Environmental Influences on Firefighting Foams: An International Seminar

By George H. Potter

From time immemorial, the application of enough “wet stuff onto the hot stuff” has been the most common method of extinguishing fires; at least, fires involving the most ordinary kinds of solid fuels.

However, that generalized method was not very practical, nor was it effective when liquids were the burning substances. Vegetable oils, greases, and similar liquids have been in common use and subject to ignition for centuries.

In the mid-19th century, the industrial revolution gave rise to the petroleum industry, originating a nearly endless variety of new liquid fuels, all of which inflamed and burned at a wide range of temperatures. During those first decades, the combat, control, and extinguishment of petroleum-based liquid fuel fires was extremely difficult and, in probably the majority of situations, extinction was usually achieved through the total consumption of the fuel involved.

During the first years of the 20th century, research and investigation by a number of entities—public and private—as well as individuals in several countries, led to the creation and development of substances that, when added to water in determined quantities, combined with air and projected onto the burning liquids in adequate form and amounts, successfully controlled and extinguished those fires. The era of firefighting foams began.

The first foam compounds were primarily composed of chemicals that, when combined with water, produced a thick, bubbly mass. The Russian chemist and engineer Aleksandr Loran is considered to be the inventor of foam in 1902. In the 1940s, the first protein foams were developed, which considerably improved the extinguishing capacity of foams as well as reducing production costs. In the 1950s, research in the United Kingdom and the United States resulted in the development of high-expansion foams, initially oriented to the mining industry but later to many other hazards in large-volume locations. The 1960s saw two very significant milestones: Flouroprotein foams (created by National Foam) and the Aquous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), developed by researchers from the U.S. Navy. During the following decade, National Foam again came up with a product that solved many serious extinguishing problems: Alcohol-resistant AFFF, commonly known as AR-AFFF and applicable to fires involving alcohols and polar solvents in which the normal foams were totally ineffective. In 1993, Class A foams were introduced, although wetting agents or “wet water” performed quite similarly during the previous decades.

However, researchers at 3M, manufacturer of what had been considered as the leading AFFF—Light Water—discovered several major negative effects of water/foam run-offs into natural water sources and other negative effects on the environment. So, in 2002, 3M discontinued the manufacture and distribution of their products without offering any practical alternatives. However, in 2010, significant progress was being made in the search for substitutes with the development of fluorine-free foams. This history and the subsequent legislation in many countries prohibiting certain components incorporated in a number of foam concentrates convinced several entities in different countries of the need for a world-class symposium on the present situation and future of firefighting foams.



In October 2015, a noncommercial and independent workshop aimed at upgrading the education on firefighting foam concentrates in industries and sectors with considerable risks was convened in Spain entitled, “What Type of Firefighting Foam Concentrate Will You Be Using in the Next 10 Years?” More than 50 specialists from diverse sectors (petroleum refining and storage, aviation, maritime, engineering, and public fire services) attended the three-day event which included audio-visual presentations, live fire demonstrations, and examples of official testing procedures.

The organizers included the internationally-renowned foam manufacturer AUXQUIMIA, acquired back in 2014 by ICL Performance Products, which owns (among other companies) PHOS-CHEK, one of the most relevant brand names in the U.S. firefighting business; the prominent U.K.-based independent research and testing entity LASTFIRE; the JOVELLANOS Fire Training Centre, one of Europe’s most complete live fire training facilities; and JOIFF, the most important industrial fire protection job competence and training agency in Europe for industrial emergency responders.

RELATED: Cotner on Class A FoamDicus, et al., on Compressed Air FoamBachman on Creating a Regional Foam Cooperative

Together, they developed a program that clearly presented the past, present, and future of foams used for firefighting in an extensive range of activities and industries. This initiative clearly demonstrated the uncertainties existing today in the global marketplace regarding foam specifications, performance characteristics, test procedures, and applications now that environmental questions and restrictions must be taken into account.

(1) More than 50 attendees at the seminar listen to one of the speakers. (Photos by author.)



