How Changing to Alternative Foams Will Change Firefighting Tactics

Waving goodbye to aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) firefighting techniques and welcoming alternative methods that use safer concentrates is a long-overdue change. Though this isn’t the first update for firefighting tactics, this is one of the most significant efforts toward improving the health and safety of fire crews since AFFF was introduced.

The legacy AFFF formulas were touted for their supreme fire suppression capabilities, but these chemicals contained toxic long-chain PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and the modern concentrates that followed didn’t omit PFAS in their ingredients. After years of use and countless firefighters exposed to these dangerous chemicals, fire industry advocates and health agencies called for a change to fluorine-free alternatives, and that time is almost here.

If we’ve learned anything about firefighting foams, it’s that they aren’t all equal (or safe). Today’s push to replace all PFAS foams with fluorine-free suppressants, known as FFF or F3, is a change that will be closely regulated to ensure a careful and complete switch.

Even though alternative foams boast fewer known exposure risks than traditional AFFF, on-the-job safety won’t improve if the appropriate adjustments aren’t made to equipment, training, and application techniques.

New Awareness About Firefighting Foams

If firefighters haven’t fully adopted the upcoming changes, informing them about not only the dangers of AFFF, but also about current regulations for use and disposal and the effectiveness of foam alternatives should be the first order of business. Thanks to a long timeline of AFFF use, we know that misinformation and hidden truths can lead to improper handling and weak safeguards. That’s why training everyone in the fire industry about the impact AFFF has made on the environment and human health, including the risks of occupational exposure for firefighters, is key to moving forward. When perceptions shift away from fearing new suppression technology to embracing these safer alternatives, the changeover can be collaborative, safe, and successful.

Adapting to F3 Firefighting Foam Systems

Many firefighters have used the same equipment for their entire careers and a switch to a new system can seem intimidating and unnecessary, but for some a complete replacement is the only way to ensure all the PFAS have been eliminated. Some fire stations with a limited budget have retrofitted hoses and nozzles to work with, so changing to new foams may leave them no choice but to opt for new equipment.

Even fire stations choosing to remove AFFF from the current system and use existing equipment will need to learn how to deploy alternative firefighting foam to meet updated application methods. This likely means different water-to-concentrate mixtures, different pressure readings, and updated sprayers. Training and testing the foam output must be added to the setup procedures, at least temporarily, to ensure that no residual AFFF is contaminating the F3, causing performance problems, or putting the fire crew in danger of exposure.

Disposal procedures for any firefighting outfit will also change in the future. All stockpiles of AFFF concentrate must be disposed of according to local, state, and federal guidelines. Because no one knows how much exposure to AFFF is safe, anyone involved with the draining and removal of these hazardous concentrates should take extreme precautions. For fire stations with limited resources, outside help may be required.

Improving Firefighting Foam Training Safety

Before training with AFFF was restricted in 2021, firefighters learned to handle this suppressant through live exercises and hands-on experience. Though these drills were valuable teaching tools, they were also pathways to AFFF exposure from firefighting gear and training.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone opposing the decision to swap from using live victims for rescue simulation to mannequins in the 2000s, especially after many tragic incidents. The same should be said about changing firefighting foam training from fluorinated suppressants to PFAS-free concentrates. Those concerned with whether practicing with fluorine-free alternatives would lead to mistakes or miscalculations for AFFF firefighting techniques have found no evidence to support these claims. F3 training foams provide an expanded blanket similar to AFFF but do not jeopardize anyone’s health or safety. And, as FFF suppressants replace AFFF for good, drills and extinguishing exercises that use these concentrates will grow more accurate and will be safer than they’ve been in decades.

Learning Alternative Firefighting Foam Application Methods

Many validation tests and exercises have been performed to provide direction to the fire industry when transitioning from AFFF firefighting techniques to fluorine-free application methods. Due to chemical differences, these foams do interact with flammable liquids differently, but only slightly so. AFFF offers an extra barrier between the fuel source and suppressant blanket, but adjusting the F3 techniques results in similar coverage to suffocate a fire.

Observations offered by the Naval Research Laboratory in May 2023 showed that the same techniques could be used for AFFF and its fluorine-free rivals, as long as proper adjustments are made according to these performance notes:

  • F3s are less forgiving than AFFF and require more precise application due to the absence of the aqueous film.
  • Fluorine-free films can be optimized using aspirated nozzles that improve the blanketing effect, but this application is difficult around obstacles and across far distances.
  • F3s require a less aggressive application so the foam does not get mixed into the fuel source and burn.
  • Environmental conditions such as wind may cause holes to open in the F3 blanket; to improve the visibility of these occurrences, firefighters should adjust their positions to allow for better observation.
  • Repeat applications or passes may be required to effectively extinguish a fire.

Switching AFFF firefighting techniques isn’t a simple process, but it is work that must be done for the well-being of first responders everywhere. When experience eliminates concerns over fire control and safer concentrates reduce health risks and environmental contamination, all the efforts toward change will be well worth the benefits.

A shift to alternative foams necessitates changes throughout the life cycle of AFFF, from selecting fire suppressants to disposing of existing concentrates. The adoption of alternative firefighting foam application methods is just one example of fire industry members taking back control of their health and safety—AFFF multidistrict litigation is another.