The time has come,” the walrus said, “to speak of many things: Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax -- of cabbages and kings” and, incidentally, fire service standards as they apply to apparatus and equipment. The advent of mass production and assembly line technology in the latter half of the nineteenth century ushered in the wide spread adoption of industry wide manufacturing standards.
The concept was not new; in fact there is evidence that the idea of interchangeability was around some two thousand years ago and was employed by Carthaginian ship builders at the time of the First Punic War. These craftsmen produced prefabricated ships from marked parts with a set of instructions that said, in effect “place tab A in slot B” and, from historical records of the time it seemed to have worked.
One of the more significant problems that these early builders encountered was that in order to make identical parts with the precise dimensions required to permit interchangeability, one had to have precision machinery and reproducible gauges and fixtures. The manufacturing technology available during the First Punic War simply “would not cut it” on any appreciable scale.
Mass production and prefabrication made it mandatory that there be fabrication standards that were accepted industry wide in order to make parts in one facility that would mate with those produced in another facility by a different set of craftsmen.
History credits Eli Whitney with the introduction of “interchangeable parts” to the manufacture of firearms for the US military. In July of 1801 Whitney built ten guns, all containing the same exact parts and mechanisms and disassembled them before the United States Congress; placing the parts in a mixed pile.
Afterward he, with help, reassembled the guns. Congress was impressed and ordered standardization for all US military firearms. There was however a “catch”; Whitney’s guns were costly and had to be made by skilled craftsmen. While the parts were interchangeable there was actually very little reduction in either production time or production costs.
In the early years of the twentieth century the progress in the development of the screw cutting lathe and other precision machine tools allowed Henry Ford to introduce the assembly line technology which changed the industrial world forever.
The “American System” as it became known had a lot of unintended consequences, the most glaring of which was the need for standardization of parts so that a housing that was produced in one foundry could bolt up to a bearing produced in another facility. Inter-facility standardization became the norm very early in the history of the assembly line system but it was soon evident that standards had to be universal.
There is nothing sacred about having 20 threads per inch on a ¼ inch bolt; 19 or 21 will, for practical purposes serve as well but what is important is that everybody who makes these fasteners use the same number of threads and 20 tpi (threads per inch) was chosen as the standard for ¼ inch coarse thread bolts. This impacts our world to a much greater extent than most of us realize. We think nothing of going to the local hardware store and asking for a nut to fit a ½ inch bolt. The clerk simply reaches into a bin, pulls one out and hands it to us. We go on our way confident that the nut will screw on to our bolt with no problems.
The adoption of production standards has made possible the mechanized world that we know today and, given the reasoning behind standardization, it is difficult to understand why any segment of our society would not adopt a standardization program and yet, the fire service, especially the municipal segment, has in the past, done exactly that especially with regard to fire hose connections. One manufacturer lists something well in excess of one hundred different fire hose threads in use throughout our country. Why should this be so?
One of the problems that bedevils fire protection programs is that of equipment that isn’t where it is supposed to be when it is needed. This may be due to the equipment being used for some purpose other than that for which it was intended, washing the drive way for instance, and not being returned to its proper place afterward or, it may be due to pilferage.
In either case the equipment is unavailable or not in its proper place when it is needed and that can be a major problem when the bell rings. Many innovations have been proposed and adopted in an effort to ensure that emergency response equipment is always on hand and ready for use in case of need.
One example is the conical shape of the fire buckets that most of us can recall seeing on railroad loading docks. These were attached to a barrel of water for use on small fires. The conical shape of these buckets made it necessary for someone to hold them at all times, any attempt to set them down would result in their rolling about and spilling whatever they contained.
Thus while these utensils were useful in dousing a small fire they were of little or no use as buckets in the traditional sense. A primitive solution to a problem, perhaps, but it worked. The same principle was applied to fire hose. If the couplings were threaded in such a way that the hose could not conveniently be used for any purpose other than fire fighting it would be available for that purpose when needed.
This “seemed like a good idea at the time” but the Law of Unintended consequences has not been repealed and it is at work on a full time basis. One, and perhaps the biggest “unintended consequence” of using non-standard threads for fire hose connections is that interconnect-ability; the ability of a “foreign” engine or hose to connect to that of the jurisdictional department; consequently the response to a request for mutual aid may be rendered all but impossible.
As a result many departments must, perforce, carry a multiplicity of adapters which add weight and absorb space on an already crowded and heavily laden apparatus and are often cumbersome to use; and of course “Murphy’s Law” dictates that no matter how many adapters are on our rig we will never have the right one.