  • The Mizanno (Sicily) Refinery Fire (2014). Stefano Rotti, Manager of Safety and the Fire Brigade of the Mizanno Refinery. This storage tank fire showed how you must manage and organize carefully fire protection resources where external support and assistance are limited or, even worse, nonexistent. The 70,000 m3-capacity tank had nearly 50,000 m3 of oil when the floating roof collapsed. The in-plant emergency brigade fought the fire for a full week before total extinction.
  • Evolution of Foam Concentrates Over the Years. Dr. Niall Ramsden, coordinator of the large atmospheric storage tank fires (LASTFIRE). From protein foams through AR-AFFF low-viscosity (Newtonian) to fluorine-free, alcohol-resistant foam concentrates, the development of reliable foams that meet the latest and extremely demanding specifications is constant. The properties and applications of foams are distinct, and this presentation was an overview of these products and how they combat different fires. Ramsden also pointed out the different international specifications and how they often conflict with one another. The question now is, where are we now? And, most important, where are we headed to?
  • Foam related terminology and foam properties. Javier Castro, General Manager of AUXQUIMIA. There are a number of specific terms and definitions used to describe and define and foams and foam concentrates and how the persons responsible for specifying and supervising acquisitions of foam concentrates must understand them.
  • A Sales Demonstration is Not a Test!! The Importance of LASTFIRE. Ramsden presented a very enlightening exposition on the differences between commercial demonstrations and standard compliant tests of foam concentrates. The sales demonstrations are exactly that—demonstrations, often noncompliant, and almost always below official test requirements. He pointed out the important difference between the standard test pans and the LASTFIRE pans, which, because of their wall height, increase the demand for extinguishing capabilities of foams during tests. Ramsden underlined the multitude of international and national performance standards and requirements for foam concentrates.
  • Matching the Foam to the System. Antonio Acuña of AUXQUIMIA presented the conditions that must be taken into consideration when designing fixed foam systems and the most adequate foams to be used. He covered the current standards and the differences in them for different situations.
  • Practical Exercises in the Fire Ground. Taking advantage of the live fire training facilities and scenarios at the Jovellanos Training Center, several demonstrations of the different types of foam appliances were carried out.

(2) Comparative reach of low-expansion foam streams, AFFF (left) protein foam (right).

(3) Typical projection of medium expansion foam; short reach but wide coverage.

(4) High-expansion foam is normally projected through a large applicator capable of forming a very large mass of foam.


These included aspirated and nonaspirated nozzles; low, medium and high expansion foams; and the differences between fluorine-free foam vs. AFFF/AR foam against 900 gallons of diesel fuel in a 2,240 square-foot bund around a horizontal storage tank. The fire was controlled and extinguished by the fluorine-free foam vs. AFFF-AR foam in around two minutes.

(5) The 2,420 square-foot bund fire, foam is being projected from the left through two 1¾-inch handlines—one with fluorine-free foam the other with AFFF-AR foam.

(6) Dr. Niall Ramsden (black turnouts) checks for burnback several minutes after extinction of the 2,420 square-foot bund fire.


The following day started off with a visit to AUXQUIMIA’s plant a few miles from the seminar site. This visit included explications of the different laboratory test procedures used during the development and ongoing quality controls during the manufacture of the distinct types of foam concentrates made there. Several demonstrations of extinguishing tests were performed, using the “official” test protocol pans and the LASTFIRE pans.

(7) Demonstration of foam performance testing according to European standards.

(8) The LASTFIRE test pan differs greatly from the pan used for performance testing according to European standards.


  • Current and Future Environmental Regulations. Ramsden returned to the podium, presenting probably the most significant aspect of the seminar: Information concerning the effects of foams on the environment and the corresponding urgency to find viable and reliable alternatives. A number of countries around the world have proposed local regulations that would, in effect, eliminate fluorinated foams. Among the most significant  measures taken during the last two years have been:
  1. Queensland, Australia, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. Forthcoming ban on the use of fluorinated foams.
  2. European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). Proposal by Germany and Norway to restrict the manufacture, use, and sale of Perflourooctanic acid 7 (PFOA) and PFOA-related substances.
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Proposal of Significant New Use Rule (SNUR): A ban on the manufacture, import, or processing of long-chain perfluoroalkyl chemicals (LC-PFCAs) after 2015.
  4. Environment Canada. Proposed regulations to prohibit the manufacture of AFFF containing LC-PFCAs, but would continue to allow the use, sale and import of AFFF containing LC-PFCAs

These and other regulations will have significant effects of the future of firefighting foams, obliging manufacturers to invest in research and investigation to find adequate substitutes and alternatives.

