Newest Development May Have Marked Effect on Fire Service Communications . . . Ignition . . . Lighting . . . Power

Editor’s Note: Over the years, the problems of fire service communications, response and operations of fire apparatus of all categories, lighting the scene of emergencies, and powering electrically operated fire and rescue equipment, have grown apace.

Each advance in these vital elements of fire suppression has placed added importance, and added load, upon an alltoo-frequently overlooked fire service essential—the common storage battery.

It is possible that a new type battery, recently placed on the market, will have a major place in meeting the increasing demands of the fire service for electricity required for the growing list of applications, we are told. Checking on its possibilities and limitations, the editors requested Dr. L. Grant Hector, a highly qualified electrical scientist, to prepare a brief story of this product, its implications and its applications. ,

Dr. Hector has done just that. Shorn of scientific technical terms, Dr. Hector has presented his message as “an old fire fighter, who tackles new problems.”

VOICES shout, feet hammer on the old board sidewalks, a big gong sounds, two men race frantically for valves that will turn high-pressure water from a spring-fed reservoir in the hills into the water lines. Two hose carts, one a two wheeler, one a four, tear down the street, first slowly as they start with one or two men, then faster as more men come flying to the carts to help push or pull them. The writer is a young kid on the two wheeler. We are the Independent Fire Company of Clarendon, Pennsylvania, and we must beat the Brown Hose to the fire. This time we do and, together, by sheer man (and boy) power, we do get the fire out without losing more than a house or two. Yes, was forty years ago in a small town in Western Pennsylvania.

In 1955 an unpredictable hurricane shifts course and wipes out the electric power system of a large metropolitan area. The city is in darkness; the telephones are out; flash floods sweep through the streets; part of the water system is disrupted. But miraculously the fire engines, the hook-and-ladder trucks, the big combinations appear, water and chemicals pour on the places where they will be most effective, fire fighting machines are released and dispatched to other emergency areas as conditions better at this disaster point and worsen at another—all with the speed, smoothness and effectiveness that you would expect to see on a practice run on a sunshiny day in May.

Not a fair comparison, you say. One was a small town forty years ago, the other a great metropolitan area today. Right, but the facts are nevertheless true, and even that small town in Western Pennsylvania is not far behind the big city in fire fighting effectiveness today.

The difference is due to the development of many, many things. Improvement in communication systems permitting the transmission of the alarm from either fire box or telephone to fire alarm headquarters. Development of automobiles and adaptation to trucks and thence to all the mobile fire fighting vehicles. Portable gasoline engine-driven electric generators to provide power and light on location. Self-powered water pumps to pull water from local streams and reservoirs and to boost pressure on water from remote water systems that escaped damage. Two-way radio systems between the central fire control systems and every vehicle both at the disaster and in transit, and between the chief at the point of disaster and key men close to the fire front.

Every piece of equipment listed above either starts or operates from batteries. Let someone go through the system and steal all the batteries, and the fire department will be a dead duck.

New type battery powers emergency generator. Fire Chief Paul O. Wetzel, of the Hawthorne, N. Y., Fire Department tests a sintered-plate, nickle-cadmium battery which powers standby generator for the community's fire alarm system. The recent hurricanes and floods put heavy strain on fire communications, proving many times over the importance of auxiliary, standby power. Batteries in such equipment should hold their charge for long periods of inactivity.

What a good many of our fire fighters have overlooked is the fact that nowadays we are expecting an awful lot from batteries for modern fire apparatus.

Originally batteries were designed for one purpose—to furnish ignition for the gasoline engine. They were not even required to furnish current for illumination. Every old timer will remember the carbide lights. He will remember, also, the hand-cranked siren.

These were the days, BG, before gadgets. It wasn’t long before another heavy load was dumped on the battery —the task of kicking over the motor. It was bad enough with the Model T, but it was potential disaster on the cld heavyweight pumpers and the tractors.

But those were only trial days for the battery. From that time on came the electric siren, the flashing red lights, the steady front and the red rear lights, the stop light. The old dash search light, carbide-powered, gave way to the perky but powerful electric spot and search lights. And then many fire fighters fondly hoped that the end of the insatiable demand upon the battery had been reached.

How wrong they were. First came additional lighting, for compartments, for backing, for signaling between driver seat and rear end and, most momentous of all, came radio. Not just receiving, but two-way mobile radio, really powered to receive and push out messages ever long distances.

