Tanker Spray Protection System

A controlled bushfire in Tumburumba will help the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) test a new water spray protection system designed to improve the safety of firefighters trapped in dangerous `tanker burn overs’.

The RFS and Country Fire Authority (CFA) Victoria hope to test the tanker spray protection system they have developed over the past four years in real bushfire conditions in February.

Even though training and understanding of standard operating procedures for firegrounds helps firefighters avoid tanker burn overs, these dangerous events still occur.

The radiant heat generated by bushfire burning over a tanker can kill firefighters. If firefighters survive, severe burns are almost guaranteed. NSW has experienced such deaths and injuries, most notably at Wingello in 1997.

As well protective clothing and equipment, tankers provide some shelter from the radiant heat of bushfire.

Tanker spray protection systems are designed to increase that protection by maintaining the integrity of the cabin, particularly the windows, and reducing temperatures inside the cabin.

Even with training, equipment and technology, there are no guarantees.

Most fire authorities currently have a range of spray protection systems.

Determined to ensure these systems are as effective as possible and minimise the risk of incidents such as Wingello occurring, the RFS embarked on a tanker safety protection program four years ago.

The Country Fire Authority (CFA) of Victoria became a partner in this venture. These organisations joined with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) who provided the scientific expertise to carry out the complex research required.

These organisations have spent $1.3m on the project. (Approx $450,000 RFS, $450,000 CFA, $400,000 CSIRO plus in kind contributions from fire authorities of about $150,000 each.)

The RFS and CFA commissioned the CSIRO to:

-        Review the protection systems we already have in place

-        Develop the most effective system for our conditions

-        Test the new system

Part of the review of current systems involved burn over simulations held at the RFS hot fire training facilities in Mogo near Batemans Bay. Old tankers were subjected to extreme conditions using a specially designed array of gas burners that simulated bushfire conditions.

The expertise of the CSIRO was commissioned to ensure that the most accurate data available on the impact of a bushfire on a fire truck was obtained, analysed and utilised to improve on spray protection systems used on these vehicles.

The data collected by the CSIRO during the Mogo tests was used to develop the latest prototype.

Improvements to the tanker protection system included in the prototype:

-        Current systems use one central delivery point that provides an umbrella of water that can be blown away by strong wind. The new prototype uses a ring main around the entire tanker cabin with about 15 spray nozzles delivering water to force a stronger curtain over the tanker.

-        Radiation curtains over windows to significantly reduce temperatures.

-        Water sprays to stop wheels and pumps catching alight.

Now it is time to test the prototype in the real thing – during Operation Tumbarumba. The planned bushfire will include temperatures over 30 degrees, winds up to 25km/h and humidity below 40 per cent.

After extensive research the site selected is on Marargle State Forest. It was chosen because:

-        The 25ha site will be protected on all sides - the Kosciusko National Park fire last year creates a good buffer zone to the east and State Forests of NSW has done hazard reduction burning around the experimental blocks.

-        The Marargle State Forest itself has the high fuel loads required to test the system

-        Tumbarumba generally has a reliable fire season, so the required conditions should come about.

Authorities are very conscious that the fire will be lit during the hottest, driest and windiest part of the summer. These conditions are needed to truly test the spray system.

The preparation for this is immense. The local community has been consulted. State Forest NSW and surrounding land managers are cooperating. Fire authorities will provide tankers, personnel and an aircraft on standby to manage the burn.

The Federal Bushfire CRC is contributing over $150,000 to this project. Two other CRC research projects will be incorporated into the Tumbarumba burn.

Volunteer firefighters will be involved in the burn at Tumbarumba. The input of volunteers has been essential during every step of the project. Volunteer advice was sought by RFS Engineering Services and volunteers assisted the Mogo tests.

This research into tanker overruns is being carried out as part of an ongoing commitment to improve firefighter safety