Medina man creates foam cannon: Inspired by train disasters, ND inventor develops new firefighting equipment
MEDINA — An inventor working out of Medina has applied for a patent and successfully test-fired firefighting equipment he built in response to two catastrophic oil train derailments last year.
Darrell Graf, the former Medina police chief who has more than 40 years of experience as a firefighter and a firefighting instructor, said the July 6 derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people and the Dec. 30 derailment near Casselton that sent a massive fireball into the sky and led to the evacuation of the city, were the catalysts behind the latest in his growing list of firefighting equipment he’s developed.
Graf said he recognized that many fire departments are “grossly under-equipped” when dealing with catastrophic oil and ethanol spills and fires. He developed the Foam Cannon 2000 and the Foam Cannon 4000 to combat that lack of resources.
“My first thoughts were after the one in Quebec, and I didn’t do anything about it because that was such a rare situation where about 70 cars crashed, and that’s out of this world,” Graf said. “But when the Casselton one hit, I woke up two nights later thinking, ‘I have this information, this and this in my head. I used to build firetrucks by trade. Why don’t I put this together and make something out of it?’ “
Fire departments use a chemical foam called AR-AFFF 3x3 (Alcohol Resistant-Aqueous Film Forming Foam), which is diluted with water to respond to flammable chemical spills or fires. Also referred to as “light water,” the foam floats to the surface of the fuel and cuts off the vapors. It was originally developed by the Navy to respond to jet crashes on aircraft carriers in the 1960s.
Graf said his Foam Cannon 2000 carries 2,000 gallons of foam and can shoot up to 300 feet at 2,000 gallons per minute, whereas a typical unit carries 20 to 50 gallons of foam and has a range of about 100 feet. The 2000 can dispense foam at 3 percent (97 percent water) for 30 minutes before running out.
The Foam Cannon 4000 shoots the same distance and has twice the capacity, and would be more suitable to fight fires at refineries or larger railroad yards in the country, Graf said.
The 2000 model will weigh 28,000 pounds when fully loaded, and the 4000 will tip the scales at 45,000 pounds. Both would have to be mounted on heavy-duty industrial trucks.
Graf said it took him about 10 weeks and cost about $150,000 to build the Foam Cannon prototype, which was built out of a 1991 Ford F-9000.
“I’m very, very content with the way it works,” Graf said. “We tested it (April 13) and as cold and miserable as it was, it worked like a champ; it worked so good. There are a couple of little design changes that I’m going to make for production models. … Just some general little things that you think about and it’s like, ‘I could do this a little better or that a little better.’”
Graf said he wanted to see one Foam Cannon 2000 in every North Dakota county, and that the state should make funding available from the money that has been made from oil production for the $210,000 devices when they become available.
“With all the ethanol, it would be nice to have one in every county, and if there is a fire, the next available unit in the nearest county should respond with their foam truck, so we just doubled the amount that they can use,” Graf said.
Jamestown Rural Fire Department Chief Rick Woehl said the Foam Cannon would be put to good use in the oil-producing counties in the state, but the only use he could predict for it in Stutsman County would be for a random train derailment or a fire at the Dakota Spirit AgEnergy ethanol plant being built near Spiritwood. However, he said the ethanol plant will have enough safety and fire infrastructure that the cannon might be overkill.
“I’d like to watch the thing perform to actually see the capabilities …” Woehl said. “It’s possible that we would have a need for that, but it’s new. New technology (should be) tried and proven before we’d want to jump into something like that.”
Other equipment Graf has developed includes the PEMNA firefighting monitor, which clamps to a solid object and holds a fire hose and nozzle so a firefighter doesn’t have to; a dump tank that rolls on top of a truck instead of hooking on the side; and the dumpster devil, a special hose nozzle specifically for fighting dumpster fires.
“There’s been some off-the-wall stuff I’ve just kind of whipped up,” he said.
Graf said that when the Foam Cannons get into production, he hopes they will squash the fear some communities along the oil train routes may have. He said he is in negotiation with firetruck manufacturing companies and plans to have them available this summer.
“We can’t prevent derailments,” he said. “But when one happens, if we know that there’s a solution to the problem or protection from the problem, that certainly is a step in the right direction.”