Industrial Fire Journal - Fire & Rescue - Hemming Group Ltd
Spearheading nozzle design
Published:  15 January, 2018

Stewart McMillan from Task Force Tips, one of the pioneers of the modern firefighting nozzle, candidly discusses the state of nozzle technology and the opportunities and barriers for design in the coming years. Rick Markley reports.

While working as a firefighter at a large oil refinery near Chicago in the 1950s, Clyde McMillan was badly burned when he tried to run from a naphtha tank boil-over. It was a painful lesson on the limitations of his firefighting nozzle. It was also his motivation to design the first combination nozzle that could control the pressure automatically. The first prototype drawings were made on a bar napkin in 1968. Those drawings eventually led to the formation of Task Force Tips.

In 1982, Clyde died and his 28-year-old son Stewart took over the company. Now, TFT is a global business with an 18,600 m2 manufacturing facility and business headquarters. After 35 years of running TFT, McMillian handed over the day-to-day operations to a president but remains CEO. F&R sat down with him to discuss his views on the global firefighting nozzle market.

How would you describe the state of the North American and global nozzle market?

Chaotic, especially in North America. Nowhere else in the world do they have this crazy fascination with ‘my nozzle is better than yours’. In the rest of the world, it is very standardised and you do not see all of the different types and technologies, nor do you see all the junk science. The low-pressure issue is probably the biggest one, along with the smooth-bore issue, and selectable nozzles versus automatic.

Cars evolved from a Model T with two speeds to a five-speed manual transmission to automatic transmissions. Now, automatic transmissions are regarded as the gold standard. The same evolution should have taken place with nozzles. You had smooth-bores with no controls. You had selectable nozzles with control, albeit they required a tremendous amount of communication between pump operator and nozzle man. They evolved into the automatic nozzle. There is no reason, right now, that automatic should not be the gold-standard nozzle in the fire service.

In Europe it is. However, in the US, it depends on which way the wind blows, or which chief takes over. It is great for sales; I cannot complain from that standpoint. Every time they change chiefs, they change nozzles.

But where’s the science? Where are the facts? I saw a guy who posted on Facebook that TFT started the trend toward low flow, which is completely backward. We were founded on high flows. The whole Syracuse experiment going to inch and three-quarter, rapid water and pre-connects was all predicated on higher flows, smaller manpower and giving the nozzle man control so he can go in at 200 gallons per minute and not get hurt by being able to throttle back. The whole foundation was higher flows. When people did not pump them correctly, pressures got lowered, which lowered the flows. The people who didn't understand it threw the baby out with the bathwater. That is how we got to where we are today.

Do you see the same things going on in the Asian and South Pacific markets?

Australia and New Zealand exclusively use automatic nozzles. We sell manual or selectable nozzles all over the world, but primarily into industry. Industrial customers don’t expect to use these on a fire. They have compliance issues, so they are trying to balance capability with cost and they put the lower-cost nozzle in hoping it never gets used. For structural firefighting, everywhere outside the US is moving toward automatic nozzles.

Will piercing-type nozzles used, to cool rooms before firefighters enter or vent become more popular?

They could. We have to keep in mind that US construction does not mimic the rest of the world, especially Europe, where they have masonry walls and very tightly contained fires and they can control the oxygen. Therefore, when they put mist in there with a piercing nozzle, they really have an effective knockdown. In the US, we have so many places that air comes in. However, I still think the mist is a better way to attack a fire than to open the front door and let it flashover.

How are nozzle sales spread across municipal and industrial markets?

Our sales probably consist of  70% municipal and 5% central government. The rest is industrial. That is the one area we are blocked by specifications because we do not make brass. The US Navy is still buying brass nozzles. Why? They have aluminium ships that sit in salt water, yet they won’t buy an aluminium nozzle? My dad thought that in ten years or so people would see the light in terms of aluminium over brass. However, in the industrial and governmental sectors, it never happened.

How do you see those markets shaping up over the next five to ten years?

After 45 years in this industry, I have never seen a big growth year. I do not think the market is sensitive to trends. It is clear that the incidence of fires is going down across the world, so if anything, I think sales are going to go down. The world has all the fire nozzles it needs if they are not wearing out.

There will be a trend toward higher capability with less manpower. We continue to see increasing sales of the Blitz Fire as it can handle a heavy attack with less manpower safely. If there is nobody in the building, why go in and die for it? Surround it, prevent it spreading like they do in Europe, and let it burn itself out. Sending people in there and killing them for a building that is going to be torn down is outrageous.

What problems have engineers not been able to solve?

The education of customers. I watched a guy the other day teach a pump operator class and I almost went to my car to get some Zoloft [depression and anxiety medication] because I was having a fit over some of the things he was saying. The fact is, people, hook up the hose, they run the pressure up until somebody screams or they think it feels right, and they quit.

I realised that we are teaching improperly at the fire academy. They do not need much water to fight those fires, so they are running off hydrant pressure. What impression does that give? Hey, you can pump this line at hydrant pressure and fight the fire. We should have flow restrictors in those nozzles so that they are pumping at normal pump pressure and the hose line feels the way it is going to feel, but the flow is restricted.

