Volunteer Firefighter International

Q&A with TFT’s Stewart McMillan

One of the modern firefighting nozzle pioneers candidly discusses the state of nozzles and the opportunities, and barriers, for them in the coming years

By Rick Markley

While working as a firefighter at a large oil refinery near Chicago in the 1960s, Clyde McMillan was badly burned when he was overrun by fire. 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 be changed from straight stream to fog pattern on the fly — the first prototype drawings were made on a bar napkin in 1968. That drawing led to a small manufacturing operation out of the family basement three years later, which eventually grew into Task Force Tips.

Stewart McMillan had been working with his father, Clyde, as a volunteer firefighter since he was 14 and began working for the family business full time while earning a degree in engineering. In 1982, Clyde died and a 28-year-old Stewart took over running the company.

Now, TFT has its salesforce across the globe, its products in more than 100 countries and a 168,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and business headquarters — which includes a firefighting museum. After 35 years of running TFT, McMillian handed over the day-to-day operations, but remains its CEO. We sat down to talk to McMillian about his views on the global firefighting nozzle market.

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

McMillan: The best way to describe it is chaotic, especially North America versus the rest of the world. Nowhere else in the world do they have this crazy fascination with “my nozzle’s better than yours.” It is very standardized in the rest of the world and you don’t see all of the types and technologies. What you really don’t see is the junk science that goes on. You’ve got all these people who somehow ordained themselves to be nozzle experts start making wild claims and they have nothing to support it other than their own personal experience — and frequently they don’t have all of the facts behind that experience. The low-pressure issue is probably the biggest one and the smooth-bore issue and the selectable nozzles versus automatic.

[Automobiles] 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 for what they do. 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 nozzleman. And they evolved into the automatic. There is no reason right now the automatic shouldn’t be the gold-standard nozzle in the fire service.

In Europe it is. Europe recognized it and is attached to it almost exclusively. But in the United States, it depends on which way the wind blows, which chief takes over and which guy went to a class most recently that changed his mind. It’s great for sales; I can’t complain from that standpoint. Every time they change chiefs, they change nozzles.

But where’s the science behind all of this? Where are the facts? I saw a guy who posted on Facebook a page out of one of my father’s letters that was written 37 years ago. And from that he extrapolated that TFT started the trend toward low flow, which is so completely backward that it is indescribable to me. We were founded on higher 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 nozzleman 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. And because people didn’t pump to them correctly, pressures got lowered, which lowered the flows. And these people that didn’t understand it, threw the baby out with the bathwater.

That’s 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 are exclusively automatic nozzles. We can say we sell a manual or selectable nozzle anywhere in the world, but primarily they go into industry. [Industrial customers] are not expecting to ever use it on a fire. They have compliance issues, so they are trying to balance capability with cost; they put the lower-cost nozzle in hoping it never gets used. For structural firefighting, everywhere outside of the U.S. is moving toward automatic nozzles where they can afford them. In Canada, there are a number that are following our lead, but not as much as some would have you think.

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

They could. The one thing we really have to keep in mind and is constantly forgotten by people teaching classes is the construction we have in the U.S. does not mimic the rest of the world, and in particular Europe. They have got block walls; they basically burn the roof off things. They have a very tightly contained fire that they can control the oxygen. So when they put mist in there with a piercing nozzle, they really have an effective shutdown. In the U.S., we’ve got so many places that air comes in, that it is really hard to control that. I still think the mist is a better way to attack a fire than it is to open the front door and letting it flashover.

What’s really frustrating is that in every other magazine that I look at for [other] industries, the manufacturers are always the experts. The manufacturers write the articles. The manufacturers are on top of their technology. And it is reviewed by a committee to make sure it is not biased toward a particular manufacturer. And in our industry, the magazines seem to sensationalize the guy who is on the back step of a [big city] engine and he gets written up, and there’s nobody fact-checking what he’s writing.

How do you see the future of those markets shaping up over the next five and 10 years?

After 45 years, I’ve never seen a big growth year. I don’t think it is sensitive to trends. It is pretty clear that fires are going down, therefore the use of the nozzles is less. If anything, I think the number of sales are going to go down. It is kind of like 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 seeing increasing sales of the Blitz Fire, it being able to do heavy attack with less manpower safely. If there’s nobody in the building, why go in there 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 lie vacant and be torn down is kind of silly.

How are nozzle sales spread across municipal and industrial markets?

We’re probably 70 percent municipal, 5 percent government and the rest is industrial. I think Akron and Elkhart have higher percentages of industrial sales. That’s the one area we seem to be blocked by specifications because we don’t make brass. There are a lot of orders we bypass because they are buying brass, because they always have. The U.S. Navy is still buying brass nozzles. Why? They have aluminum ships that sit in salt water, and yet they won’t buy an aluminum nozzle? That’s been a surprise. My dad thought that in 10 years or so we would have people see the light of aluminum over brass in all quadrants. But in industrial and government, it never happened.

What nozzle tech that is still on the drawing boards has you most excited?

I can’t put my finger on anything there.

What problems have engineers not been able to solve?

