challenges.

This was written a few days after Texas firefighters used the stream from a jet boat to extinguish a house fire that was inaccessible any other way due to the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.

Other examples I have seen (and in one case guilty of myself) are:

  • My view (35+ years ago) that a pumper on a barge was a ridiculous idea for a makeshift fireboat (even though trailer pumps placed on barges are extremely effective, I did not realize that for another ten years),
  • Drafting runoff water and reapplying it to a fire,
  • Paying off duty firefighters on a contract basis for standby purposes.

Let’s go back to the elevating platform. We don’t even have to take the world record case but instead a more common (outside of the United States) range of 165 to 230 feet (50-70 meters). Industrial applications include wind turbines and elevated process equipment.

One common way of reaching elevated process structures (coking towers for example) is to use ground level monitors. Flows of around 5,000 gpm (around 20,000 l/min) are frequently discussed. Such massive flows are not necessarily needed to extinguish the elevated fire but instead to develop a stream powerful enough to reach that high. Large platforms do have maneuverability issues, and do take time to set up. This has to be compared with the time, pumps, hose, foam, and staffing needed to develop a 5,000 gpm stream.

Moving to another example, I attended a warehouse fire where runoff water was used to supplement the municipal water supply1 . The warehouse fire had overtaxed the sprinkler system (due to improperly managed sprinkler impairment). The Incident Commander developed an excellent plan to contain the fire to the warehouse of origin. Unfortunately, the municipal water supply could only deliver about half of the necessary water flow.

Considerable runoff water had accumulated in a retention basin. The facility’s insurer had hired an industrial firefighting firm who recommended using the runoff as a second water supply. They had done this successfully at other industrial fires. Local incident commanders, unfamiliar with the concept, were highly resistant to the idea. Eventually a fire officer agreed and the fire flow was doubled. Ultimately the rest of the facility (about 90% of the overall value) was saved. Had this not been done, I am convinced that it would have been a 100% loss.

Finally, paying off duty firefighters for standby is not done anywhere near frequently enough. It seems that every law enforcement agency allows its officers to work as off duty security or traffic control; usually in uniform, armed, and with department vehicles. Ask the fire department to do the same for standby fire protection and you will generally get odd looks. Once the analogy to law enforcement is made, the attitude usually changes to “yes, why can’t we do that.” Needless to say, it’s best to work this out before the need arises.

When might this be done? The two most common cases are standby during unavoidable hazardous operations, such as torch cutting of steel after a building collapse and standby during a sprinkler or water supply impairment. This column has addressed ways to avoid the need in the first place. An example is to use tracked vehicle mounted hydraulic shears to cut structural steel. Nevertheless, these situations are common enough that I dealt with one of each in the past 10 days.

In the case of torch cutting after a collapse, preventing a fire in an already destroyed building is done in order to keep a fire from spreading to the rest of the facility. Sprinklers will be out of service due to the collapse. I've seen single column failures to entire buildings. A fire in the damaged area would pose an extreme exposure to the rest of the facility or to adjacent facilities. A nearby fire station is not good enough. Firefighters staffing deployed and charged hose lines or master streams are needed.

In the case of impaired fire protection, setting up bypass of broken pipes with fire hose can be done. A reserve fire department pumper can act as the facility fire pump. Staffed hose stream deployment to vulnerable areas may be warranted.

All of the above cases illustrate how methods that seem unconventional might be more mainstream than they appear, and offer solutions that might not otherwise be thought of locally.

John Frank is Senior Vice President of the XL Catlin’s Property Risk Engineering / GAPS Loss Prevention Center of Excellence, where he is involved in loss prevention research and loss prevention training. XL Catlin’s Property Risk Engineering / GAPS team provides property loss prevention consulting and delivers individually tailored solutions to protect and enhance property, production, and profit.