These adapters range in size (and weight) from a simple coupling weighing perhaps a pound or two to the Cooper Hose Jacket which, in the larger sizes can weight upwards of twenty-five to thirty pounds. Of course, the next question is how many do we need? Answer: always one more than we have.
There is also the problem of fire plug connections; these aren’t standard either. In the early years of the twentieth century when municipal (as well as industrial) water systems were being laid out, many agencies adopted a unique thread for plug and sometimes hose, connections.
This action may have had its genesis in the desire on the part of local government to thwart pilferage of water and perhaps equipment but there was also a certain amount of “status” involved in having your very own unique thread. Little did those councilors know. Many (more than I like to admit to) years ago, I responded to a call for mutual aid from a small town in west Texas. When we arrived we discovered that the only plug in the “down town” area had been replaced due to a traffic accident.
The City Fathers had purchased a plug from a neighboring city and, of course it had a unique thread to which none of us (not even their own Fire Department) could hook up. The problem was solved when one of the volunteers found a small boat in a back yard which he placed under the steamer. We placed the drafting tube from the engine in the boat and opened the plug. Fortunately there was enough flow from the plug that it worked but it isn’t a solution that I would ordinarily recommend.
Now I hasten to say that those early planners of the nineteenth century who introduced the concept of the proprietary thread were not stupid. They were merely trying to prevent pilferage and identify their communities. Their world consisted of discrete cities separated by vast stretches of rural countryside.
Mutual aid was not a common entry into their thinking. They had no way of foreseeing the “urban sprawl” of the twentieth century and the myriad consequences that it would have, both social and technical. Thus these planners could not solve problems they didn’t know existed; they couldn’t fix what they couldn’t see. So, we in the 21st century are faced with the task of remediating the problems inherent in the technology of the twentieth.
I think that the need for standardization has been adequately documented and the question remains: What shall we do to “fix” the problem? Obviously the first step would be to adopt a standard thread. The National hose thread is as good as any and is already in use in a large number of jurisdictions.
There is nothing sacred about this thread but its adoption would assure that everybody “sang from the same hymnal.” Once the standard thread has been adopted (and its use made mandatory) we face the problem of conversion. Hose can be converted by changing couplings and replacement as it wears out. To change every fire hydrant in even a small or medium sized community, however, would be an undertaking of major proportions.
Our British friends have done this and adopted a “fire thread,” the use of which is mandatory for all apparatus and equipment in the UK. Coincidently the use of this thread for non-fire applications is expressly prohibited. I had the privilege of visiting with the Chief Fire Officer for the UK a few years ago and he explained their system to me.
I asked him how they were ever able to pull off a project of this magnitude. His answer? “Well, we had some help from Adolph Hitler.” In the aftermath of World War II there just wasn’t much left of the British fire service and what existed was in shambles. So, based on experience gained during the war the British took the opportunity to start over and construct a system based on standardization. I understood that hose threads were not the only things that were standardized through out the UK. System either.
Fortunately the United States has, so far, been spared the destruction suffered by the UK during WWII and so we have not had the opportunity, nor the need, to start over “from scratch”, we have had to solve the problem of standardization on a piecemeal basis. This does not mean that progress has not been made but there is still much to be accomplished.
How do we go about standardizing connections in a jurisdiction with a large infra-structure in place that is “non-standard”? The first thing that comes to mind is the adoption of the National Hose Thread (NHT). This thread should be specified for all new equipment orders. Older equipment may have to be retrofitted with adapters that will accommodate this thread. Hose can be recoupled with NHT couplings or replaced when it is at or near the end of its service life with relative ease.
Second, coupling sizes should be standardized. In recent years some departments have utilized 2½ inch hose with 3 inch couplings in order to reduce line loss at the connections. This is all well and good but thought must be given to the possibility that one unit may need to connect to another unit from another jurisdiction and it helps tremendously if both units use the same size coupling.
Now we have the engines and the hose fitted with connections having standard (NHT) threads. But what shall we do about the plugs? This presents a large and daunting task for even a medium sized community or industrial complex such as the area along the Houston Ship Channel.
One very ingenious and cost effective way of solving this problem was utilized by a Central Texas City in which the plugs installed as part of the original water system were equipped with a “proprietary” thread and those in the newer parts of town were equipped with NHT. The problem was further exacerbated by the fact that there were two different sizes of “steamer” connections. The pumpers in this department were equipped with front end suctions which allowed the operators to head in to a plug and attach the pre-connected suction, a one man operation.