Then came changes in chargers and the introduction of alternators. And the little old battery took on importance to the point where this aspect of fire apparatus specifications took priority when the manufacturers, fire chiefs, and insurance rating people and underwriters got together. (Committee on Fire Department Equipment—Ed.)

Out of these meetings came general agreement that the apparatus battery should have “capacity commensurate with the size of the motor.” The committee also added this qualification— “Where apparatus batteries will be used in conjunction with radio operation, consideration should be given to additional generator and battery capacity.” Many detailed specifications were proposed in an attempt to insure adequate performances for all purposes.

New demands will continue to be made on fire fighting vehicles, and in turn on their batteries. Already electronic traffic control is being tried out, and electrically operated small tools and devices are being introduced; such, for example, as the powered hose-reel.

So we check through every piece of equipment in our fire fighting arsenal for battery requirements and for battery maintenance and then we write a list of ideal goals.

At the moment that service is needed, the battery must be capable of giving the required current, large or small, at the proper voltage. This may mean low internal resistance. Great ability to hold charge will be needed for jobs where frequent recharging is not practical. The ability to take charge rapidly without damage to the battery, “hotshot charging,” is needed where batteries are based hard at high rates. The battery must perform adequately at both high and low extremes of temperature. Use of the battery should be as foolproof as possible.

A newly introduced battery appears to be particularly fitted to meet these requircmems. It uses new construction even though it is based on chemical operations that were known fifty odd years ago. Its active ingredients are nickel and cadmium with caustic potash for the electrolyte. Chemically it is similar to the Edison battery which uses nickel and iron for active materials. When the chemistry of the system was discovered around the turn of the century, nickel-cadmium batteries were built using a construction similar to that of the nickel-iron batteries. The nickelcadrniuni system had better voltage characteristic but was somewhat more expensive than the nickel-iron. Both batteries have been sold in limited quantities for the past fifty years, both in the United States and in Europe, but their virtues as compared to lead storage batteries were not great enough in many applications to offset their higher initial costs.

One of the first fire chiefs to investigate the new sintered-plate, niclde-cadmium battery was Irving Merrick of Poughkeepsie (shown here with open battery compartment). This initial test installation in department's 100-foot aerial, occupies minimum space and reportedly has given good account of itself.

Then in the late 30’s, German engineers, looking for new fields in which to exploit their newly developed art of sintering metal powder, spread out a thin sheet of nickel powder, passed it through an oven and so produced a porous grid for holding the active material of a storage battery plate. To the naked eye, the plate looks solid. Pick it up and you find it very light—it is 80 per cent porous. The holes are irregular and too small to be seen without powerful magnification. By electrochemical means, active nickel can be placed into one of these grids to produce a positive plate, or active cadmium to produce a negative plate. The active material is literally plated on the inside walls of the millions of microscopic cavities in these plates. Electrolyte touches the material on an area many, many times greater than the apparent surface of the plate. The plates arc very smooth and can be placed within a few thousandths of an inch of one another without touching at any point. The resulting structure is mechanically strong; the electrical performance remarkably good.

Basically, the problem was to get the battery out of the laboratory and into production. The Germans did make many good batteries, but it was hardly more than on a laboratory scale. They had these batteries in their V2 rockets and in their jet fighters that appeared near the end of the war. They also had some battery failures at critical times. The problems of production of a quality product turned out to take much more time and effort than the development of the original basic idea. Had the Germans won the Second World War, they would undoubtedly have solved many problems shortly thereafter. Actually, several years elapsed before very extensive work began on the production problems, although some work by both individuals and corporations, both in Europe and the United States, gradually got under way.

Successful production came into sight in the United States just previous to the start of the Korean War, and very small quantities of batteries found their way into the civilian market. (The first civilian application was to operate a strobe light for photographic use.) At about this time, the first of the missiles in our guided missile program was in need of better battery supplies, and special sintered-plate nickel-cadmium batteries were developed and supplied for this purpose. The new battery is just now beginning to be supplied for aircraft, both military and commercial. General commercial and industrial distribution could not start until after the Korean War ended and is just now gaining impetus. Batteries are going into trucks and buses, boats, mining machinery, railroads, industrial equipment, farm implements and, needless to say. fire fighting apparatus.

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