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Navy Researchers Apply Science to Fire Fighting

From NRL Spectra Magazine - Fall 2010

Our mission is to preserve and enhance a strong technology base for the introduction of advanced damage control concepts to the fleet.

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As Dr. Susan Rose-Pehrsson, Director of the Center explains, "our mission is to preserve and enhance a strong technology base for the introduction of advanced damage control concepts to the Fleet."

A fire aboard a Navy ship can quickly become a deadly cauldron. The grim reminders of this are the fires that took place aboard USS Forrestal in 1967 and USS Enterprise in 1969. In each case, burning jet fuel and multiple explosions of ordnance created a raging inferno that killed or injured hundreds of servicemen. At the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the Navy’s lead laboratory for fire research, scientists are conducting cutting-edge investigations to ensure that sailors have the tools and training they need to protect themselves, their ships, and their submarines from the devastating effects of fire.

NRL’s Navy Technology Center for Safety and Survivability tackles all aspects of fire — combustion, extinguishment, modeling and scaling, damage control, atmospheric hazards, and more. Research ranges from the most fundamental understanding of the chemical and electronic properties of materials, surfaces, and molecules; to numerical simulation of the growth, spread, and suppression of fires; to sensor development and data analysis; to full-scale test and evaluation of protection and suppression systems.

As Dr. Susan Rose-Pehrsson, Director of the Center explains, "our mission is to preserve and enhance a strong technology base for the introduction of advanced damage control concepts to the Fleet."

The Center operates specialized fire research facilities that include fully instrumented chambers with capacities up to 10,000 cubic feet; ship and submarine compartment mockups; and one of its most important and unique assets, a full-scale fire test ship, the ex–USS Shadwell (LSD 15), moored in Mobile, Alabama. NRL and Fleet personnel regularly set areas of the Shadwell aflame to conduct real-world fire testing, providing invaluable opportunities to experience and learn from a true fire and damage control environment. The Shadwell "concept" as developed and explained by Dr. Fred Williams, Senior Scientist and former Director of the Center, "brings together the scientists, Fleet personnel, trainers, and systems commands in one place to show the transition of doctrine, tactics, and hardware into the Fleet."

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The ex-USS Shadwell (LSD 15) is regularly set ablaze for NRL’s full-scale fire tests.

Two of NRL’s recent advances in shipboard fire fighting research involve testing high expansion (hi-ex) foam systems for use on future ships, and finding halon alternatives for the new Ship-to-Shore Connector (SSC).

High Expansion Foam

NRL recently completed a series of full-scale tests on high expansion foam to assess its ability to extinguish fires in large-volume, mission-critical shipboard spaces such as hangar bays, well decks, and vehicle stowage areas. Hi-ex foam was pursued because of its tremendous "3D capability" — it rapidly expands to fill the volume of flammable spaces, flowing around obstructions and machinery to extinguish flames even in the confined and inaccessible spaces where fires can collect. This 3D capability means less need to send firefighters into those dangerous burning spaces. And hi-ex foam extinguishes the fire with less liquid solution than is typically delivered by deluge sprinkler systems — which means less water damage and less post-fire cleanup.

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98-megawatt fire set for hi-ex foam tests

In the tests conducted aboard the Shadwell, NRL compared two hi-ex foam generation systems against a triple-threat fire composed of Class A combustible 98-megawatt fire set for hi-ex foam tests. The ex-USS Shadwell (LSD 15) is regularly set ablaze for NRL’s full-scale fire tests. solids, Class B pooled fuel, and Class B running fuel. The two hi-ex systems were a traditional fan-type system requiring outside air to generate expanded foam, and an inside-air system using ceilingmounted generators within the affected space. The inside-air system would be less expensive in a ship design, as it would not require external duct work, but historically, foam generators have not functioned well in enclosed, burning environments where only hot, fire-contaminated air is available.

The Navy researchers found that both hi-ex systems rapidly extinguished the test fires, and they consider hi-ex foam the best choice for fighting multiplethreat fires in obstructed compartments. Particularly important, they demonstrated in these tests that an inside-air foam system can be effective.

Due to the success of NRL’s research and testing, high expansion foam systems will be used in the mission bay of the new Joint High Speed Vessel, and may be incorporated into other future ship designs as well.