  • PFOAs Limits in the U.K.: Current Situation and how it will Affect the Oil Industry in a Near Future. Peter Davidson, director of safety, commerce and projects for the U.K. Petroleum Association discussed the existing and future limitations of determined components of foam concentrates containing PFOA, which are still permitted although under scientific study and which may follow the Perflourooctane sulfates, prohibited for several years. The elimination of these components will have important consequences in future foam concentrates.
  • Evolution of Foam and Its Use in the Aviation Environment: The Singapore Experience. Cletus Packiam, chief of airport emergency service at Changi Airport Group (Singapore), explained the past and present situations regarding the foam concentrates used at Singapore’s three international airports including an ICAO Category 10 facility. His presentation included the studies undertaken to identify the effects that existing foam components have on human health and environment, and the search for reliable alternatives. Their conclusions, as applicable to their particular criteria were that Film Forming Flouroprotein Foams (FFFP) are the most reliable and effective foams for Singapore’s airports.
  • Assurance. What does a foam user need to know to have the right foam concentrate at his facility and make sure that it continues to perform on an on-going basis? The answers include proper specifications, calculations on foam requirements, correct storage, and regular testing and exercises, taking into account:
  1. System testing.
  2. Disposal/water treatment.
  3. Foam requirements.
  4. Foam tactical issues.
  • Foam Compatibility/Miscibility. Presented by Acuña, this covered important issues including the viscosity of the distinct foam concentrates and the effects that temperatures have on these, the incompatibility of many foam concentrates with others, correct storage conditions, potential problems with materials used for concentrate containers, shelf life of concentrate, and many other factors that have influences of the reliability of foam concentrates.
  • Foam Concentrates in TOTAL: Industrial Viewpoint. Eric Pallier, emergency and safety coordinator at TOTAL, the French petroleum company, explained how TOTAL resolved an extremely grave problem that occurred when their primary foam concentrate supplier could not meet the performance requirements, a problem that had appeared previously with a former supplier. Internal studies resulted in a change from the three-percent FFFP-AR foam concentrate they had been using to a 1% AFFF-AR concentrate maintained the extinguishing capabilities while reducing the amounts of foam concentrates on site and permitted much more efficiency of human and material resources.
  • Buncefield 2005.  The vapor cloud explosion and subsequent fires that affected 20 petroleum product storage tanks was the largest fire in the U.K. since the Flixborough plant fire in 1974. Simon Brown, area commander at the Hertsfordshire Fire & Rescue Service (HFR), gave a detailed account of how this emergency stretched to extreme limits the operational capabilities of the HFR, which was assisted by 30 other public service fire brigades and four industrial emergency response brigades during the 2½-day incident. Resource mobilization included several thousand feet of large-diameter hose, more than 231,400 gallons of foam concentrate (of which nearly 205,000 gallons were actually applied), more than 14 million gallons of water, and more than 150 fire fighters on site. The site had an up-to-date emergency response plan implemented, but it had never experienced any significant situations during its 40 years of existence. Also, the HFR had never responded to an incident of this magnitude. There were many lessons learned from this fire; probably the most important was the need for preincident planning and training for major incidents, along with unification of resources.
  • Major Events Occur… Buncefield is Not a Unique Situation. Ramsden returned to explain why so many really serious explosions and fires occur all over the world. He showed three examples of these incidents, their principal causes, their sustained losses, and how they possibly could have been avoided, or at least reduced the consequences. The three incidents were Buncefield, U.K., in 2005; the Jaipur terminal fire in India in 2009; and the Bayamon, Puerto Rico, fire in 2009. Of the three, only the Jaipur incident produced casualties (11 fatalities and an unknown number of injuries). In each of these incidents, the primary causes were vapor cloud explosions provoked by substance leaks.
  • What End-Users Expect from a Foam Concentrate Manufacturer? This final exposition was by Alberto Menendez, global sales manager of AUXQUIMIA and coordinator of the seminar. His basic premise was simple: Reliable products that meet the applicable standards and requirements and the specifications set down by the user, which should coincide with the standards.

We were able to respond to a number of important questions, some of which follow, with timely and accurate answers:

  • What are the effects on the environment caused by residual water and foam run-offs after fire extinction?
  • What problems face foam manufacturers and users because of the latest legislation on foam concentrate ingredients?
  • Why do so many regulations and specifications conflict with one another, and most importantly?
  • Where do we go from here?

This seminar was outstanding for a number of reasons. First, the overall theme (foams in use now and those of the near future), the diversity of the speakers and their subjects, the venue (one of Europe’s most complete live fire training facilities), the host organizations and entities, and the attendees (more than 50 major users from a wide spectrum of activities, from petroleum refining and storage through civil aviation and maritime ports to public fire services). These attendees came from several European countries as well as North America, the Middle East, and Asia.


George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 47 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County, Maryland, volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as a firefighter, an apparatus driver/operator, and a crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain-certified fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish Firefighters‘ Association (ASELF).


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