To achieve standardization yet avoid the expense incurred in replacing all of the plugs in the older parts of the city, the department adopted a “quick connect device for all of the steamers. This consisted of a female coupling (attached to the plug) and a male end attached to the soft suction of the engine. These were similar in principle to the couplings used on shop air hoses to connect various air operated tools. The female part of the device was attached to the plug’s “steamer” connections and locked into place and the male end was attached to the soft suction on the pumper. In use, all that was needed to connect to the plug was to insert the male end into the female receptacle.
To make all of the plugs “standard” the department simply inventoried the plugs and ordered sufficient connectors of each size and thread to outfit all of the plugs while the end that was attached to the soft suction was the same size for all. The solution was simple but it worked and made the task of connecting to the plug much faster and less labor intensive than had been the case previously. Fittings to convert to the quick connect system were issued to neighboring departments for their use in the event that they were asked to respond for mutual aid.
The problem presented by the multiplicity of fire hose threads serves well to illustrate the need for standardization but it is certainly not the only area wherein standardization is needed. Communications is another venue where work is urgently needed. The advent of two-way radio equipment compact enough to be installed on on an apparatus or carried by a firefighter was a “great day” for the fire service, certainly, but there are problems here too.
Each agency using radio communications is assigned a unique frequency by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This is necessary (some might say a “necessary evil”) in order to prevent “overtalking” by two or more parties trying to use the same frequency. Not too long ago I witnessed an operation where responders were using ordinary cell phones to communicate between units belonging to different departments because they did not have access to a common channel.
Again it worked but it was cumbersome to say the least. Newer equipment has done a great deal to mitigate the communications problem but again, we still have a ways to go. Efforts to designate a channel or channels for the purpose of interagency communication have not met with as much success as had been hoped for. This is due largely to systematic technical variations in equipment as well as organizational differences in participating agencies and jurisdictions. Improvements have been made over the last two decades but much still needs to be done.
Another place where standardization needs to be initiated is in regulations such as those from OSHA. Regulations are, usually, promulgated for a purpose but again the Law of Unintended Consequences does come into play and the “regs” can hinder as much as they help. Not too many years ago it was against OSHA rules to use a cylinder of one manufacturer on the SCBA of another; even though the cylinders were identical in every way except for color and the name on the label.
So, we had to have a supply of MSA cylinders for the units using that brand and another cache of Scott cylinders for those and perhaps a third for US divers equipment. At the time that these regulations were published there may have been a very good reason for their promulgation but if so it has long been outdated. With the widespread adoption of of mobile cylinder filling equipment it is simply not practical to separate cylinders by brand and there is no real need to do so since the connections and cylinder specifications are standardized by the CGA (Compressed Gas Association).
At this point it is apropos to point out that the most successful, and workable efforts at standardization have come from industry itself through trade associations such as ASTM (American Society For Testing Materials), CSA (Canadian Standards Association) NFPA (National Fire Prevention Association), UL (Underwriters Laboratories) and CGA among others, and not from government agencies such as OSHA.
These industry based associations have done much to set standards for apparatus and equipment. They have provided standard specifications for such diverse items as protective clothing, pressure containers, electrical insulation and installation, the list goes on. What these groups have done (and continue to do) is to provide uniform standards and specifications which are industry-wide in their application.
This is not an effort to restrict control trade; rather, it is a way of insuring that “we all sing from the same hymnal” and it is what makes it possible for you and me to walk into any hardware store and purchase a nut to fit our half inch bolt right off the shelf (or out of the bin). Standardization enables competition. Because of standards I can go into any auto parts store and purchase a bearing for my trailer without the original manufacturer having a monopoly and thereby holding me up for a king’s ransom. It also makes it possible (perhaps even probable) that I can find a bearing in the backwoods of nowhere in the event of a breakdown.
The widespread use of “commercial” chassis for fire apparatus is due, in part, to the fact that repair parts can be found in any auto parts store or the “Parts” department of a truck dealership thus allowing an “out of service” unit to be restored to “available” in a minimum amount of time and at a much lower cost than would otherwise be expected.
It's amazing that there is so much opposition to standardization within the fire service, but there is. Emergency response in general and fire protection in particular is lagging far behind other industries such as electronics, auto mechanics, tire manufacture and a myriad of others. We utilize the standards of other industries when we buy their products but in a number of important areas we have neglected to provide standards for our own. Perhaps the time has come to take a good look in the mirror.