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‘A zero-fail mission’ – Why one firefighter risked it all to build a better fireground

An unlikely inspiration, an audacious goal and a willingness to sacrifice money and career led to a breakthrough in pump operations

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Jason Cerrano demonstrats the SAM automated pump prototype at FDIC in 2017.

Photo/Meera Pal

Sponsored by IDEX Fire & Safety

By Laura Neitzel, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

One day in 2009, Jason Cerrano was running the pump on a fire. He was on one side of the truck and the fire was on another.

“Smoke was rolling out, but they weren’t asking for water, and I’m thinking something is not right.”

Unable to see the fire from the pump, with tons of chatter on the radio and other distractions, Cerrano was worried he’d miss a call for water. He didn’t, but he couldn’t get over the frustration of the situation.

As a career firefighter, with an engineering degree, he knew there had to be a better way to control pump operations. He turned his thoughts to wishing there were pumps on both sides of the truck (too expensive) or on top (not uncommon but puts a lot of wear and tear on the operator) and continued to muse on a workable solution.

That night, watching a fellow firefighter play Xbox, Cerrano had the eureka moment.

“I just looked at him and the Xbox, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I make it remote control?’” he said.

That inspiration set Cerrano on a journey to help solve a problem in the industry – inefficiency on the fireground – by automating pump operations.

It wouldn’t be easy. But after years of effort, setbacks, sleepless nights, leveraging every penny he had (and then some), Cerrano achieved his dream. This is his story.

Proving the concept

“Once my mind got a hold of automating that pumping process, then I started thinking of how far that could advance the fire service, freeing up manpower on the fireground and giving the operator half the stress, meaning they have double the bandwidth to pay attention to their crew,” Cerrano said. “You could catch a safety problem. You can stay ahead of their needs. However good you are, you’ll get that much better.”

As a firefighter, Cerrano knew pump operations. As a mechanical engineer, he knew a thing or two about building technology from scratch. But figuring how to make the fire truck intelligent enough to manage all pumping situations by itself and for it to be naturally intuitive for firefighters to work with and operate was a whole new ballgame.

“I didn’t know anything about fire truck electronics, or how fire truck components such as engines, pressure governors and valves communicated. I had the same basic concepts that most firefighters did, like, ‘My governor is going to do this, and my engine does that,’” said Cerrano. “But now I had to figure out the nuts and bolts of it all.”

Cerrano sketched the screen navigation of the controller and worked with a computer programmer who wrote the code. Together they created a simulator and user interface that Cerrano took to FDIC in 2016 so people could see what it would look like and how it would function. Cerrano got a lot good feedback that gave him the confidence he was on the right track.

That’s also where the simulator caught the attention of the truck committee from the City of St. Louis Fire Department. They invited him to visit the station.

“When I went down and talked to St. Louis they were like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got an old truck you can use. Just gut it, whatever.’ So, I gutted the truck and put all the stuff in and made it work,” said Cerrano, “and that was prototype No. 1.”

Putting the idea to work

Like most entrepreneurs, Cerrano had ups and downs and moments of doubt.

“I just took a perfectly good fire truck and tore it to pieces,” he said. “On one hand, I was excited about the possibilities, but then on the other hand it was terrifying because who knows if we could put all this back together and make this work. We were in uncharted territory at the time and I knew I had a lot to learn about fire trucks. After the truck was put back together with the updated valves, we were at least back to square one and had a platform we could work with.”

Cerrano and his programmer worked out the flow control to make the same decisions a human pump operator would. They tested the system at various pressures and flows until the automated system got it right.

“It was almost like we were training the fire truck like a new guy,” he said.

The automated system doesn’t change or complicate the process or eliminate the role of the pump operator, says Cerrano. It simply automates some of the processes, much like driving an automatic transmission instead of a manual transmission that requires you to watch your RPMs to shift to the right gear at the right time.

Because there is a single SAE International standard that governs communication protocols for every device on the truck, engineering to that standard allowed Cerrano and his programmer to expand from simulation to actual operation on the fire truck very quickly.

“I didn’t have to develop the reliability part of it,” he said. “I just had to develop the thought process for pumping automatically.”

The big reveal

When Cerrano showcased the retrofitted St. Louis City FD truck at FDIC in 2017, he wasn’t sure exactly what would happen.

“Nobody knew if automation was right for the fire service. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. But once we put that thing in service and automation hit the fire scene, it worked,” said Cerrano. “That first prototype was the game changer.”

Having proved the concept worked on the first truck, the next step was taking that proof of concept and putting it into trusted, lasting, affordable components that OEMs would be willing to put on their trucks. Again, Cerrano partnered with St. Louis City FD, who offered to let him fit a new truck with the new electronics. He got help from a fellow Iowan, Tim Van Fleet at IDEX Fire & Safety, who arranged for Cerrano to use Akron Brass components in the second truck.

“We spent that next year picking out product-level components that truck manufacturers would be familiar with and the fire service could trust,” said Cerrano. “We learned a few lessons with the first truck, but most of it was component choice. My original concern was that firefighters would be going back and forth from auto to manual operation a lot, but we quickly learned that the automation was always preferred. Operators were asking for more presets and short-cuts. As confidence in the system grew, so did the demands for even more simplicity, speed, and information.”

Given confirmation that automating the pump was the best thing for the fireground, he started adding capabilities into a second truck. The second truck made a splash at FDIC in 2018 and continued to open doors for Cerrano, who realized by then that he’d need more help, experience and support to push the automated flow system to the next level.

“When you’re by yourself trying to do a proof of concept, at a high level, in a critical job environment, everything’s life and death. I felt it. It gave me the right perspective when I was working with my programmers,” he said. “I couldn’t instill in my programmers enough, ‘This is a zero-fail mission. We can’t even have it fail the first time.’ Being in the fire service for 20 years, I had a very good grasp that this is not play time.”

Looking back, Cerrano reflects on his experience leaving the fire service to pursue the development of the SAM water control system. It took him nine years from his eureka moment until 2018 when he found an ideal partner in IDEX Fire & Safety with the resources needed to take SAM from a proven concept into a marketable product that would revolutionize the way water is delivered on the fireground.

“SAM has always been about the fireground,” said Cerrano. “I just went for it. Investment didn’t limit me. The amount of time didn’t matter. The pain of the process didn’t matter. Nothing could stop this effort. It had to happen for the sake of the industry.”

Happen it did – and further development would hit high gear when IDEX entered the picture.

Get more info from IDEX Fire & Safety.

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Laura Neitzel is Director of Branded Content for Lexipol, where she oversees the production of written and multimedia branded content of relevance to a public safety audience, including law enforcement, fire, EMS and corrections.