How difficult is it to have an engineering background, understand those physics, and explain it to people who are not engineers?

It should not be that difficult. It is directly analogous to electricity, and people seem to understand that. If they need more current, they need a bigger wire. The fact that it follows the law of squares is where people get hung up. They think if it is twice as big, it should flow twice as much; if it is twice as big, they think it should have half the loss. It does not work that way. Cut the hose size in half and the friction loss is four times the amount it was for the same flow.

Another thing we hear is that smooth-bore has more reach and penetration than a fog nozzle on straight stream – that the fog stream or straight stream going through high heat evaporates and you lose all your water. But there is no evidence for this. It is like passing your finger fast through a candle; you do not get burned. There is no heat transfer. You take a stream – how far is it to a fire when you are inside a house, 30 feet, 40 feet max? This is where pressure makes a difference – the higher the pressure, the higher the velocity. That water is moving through there in a second or two. There is no time for it to absorb heat and evaporate.

What role will nozzles play in low water-availability areas?

That is where the automatic nozzle is so beneficial – you instantly have the correct pressure, flow and reach. You can open it, put a five-second burst on the fire and make far more efficient use of water with an automatic nozzle. For efficient use of water, the first drop needs to be at the correct pressure. There are very few places that are affected enough by water to make it of national interest.

What current nozzle technology is under used?

The automatic is underused. Twenty-five years ago among cops, it was pretty evenly split between revolvers and automatic weapons. Now you look around and you are hard-pressed to find a cop carrying a revolver. Time won out. I’m just not seeing time winning out when it comes to nozzle selection because new people keep coming in and coming up with junk science. And manufacturers are not respected for their knowledge.

What’s the biggest challenge in the monitor/deck gun market?

Friction loss and how many of them are not using automatic nozzles. To have a two-inch tip on the top of a pumper pretty much eliminates the possibility of using it on the booster tank. Out of a 3,785 litre-tank (1,000-gallon tank), you can get maybe 300 or 400 gpm (1,364 lpm or 1,818 lpm) through the three-inch tank-to-pump valve. So, on a two-inch tip, which is about 1,050 gpm (4,773 lpm) at 80 psi, if you could get 530 gpm (2,409 lpm) out of the tank you would only have 20 psi nozzle pressure. More likely it will be about 300 gpm (1,364 lpm) and the nozzle pressure will be about 10 psi. You are not going to have a stream that goes more than 40 feet (12 metres). That is still good water – 300 gpm, applied at the right time can put the thing out.

My dad once sold ten automatic nozzles to a chief of the Pittsburgh Fire Department. The chief said, ‘I want to tell you one thing, Clyde, I don’t ever want to see a picture of a ladder on the front page of the paper dribbling a stream in the street. Will this nozzle stop that?’ He was tired of having the first water of a poorly pressured stream on the front page with the headline, ‘Firemen hampered by a lack of water’. Firefighters are never hampered by a lack of water; they are hampered by the lack of the proper sized [nozzle] to use with the water that is available. If, while the guys are getting ready, you can hit an exposed fire with a deck gun, you buy all kinds of time. And even if you don’t buy time, the public’s view of what you did is stellar. When the public sees you taking three minutes to get water on a fire, they are angry.

Find me a picture in any magazine where the top stack tips have been taken off, I’ll give you $100 per picture. They buy the tips and say we will take them off when we have more water. But you know what, the stream is flowing, it is pressured to 160 pounds (72 kg) because they have all this extra capability, and nobody shuts down and takes the tip off. If you had an automatic on there, that baby would open up and take that extra flow, keep the pressure at 100 psi and if you blow a line, it would automatically come back and correct. It takes all the calculations out.

Have you ever heard of the water triangle? Everybody knows the fire triangle. My dad invented the water triangle for pumping to automatic nozzles.

You have three limitations: power because you can run out of throttle; pressure, because you have reached the maximum SOP of pressure your department wants to use; and supply, because you go to zero on the compound and you are not going to suck any more out of the ground. His water triangle said that as long as you are pumping to one of those three limits with an automatic nozzle, you are doing the best for that condition that you can possibly do. Then under each of those triangle points, he listed: too much pressure, use parallel lines; hitting zero on the compound, use parallel suctions or additional feeds; out of power, need to relay pump.

It was a teaching aid for pumping to automatics. You run the speed of the throttle up to where you want it and, like an automatic transmission, it adjusts and delivers the correct stream.

What’s your take on ultra-high pressure pumps and their wand-like nozzles?

Like everything else, they are tools. In a confined-space fire, they are fire killers. If you have a structure that is still sealed up, like a transformer, a basement, or any place with restricted airflow, it puts out a hell of a lot of fire. It is the most efficient way to put out a fire in terms of water use. 

All of these high-pressure systems are on ships now; they are using 1,000-psi sprinkler systems on ships delivering very low flows of atomised water to the compartment. But, it is a closed compartment. The minute you have open venting, with that amount of water, you are peeing in the wind. That is where people can get hurt, and that is where they fell out of favour. A tool should not be blamed when it is misused. That is another education problem.