By Kristopher Blume, Fire Chief
Meridian ID Fire Department
The average person takes 3.3 minutes to read 1,000 words. If you have any reservations about how critically important supplied breathing air is, hold your breath for the next 952 words.
When we fight a fire, our two most critical resources are water and air. Both of those resources are finite. Therefore, providing a nearly inexhaustible supply system to support both of those resources is a worthy endeavor. While standpipe systems and sprinklers have been around since the 1890s, the ability to provide immediate access to compressed air is relatively new. Beyond the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), the ability to rapidly refill our firefighters’ air packs in emergent environments is now possible. The Firefighter Air Replenishment System (FARS) addresses the component of air supply in a nearly inexhaustible manner.
A FARS is a system of piping, valves, fittings, and equipment permanently installed in a large building that allows firefighters in emergencies to replace the breathing air in their SCBA. After more than two decades since their introduction, city leadership, fire department staff, and the business community are realizing the relevance of the FARS, especially since so many cities across the country are experiencing explosive growth and buildings are becoming taller, larger, and more complex. FARS are a game-changer that level the playing field for first responders in these types of structures.
As a fire chief, it is the greatest personal privilege to serve an organization and ensure the agency is progressive, innovative, and professional. Making the push toward successful FARS implementation can be a challenging — but worthy– endeavor. The first big step is fostering mutual understanding between the community, elected officials, the business community, and most importantly, organizational leadership. This understanding must center around a commitment to protect our firefighters and provide them with the best practices in air management, the best fire ground operational practices, and the implementation of FARS into city code. This is no easy task. It requires many layers of stakeholders, all of whom need to feel personally invested and empowered to make a decision that will provide their community and first responders with the best opportunity for a positive outcome. Beyond high-rise buildings, FARS can be used in expansive underground constructions, tunnels, maritime vessels, large warehouses, and other horizontal structures where air cylinder transportation and supply present significant logistical challenges. FARS have been used in various industries, including mining, cruise ships, marine tankers, and container ships. Where FARS is concerned, the advantages are almost endless.
The cost of a FARS system, including design, production, and installation, varies depending on the construction site, structure size, building design, and local labor and material costs. The system components must meet AHJ requirements and will vary by the cost of doing business in a particular area. In Texas, for example, a FARS installation costs around a sixteenth of one percent of the total building cost. However, in California, the cost of a similar installation is one quarter of one percent of the overall building cost. The cost of two FARS systems recently implemented in Texas and California were derived from a report released by Rescue Air Systems, the country’s top FARS technology provider. In Texas, a FARS installation cost $218,000 in an 18-story tower (1 million sq. ft.; total building cost $325 million), implying a FARS cost per sq. ft. of $0.22. In California, a FARS installation in two 8-story skyscrapers (612,000 sq. ft.; total construction cost = $180 million) cost $485,000 (i.e., $242,000 for each tower), implying a $0.79 FARS cost per sq. ft. According to Rescue Air Systems, a typical FARS system in a high-rise can cost anywhere from $0.22 to $0.79 per square foot. The cost of the FARS is borne entirely by the building owner, and the local fire department incurs no direct costs. However, the fire department will be responsible for training firefighters on how to use the system, inspecting the system after installation, and monitoring its air quality testing and maintenance, just as the department does with other building-installed fire protection systems.
A pertinent question might be how efficient these systems truly are. Firefighters can refill their air tanks within feet of their frontline position while using a FARS. They only need to connect to the fill station, and they will be ready to resume their job in under two minutes. When combating a fire, the last thing a firefighter wants to do is leave the structure to replenish their air supply. Without FARS, air replenishment is supplied by a bottle brigade, which consists of groups of firefighters hauling replacement air bottles to dedicated firefighters. This is a slow and labor-intensive operation. The ability to access air refill inside a building frees up the bottle brigade for more pressing duties such as fire suppression, rescue and evacuation, first-responder aid, and ventilation. FARS is the quickest, safest, most dependable, and efficient means to refuel firefighters’ air supply and streamline firefighting operations.
As a result of the systems’ effectiveness, many governments have enacted legislation requiring that FARS be installed in buildings with multiple floors, including renovations. According to Rescue Air Systems, more than 80 jurisdictions across the country now mandate FARS. This includes Pearland, Plano, Midland, Frisco, and Southlake in Texas, nearly all of the cities in the Phoenix, AZ metropolitan area, and big cities in California like San Francisco and San Jose. Many more fire chiefs have realized the benefits of FARS and are advocating for them to be made mandatory in their towns.
FARS isn’t the future of firefighting. It is here now, and it is a critical component to providing our communities and first responders with the best opportunity for a favorable outcome. As a fire chief, it is my priority to give our men and women every advantage and resource to make their job safer and stack the odds in their favor. FARS is a force multiplier and game-changer for the fire service.
Kristopher T. Blume is the fire chief of the Meridian, ID, Fire Department and has more than two decades of fire service experience. He is an author, lecturer, and independent consultant. Blume is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program and is an instructor at the National Fire Academy. As a student of the fire service, he is focused on values-driven, mission-focused leadership for the profession.
Hear more from Chief Blume and watch the Meridian Fire Department demo their FARS system at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4jYB19y6BY.