Class Act: Firefighters change training schedule to accommodate Bush funeral

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Former President George H.W. Bush, 94, was laid to rest Dec. 6 at his presidential library in College Station, TX. His death was a tragedy for the nation and played havoc with the planned schedule for the winter Hellfighter U fire training at the nearby Brayton Fire Training Field.

“We’re forced into scrambling the agenda and rearranging the curriculum in a sequence we’ve never utilized before,” Hellfighter U director Frank Bateman said.

The changes also meant sacrificing a portion of the open discussion time to discuss such hot button issues as prioritizing performance and firefighter safety in the controversy concerning firefighting foam and the environment.

“What I say is if you’re going to put your life on the line using firefighting foam, make sure it performs,” Bateman said. “I want to incorporate that into the criteria for foam testing.”

PHOS-CHEK, the company behind Hellfighter U, offers a full range of Class A and Class B firefighting foams. However, its most famous product is the red colored fire retardant extensively used in fighting wildfires in California, Canada and other countries around the world.

The decision by Texas A&M University officials to close the fire field the afternoon of Bush’s interment forced Bateman and his instructors, known as “The Cadre,” to compress a full two-day schedule of live-fire training into a day and a half,

 “I like to introduce course material in the classroom and reinforce itwith hands-on practical exercises when on the training field.” Bateman said. “I had to flip-flop the curriculum so that I’m having evolutions on the field first and then, tomorrow, I tell them in the classroom about what they learned yesterday.”

Fortunately, the 90 firefighters attending the school were on board with the changes that had to be made.

“It’s kind of neat,” Bateman said. “You don’t know how any particular class will turn out. Some classes’ will always have a person or two who might gripe, but there has been none of that. I don’t think former president Bush 41 had an enemy in the class.”

Eliminating the school’s extensive evolution emphasizing use of the incident command system came as the biggest sacrifice. The multi-project evolution usually concludes Hellfighter U’s schedule of live-burn exercise.

“The evolution starts starts on one project prop and spread to another and then another,” Bateman said. “We turn it over to the students. We appoint an incident commander from both the municipal and the private sector and they, with guidance, oversee the structured response.”

Other than the loss of the ICS evolution, Bateman said he came very close to getting all the scheduled field exercises completed.

As for the classroom training, Bateman said he had hoped for more time to devote to the issue of testing and qualifying firefighting foams.

“With the hullabaloo about fluorine free foams, people have just been smashed with pressure to forget about everything but the environment,” Bateman said. “There is another side – the safety of the firefighter is losing its place as the most important part of an agency’s preparation to protect the community.”

The successful tactics and strategy that have been the standard in industrial firefighting for the last 40 years may not be available to our successors, he said.

“If the fluorine free were to be used it would mean putting people in pssibleperil,” Bateman said.

In October, Bateman participated in firefighting foam testing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xel3CFg0MQY) conducted in Spain by Auxquimia, the manufacturing plant for PHOS-CHEK products. The testing regime was rigorous and in accordance with existing industry test standards, he said.

“When you hear that Brand X passed a test, it means nothing to me,” Bateman said. “I want to know the criteria of that test. If I see something that is used to mislead or shortcut the process, I get angry because that means that the firefighter suffers.”

Testing was conducted in a 12-meter (approximately 40-foot) diameter tank, slightly smaller than a similar fire test project at Brayton. Fuel used in the testing was unleaded gasoline.

“Fresh gasoline was placed on top of fresh water, not water recirculated through the training grounds’ water treatment system,” Bateman said. “We emptied the tank every time we had a test.”

Future testing with the tank prop will include PHOS-CHEK’s attempt at a fluorine free firefighting foam, he said.

“We want to see how various fluorine-free foams will perform against PHOS-CHEK’s, a flagship 1 x 3 AR-AFFF Ultra,” Bateman said. “In this day and age, the product should be tested that way because it is the product most likely to be used by the industrial community.”

Craig McDonnell, manager of Phos-Chek’s Class B foam business, was on hand for the Hellfighter U training. Like Bateman, he said he believes fluorinated firefighting foam will be a reality for industrial firefighting for the immediate future.

“Right now there isn’t an equivalent fluoro-free for them, especially in applications where the fuel is in depth and the foam has to plunge into it,” McDonnell said.

In making a purchase decision, end users must weigh product performance, environmental considerations and cost – not just the cost of the foam but the cost to make any hardware change required by the new generation of firefighting foams, he said.

“Fluorosurfactant based foam concentrates will be around for a long time yet,” McDonnell said. “But there is no doubt that the environmental pressure is on both users and producers of firefighting foam concentrates.”

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