Halon Alternatives for the Ship-to-Shore Connector

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98-megawatt fire set for hi-ex foam tests

NRL began research into replacement of halon in firefighting agents well before the 1989 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer mandated a halt in the production of halons by 1994. By the 1990s, after laboratory and full-scale test programs, NRL identified both high-pressure water mist (1000 psi) and HFC-227ea (heptafluoropropane) as the best halon-free fire protection options for Navy applications. NRL developed the water mist system that is now in use aboard the LPD 17 San Antonio class of vessels.

In an ongoing program, NRL is identifying halon replacements for use on the SSC, a vessel the Navy is developing to replace the existing Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC), a high-speed, fully amphibious landing craft used to transport military personnel and equipment ship-to-shore. The Halon 1301 and Halon 1211 systems that currently protect the turbine engine enclosures, auxiliary power units, fuel bays, and cargo deck on the LCAC must be replaced with halon-free agents for the SSC. Also, since the SSC will be minimally manned, and weight will be a critical factor, firefighting agents and systems that offer low maintenance and low weight are essential.

NRL researchers recently completed tests that successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of propelled extinguishing agent technology (PEAT) to protect many areas of the SSC. A PEAT system consists of a container holding extinguishing agent that is expelled rapidly when the system is activated by an electrical impulse or charge, using the same technology found in automobile air bags. In testing, PEAT solid particle aerosol units were able to extinguish all of the Class B pool and Class B spray fire threats.

NRL’s success with the SSC halon replacement program is significant because PEAT is an effective technology remedy that provides many benefits:

  • an environmentally friendly fire fighting agent (low Ozone Depletion Potential and Global Warming Potential, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency),
  • a module approach with sealed units (no moving parts, no pressurized containers, no pumps, and self-monitoring electric release),
  • simple installation and minimal maintenance (no pipes to be installed),
  • a 50 percent reduction in weight for the SSC application, and
  • long shelf life (10 years minimum).

PEAT may soon be used in other Navy ship applications where a low-cost and low-weight fire protection system is desired.

NRL’s fire research program continues to advance new concepts, materials, and doctrine in fire protection and damage control. While these are directed toward Navy problems, many have also had an impact in the civilian world, as noted in the following timeline of NRL fire research milestones.

NRL’s Fire Research History Timeline

NRL has a long and rich history of fire research that has contributed greatly to saving lives and equipment in the Fleet.

1940s - NRL developed a protein foaming agent used to counter fuel fires, and potassium superoxide used as an oxygen source for Navy firefighter rebreathers.

1950s - NRL developed Purple-K powder (PKP) potassium carbonate firefighting agent, which gained use throughout the Navy and in U.S. municipal and industrial fire protection, and thereafter throughout the world.

1960s - NRL developed Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), which is now used by all Navy ships and submarines, all branches of the U.S. armed forces and NATO members, almost all U.S. fire departments, and many fire departments throughout the world.

1970s - The NRL-developed Twin Agent Unit (AFFF+PKP) was deployed to the Fleet.

1980s - NRL’s FIRE I test bed, a 10,000-cubic-foot chamber, was dedicated to study submarine fires. One outcome was development of a new thermal hull insulation. The Navy deployed the NRL-developed Infrared Thermal Imager that allowed firefighters to see through smoke. The ex–USS Shadwell was commissioned as a full-scale fire test bed.

1990s - NRL data revised 90% of the Navy’s firefighting doctrine. NRL adopted the halon alternative HFC-227ea and developed a fine water mist fire suppression system. NRL’s water mist and smoke ejection systems were selected for the LPD 17 amphibious transport dock ship. NRL’s Damage Control Automation for Reduced Manning (DC-ARM) program showed the way to performing damage control with significantly reduced manpower.

2000s - NRL developed sensor technology and data analysis for improved fire detection; the Network Model for real-time prediction of fire and smoke for ship design; the Smart Valve for autonomous fluid system isolation; the multi-sensory system (machine vision) for early detection of fire, flood, chem/bio, and other hazards; and alternative aqueous foam agents.

Contributors to this article include Donna McKinney (NRL Office of Public Affairs), with the assistance of Dr. Frederick W. Williams, Dr. Susan Rose-Pehrsson, and John P. Farley (NRL Navy Technology Center for Safety and Survivability).

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