Firefighter Training, Firefighting, Structural Firefighting

Commentary: The Missing Link with CAFS

By Nick Perkins

For more than two decades, compressed air foam systems (CAFS) have been called “new” structural firefighting tools. The benefits of CAFS, as pointed out in magazine articles and by salesmen, are based on studies that are several years old. Also, many of these studies are based on rural firefighting or exterior operations. Follow-up tests have only verified what is already known about CAFS: better knockdown, lighter lines, and superior water use. There is no doubt that CAFS, when used properly, is a tremendous asset in fighting rural and structural fires.

However, for those of us who have been using CAFS to fight structure fires, new issues have come up which the industry has yet to address. Are we applying CAFS on the front lines in a manner consistent with its design? It is not uncommon to have a brand new fire engine sitting in a fire station equipped with a CAFS unit that has never been used. Departments may want to gain ISO points, but there’s a missing link: CAFS training. Whether it’s lack of training or inadequate training from the manufacturers, many questions regarding CAFS need to be addressed.

When a fire department decides to invest in CAFS, it usually spends a lot of time and money designing and purchasing the equipment; little consideration is given to additional training and tactics use that should accompany the arrival of a CAFS unit. A firefighter receives about an hour of training on the unit which focuses on how to make wet foam versus dry foam. It is true that we are still putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, but there are additional considerations.

Nozzle selection is one important consideration. Most CAFS research has involved using CARS with a smoothbore nozzle, which is significant because most fire departments in America use fog nozzles, especially for interior operations. There is very little data about CAFS and fog nozzles available. Paul Grimwood of has long talked about the need for third party research on CAFS and fire gases. Most CAFS research involves its direct application onto the fire. Currently research is underway in the United Kingdom on this topic, and it will be the first of its kind.

In Pflugerville, Texas, we have been using CAFS since 1996, and since then have come a long way in our approach to CAFS use. In our department, firefighters are taught in the academy to use a fog tip for interior operations, and have used CAFS with a fog nozzle with great success. Little training or published information on CAFS was available when our department first started using. With almost all our firefighters using fog tips with CAFS on the fireground, a debate soon started within our department on this combination.

We knew that CAFS from a smoothbore nozzle was superior to CAFS from a fog, but we still wanted to keep the fog in our firefighting tool box. Many of our firefighters were adamant about having a fog tip on their lines because they were trained to use a fog tip for interior attacks. Our department’s solution: We used a removable fog tip that threaded onto a 15/16 smoothbore nozzle. We discussed this with our CAFS units’ manufacturer, which agreed that a fog tip does ruin the consistency of CAFS by robbing it of the consistent bubble, instead creating an almost “low-grade” CAFS that is still superior to foam solution and plain water alone.

Based on our experience, we came to several conclusions about CAFS and the fog tip: It still provides a superior firefighting tool in the form of a low-grade CAFS; the fog tip is needed in case of compressor or foam-proportioner failure; and it still allows firefighters to perform hydraulic ventilation. We recently conducted live fire training and rotated all our crews through an evolution where they conducted an interior attack with a smoothbore. Almost all of the crews were very impressed and felt confident that they could perform an interior attack with a smoothbore nozzle. We also confirmed the understanding that for defensive and exterior operations, to reap the full benefits of CAFS, our tool of choice is a smoothbore nozzle.

Change is slow in the fire service, and that is probably why, after almost 12 years of use in my department, CAFS is now getting some much needed testing and research to see if it can be used even more effectively. It is important that third-party testing emphasize testing CAFS with different nozzles, and its use against fire gases. Most information about CAFS comes from the manufacturers, more independent testing needs to be done. There are new topics about CAFS to discuss; I look forward to what the future holds for this awesome firefighting tool.

Nick Perkins, a 10-year veteran of the emergency services, is a lietuenant with the Pflugerville (TX) Fire Department and has extensive firefighting experience with CAFS.