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Drafting made easier for these rural FDs and next-gen firefighters

Controlling the flow with SAM means ‘you don’t have to stay handcuffed to the truck’

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Hadley Township (Michigan) FD puts water on a fire using water sourced from a pond.

Hadley Township, MI FD

Sponsored by IDEX Fire & Safety

By Laura Neitzel, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

Some fire departments, especially in rural areas, rely in whole or in part on water drafted from static sources like ponds, lakes, rivers and pools for their water supply. Drafting water from a lake is a different process than pulling water from a municipal source, but the potentiality of a municipal water system shutting down due to extreme weather or other events makes it important that even urban or suburban fire departments be familiar with the process.

Drafting uses the pump to create a negative pressure differential – or vacuum – to lift water from the source to fill the truck. This can be a laborious process with multiple variables, traditionally requiring constant vigilance from the pump operator to maintain a vacuum, add lines and make sure the pump is running efficiently.

For two volunteer fire departments that depend on drafting for their water supply, the SAM automated flow control system simplifies pump operations using automation, freeing pump operators from the need to remain at the pump panel. Here’s why they made the choice to go with SAM on new apparatus and how it’s making the drafting process safer and more efficient

Bethany VFD looks ahead for the next generation of firefighters

At the agency where he started his career in the mid-1990s, “drafting was sort of like this magic voodoo that two or three guys knew how to do,” said Jim Gugliotti, a firefighter with Bethany VFD in Connecticut and member of the apparatus committee. Whereas that department mostly relied on pressurized water, in Bethany the VFD is completely reliant on drafting from water sources in the area to provide rural water supply and as such a tremendous effort is put into being proficient in that skill.

Although Gugliotti has experience drafting, he recognized that it can be a challenge for more recent firefighters with little or no similar experience. So, when the committee was tasked to design a new apparatus for the department, they wanted to build upon their drafting experience and design an apparatus that would alleviate some of the challenges with hand control for large-pressure, high-volume water. Specifically, they sought to shrink the wheelbase of the truck by replacing the large, complex hand valves with smaller electrically-operated valves.

But there was one thing on the committee’s wish list that they didn’t know existed – a better system that relied on automation and that had remote capabilities. Gugliotti recalled thinking how antiquated it was to “still have a guy standing in front of the truck, pulling levers and moving throttle buttons or dials.”

Following the engineering review of the final bid package for the new Bethany truck, the manufacturer brought the idea of the SAM system to Bethany for review prior to production as it included many advantages Bethany was trying to achieve.

“We have to adapt our department for the people that are coming up” Gugliotti said. “The people that are coming through are not you and I that have been doing this for 25 years and understand all this stuff. We need to adapt so that at 2 in the morning with a rural volunteer department, the guy can get water out of the truck.”

Bethany VFD added SAM to the apparatus design to better equip the next generation of firefighters, who have grown up with digital tools like tablets and smartphones.

“To date, everybody who has touched the remote control panel for the automated SAM flow control system has intuitively figured out how to run it,” said Gugliotti. “So is that a replacement for understanding how you’re supposed to draft and pump a truck? No. Absolutely not. You still have to be a pump operator. You still have to understand the basic principles.”

While Gugliotti understands the hesitation many fire leaders have in implementing new technology, what SAM has done is given Bethany VFD a simple way to draft water and fill the tank without losing water, pressure or prime. Gugliotti describes SAM as an extra set of hands so you don’t have to constantly manage tank fill, tank to pump and the MIVs, all the while ensuring you don’t lose prime. It can measure pressure with greater precision than manual gauges and notify the operator in advance of any brewing problems, so the operator can intervene before there is a problem. The operator still needs to intervene, but SAM gives the operator feedback well in advance of an issue.

Gugliotti especially appreciates the scene visibility afforded by screens mounted on both sides of the truck and being able to walk around it with a wireless tablet.

“We’ve got to stack the deck in the favor of the guys that don’t do this every day,” Gugliotti said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re giving them the technology and the tools to be successful the few times they do it.”

Automation relieves the manpower burden on Hadley Township FD

Like Bethany in Connecticut, Hadley Township in Michigan is 100% reliant on drafting for their water supply. Fortunately, water sources are abundant in this bedroom community outside Detroit.

The problem was not lack of water or experience drafting, but lack of manpower – combined with Murphy’s Law – that made Hadley Township FD go looking for a solution: “It just seemed to work out like 90% of our structure fires were on the passenger side,” Chief Kurt Nass said. “So, our pump operator was never on the side of the fire.”

A top- or rear-mounted pump was not feasible because of the manpower required and the burden it would place on the engineer who, at the small department, pulls ladders and lines as well as operates the pumps.

To solve this problem, Nass went looking for a manufacturer that would put identical pump controls on both sides of a truck. This was in 2018, as pump manufacturer Hale was getting ready to release SAM and was looking for a fire department that would take a chance on it. Spencer Manufacturing in Michigan took the challenge and worked with Hale to design a truck with SAM pump controls on each side.

Hadley Township FD took delivery of the truck in July 2019. The first call was for a tree fire at the township offices. Nass was immediately impressed that the engineer could control the pump panels on the truck using multiple lines from the passenger side – without standing in the road to do so. The engineer, Captain Dave Tunison, remarked that he felt like he was the horse watching the first automobile go by. Nass describes it as “insanely revolutionary.”

One thing Nass appreciates about SAM is how the system provides warnings when the water source is going to have problems. It’s very hard to tell from a conventional gauge whether you have the efficiency to add or charge another line, he says – but with SAM, you know the exact number and how efficiently the pump is running, and you can tweak it through individual pressures on the hoses and add new lines.

To Nass, the biggest benefit is the automation. With a simple swipe on the controller, SAM starts the draft, fills and refills the tank and charges new lines. It also eliminates the need for the pump operator to rush through various tasks.

“With SAM you can do other things that you could never do before, and you don’t have to stay handcuffed to the truck,” said Nass.

Gain freedom from the pump

The SAM system is making it easier and more efficient for fire departments that rely on drafting to get a rural water supply to a fire and making it safer for pump operators by freeing them from the pump and expanding their view of the fire scene.

Both Nass and Gugliotti believe SAM will soon move from being a revolutionary technology to a routine one as more departments embrace the benefits of automated pump operations.

“In five years, everybody’s going to talk about, ‘I can’t believe he bought a truck without SAM on it,’” said Gugliotti.

“We’ll never own an engine without it again,” said Nass.

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In case you missed it: 4 ways IDEX Fire & Safety’s SAM system transforms traditional pump operations

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.