Unmanned, but not Outgunned!

May 31, 2020

Kansas City, Missouri, predawn, 1988. A fire involving a pick-up truck is reported at 3:40 a.m. on a highway construction site along U.S. Highway 71 and 87th Street. Pumper 41, from the Bannister Road fire station, is the first on scene.

Upon the arrival of Pumper 41 at 3:47 a.m., a secondary fire was spotted involving two tractor trailers; assistance was radioed in. Within five minutes Pumper 30 arrived to address the situation. By this time Pumper 41 had extinguished the fire involving the pick-up truck and quickly traveled to assist in the secondary fire. A security guard on the scene of the pick-up truck fire cautioned Pumper 41 not to get too close to the trailers since the construction area housed explosives for blasting away limestone in order to make way for the new Bruce R. Watkins Memorial Drive. At 4:04 a.m., a firefighter on the scene radioed in to his Battalion Chief that explosions had occurred prior to their arrival and that there was still something burning—possibly magnesium. A few minutes went by before the chief sensed trouble and reached for his radio to order his personnel to pull back. According to reports in the Kansas City Star newspaper, “He was too late. The contents of one trailer blew with astounding force and noise.” The six firefighters at the scene were immediately killed. The explosion was so intense that it was felt by residents 50 miles away. Ammonium nitrate, fuel oil, and aluminum pellets were all part of the mixture that created the explosion.

“If purchased, the LAFD would be one of the first municipal fire departments in the US to possess this specialized asset.”

Every year, firefighters are involved in scenarios that result in unnecessary injuries and fatalities, while being placed directly in or near close proximity to unstable structures, rapid growing fires, explosions, automobile accidents, wild land fires, and more. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in 2018, 39 percent of firefighter fatalities were a direct result of fire ground situations. The largest amount of fatalities in United States history occurred in 2001 during the 9/11 attacks where 340 firefighters died, and another 103 died at other scenes unrelated to 9/11 for a total of 443 lives.

Throughout US history the amount of firefighter fatalities per year have dwindled due to an increased amount of innovative and efficient safety measures implemented, but more can still be done. In order to help minimize the dangers of firefighting, the Los Angeles Fire Department has recently developed an interest in securing multiple firefighting robots for use in various large-scale scenarios that are considered either too dangerous or risky for its firefighters. Similar robot types are already in use, as was the case during the 2019 blaze that struck and severely weakened the Notre Dame Cathedral structure in Paris, France. Due to safety concerns regarding the unstable structural condition of the cathedral, Collosus, a firefighting robot, replaced a human firefighter in entering the weaker areas of the building, resulting in minimal (non-fatal) injuries during the incident.

Firefighting robotics, to date, have been largely utilized by the US government, in particular the US Navy. Still in its development and testing phase, the Navy’s version of the firefighting robot is SAFFiR, an acronym for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot. Standing at 5-feet 10-inches, the humanoid robot has proven to possess the ability to travel through difficult fire situations with precision in navigation through its testing trials on a decommissioned vessel, the USS Shadwell.

The LAFD Future

Each year our members are placed in situations that could easily cause bodily harm. A firefighting robot would be able to assist in preventing some of these scenarios in several ways, including the combat of a commercial fires, fires involving combustible metals, hazmat incidents, barricaded suspects with fire, and oil refinery fires. More importantly, these robots would not only minimize entry into dangerous conditions for live firefighters, but they would also aide in keeping them safe. If purchased, the LAFD would be one of the first municipal fire departments in the US to possess this specialized asset. With unsurpassed mobility and maximum standoff distances for the safety of LAFD firefighters, the department is currently considering two models developed by Howe and Howe: Thermite RS1-T4 and Thermite RS3-T2.

Thermite RS1-T4 weighs in at 1,600 pounds and is durable enough to travel into extremely high temperatures. Aluminum and steel make up the body of the powerful 44 x 77.25 x 64-inch-high fire terminating apparatus and has the ability to travel at a maximum speed of 6 mph and climb steep slopes while remotely controlled. Thermite RS1-T4 is fully equipped with a real time high definition infrared video to serve as the first line of sight for its human counterparts, and can climb stairs, has a water cooled engine, runs on diesel, and pumps water up to 1,250 G.P.M for a maximum of 20 hours.

RS3-T2 is similar to its counterpart, RS1-T4; however, there are a few differences, mainly that it is much larger and weighs 3,500 lbs. This powerhouse of a robot has the ability to pump 2,500 G.P.M of water for an extended period of time, up to 20 hours, which is the same amount of time as RS1-T4; and comes with the option to install additional add on items, such as a front plow, which would aid in removal of debris directly in its path that might be too difficult to reach for live firefighters. RS3-T2 also has the ability to travel into extremely high temperatures with its real-time high-definition infrared video and industrial-grade steel reinforced rubber tracks.

Though the testing of these machines is still in its initial phases by the LAFD, the technology has a sound backing. Manufactured by the leaders in robotic innovation and fabricated using durable construction-grade components, Thermite RS1-T4 and Thermite RS3-T2 can navigate challenging terrains, while withstanding exposure to extreme elements. Thermite is designed as an advanced tool to help operators combat fires safely and efficiently. With the introduction of this new technology, the amount of firefighter fatalities can continue to drop in what will hopefully become minimal to zero fatalities in the very near future.

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