Md. firefighter designs small apparatus with full capabilities

By Marc Shapiro
The Capital

PASADENA, Md. — A firefighter for more than 30 years, Jim Belford has seen firefighting technology evolve, and for the most part it has been for the better.

But some changes haven't made it easier for firefighters to do their jobs.

"Apparatuses keep getting bigger and bigger and there's a lot of areas fire trucks can't fit into," he said. "You wind up dragging about a ton of hose."

Three years ago, an idea came to him. What if there were a vehicle with the same capabilities as a full-size fire engine that was a fraction of the size, weight and cost?

Enter Creative Fire Apparatus, the company he started with longtime friend Paul Kingston. The two Pasadena men designed the Hydra-H1, a 10-foot-long, 58-inch-wide firefighting vehicle and medical transport. Two vehicles were built in Kingston's home car shop, and the Hydra officially went on the market in February.

"The unit does everything a full-size engine will," Belford said. "It is a true fire truck, it's just a smaller package."

The vehicle weighs 3,500 pounds fully loaded with two people, and it costs $50,000 to $60,000, compared to full-size trucks starting at $300,000. Although the diesel vehicle can go only to a top speed of 35 mph, Kingston and Belford see it as a good supplement to fire departments' fleets of full-size engines.

And they aren't the only ones who see potential in the vehicle.

SmartCEO magazine recognized them last month for excellence in product innovation. There have been no sales yet, but curious companies looking into the Hydra include Six Flags America, Disney, Harley Davidson and BP Fuels, Kingston said. He also said that European Union officials said they think the Hydra may have potential in cities with narrow streets in countries such as Hungary and Poland.

"There's nothing else out there like that unit," said Don Merkle, a marine firefighting instructor at the Maritime Institute of Technology in Linthicum for 35 years. "There is a need: any congested areas, any areas where you can't get a full-size firetruck."

The vehicle fights fires using a compressed air foam pump, which Belford designed and patented. With regular systems, a gallon of water typically makes seven to 10 gallons of foam. With Belford's design, one gallon of water makes 25 gallons of foam.

Kingston said it also is more economical than water, and has less potential to damage structures since it's lighter.

"You squirt it out and it stays there," he said. "With water, it's a 40 percent loss. The foam has the capability to smother the fire and extinguish it."

Because different foam consistencies are needed at different times, Belford designed a "brain" that can change this on-the-go by memory. He also designed the control panel similar to that on a regular firetruck.

For medical and fire supplies, the vehicle has 20 cubic feet of indoor storage and five in the back. With a 65-gallon water tank, 5-gallon onboard foam cell and 1,700-gallon finished foam system, Belford said the vehicle can fight a fire as effectively as one to 21/2 firetrucks.

He and Kingston said they see myriad potential uses for their vehicle: parking garages, theme parks, stadiums, crowded cities, alleyways and marinas, all places that full-size firetrucks often have trouble navigating. It will even fit in a freight elevator, which could fight fires in commercial and apartment buildings.

"We built this thing with Ocean City in mind," Kingston said. "We thought it would be good for the boardwalk."

The two are hoping to give a demonstration at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, although there are no plans as of yet, according to Jonathan Dean, airport spokesman.

The vehicle has been modeled at several trade shows and used at some local events, such as January's Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point State Park, where an injured participant was transported using the vehicle's medical transport basket.

Merkle is positive the Hydra will take off once it gets out there. He went to a trade show in Harrisburg, Pa., with Belford, and saw his competitors get nervous because the vehicle impressed them, but the patent belongs to Belford.

"His competitors were very concerned with what he had," he said. "When that thing takes off, they're not going to be able to touch it."

Copyright 2009 Capital Gazette Communications, Inc.
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