The education of our customers. There are a number of beliefs out there and a number of people who don’t understand friction loss. They don’t understand pump pressures. It is just incredible to me. 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 sitting there keeping quiet at some of the things this guy would say. Where did he get these things? He’s the instructor. 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 realized, as a result of that, that we are teaching improperly at the fire academy. They don’t need much water to fight those fires, so they are running off hydrant pressure. What’s the impression we’re giving those guys? 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 then restrict the flow. We’re teaching them that hydrant pressure is OK to fight a fire; they see it.

I think there is going to be better simulation for teaching firefighting. Some of this virtual reality stuff is getting pretty intense. I’d like to be a part of that if I possibly can be.

What role can manufacturers play in improving firefighter education?

At the very beginning of TFT, that was a big focus of ours. And it was taken that we were trying to tell people how to fight a fire rather than educate them on the physics of how hydraulics works. It kind of backfired on us; we were seen as being snobbish, know-it-alls.

How difficult is it to have an engineering background, understand those physics, and explain it to those 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, it should have half the loss. No, it doesn’t work that way.

I did an interesting demo [about 15 years ago] when they were doing the nozzle standard in Europe. They were going to write automatics out of the standard, because [a rival company] couldn’t make one that worked and told everybody that automatics are no good. That hurt a lot and it really set the fire service back. There is absolutely no evidence that a smooth-bore has more reach and penetration than a fog nozzle on straight stream — none.

We did a really neat thing. We got a clown dunk tank and a big concrete tube, about 6 feet in diameter. We cut holes inside of the tube and brought in a huge propane tank and burners so we could burn for a long time. We filled the dunk tank and had a pump sucking off the bottom of the tank. We would recirculate the water through the fire down this tube. We had 4 million BTU in this tube and were shooting the stream down the middle of it. We were measuring the impact on the other side. More importantly, we were measuring how much water over time got dissipated, because they claim that the fog stream or straight stream going through high heat evaporates and you lose all of your water. We ran that thing for over an hour, and the difference in water levels after we were done was not measurable. You couldn’t tell which one lost more than the other, because they both lost the same amount of water.

It is like passing your finger fast through a candle; you don’t get burned. There’s 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, the whole length of 40 feet. There’s not time for it to absorb heat and evaporate. But, that’s more of the junk science that’s out there.

We lost all of that data. We had it all in one folder; we had videos, everything from this test. [The guy who was finishing the report] took it to California and had a little run-in with the law. It was confiscated and we could never get it back. It was a very extensive test; I’d like to rerun it and really document it.

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

That’s where the automatic nozzle is so beneficial. The fact that you can open it and have instantly the correct pressure, instantly the correct flow, instantly the correct reach. You can open it, put a five-second burst on the fire and make far more efficient use water then having to come up to pressure, blowing everything as you open the valve, and not until it is fully opened do you get a stream out of it and they adjust the pressure. For efficient use of water you need something so that the first drop of water coming out is the correct-pressured stream that reaches. There are very few places that are affected enough by water to make it of national interest.

What current nozzle technology is under used (municipal and industrial)?

The automatic is under used. I don’t see any purpose for anything other than a fog nozzle that has automatic pressure control. Why would you want any transmission in a fire truck other than a five speed that’s an automatic? The technology evolved to that level. Twenty-five years ago among cops, it was pretty evenly split between revolvers and automatic weapons. They argued and argued and argued. Now you look around and you are hard-pressed to find a cop carrying a revolver. In the beginning, they said the same thing, “Oh, they jam, you can’t tell when it’s loaded, it’s hard to reload the magazine,” There, time won out. I’m just not seeing time winning out when it comes to nozzle selection because we keep re-churning these new people who do their investigation and come up with junk science. And manufacturers are not respected for their knowledge because everyone says, “Well, they are just trying to sell a product.”

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

Friction loss and how many of them are not using automatic nozzles, so they have a one-trick pony. To have a 2-inch tip on the top of a pumper pretty much eliminates the possibility you could use this on the booster tank. Let’s say out of a 1,000-gallon tank you can get maybe 300 or 400 gallons per minute through the 3-inch line. So, on a 2-inch tip, which is about 1,200 gallons per minute at 80 psi, if you cut that flow by four times, the nozzle pressure falls to 10 psi. You’re not going to have a stream that goes more than 40 feet. But that’s still good water. Three-hundred gallons per minute, applied at the right time can put the thing out.

I’ll never forget we sold 10 automatic nozzles to Chief Hanlon of the Pittsburgh Fire Department. He had 10 ladder trucks and bought 10 nozzles; he was a crusty Irishman. I was with my dad when he sold them. He 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?” That’s all he cared about.

He was so tired of having the first water of a poorly pressured stream being on the front page with the headline, “Firemen hampered by a lack of water.” My dad took that into an advertising campaign. Firemen are never hampered by a lack of water, they are hampered by the lack of the proper size to use the water that’s available. If you can pull up, and while the guys are getting the pre-connected lines, their masks on and getting ready to make entry, you could hit that thing with deck gun if it is exposed fire, 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 3 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’ll take them off when we have more water. But you know what, the stream is flowing, it’s pressured to 160 pounds because they have all this extra capability, nobody shuts down and takes the tip off. They never take it off. You can’t find it taken off anywhere but in training. If you had an automatic on there, that baby would open up and take that extra flow, keep the pressure at 100 and if you blow a line, it would automatically come back and correct. It just takes all the calculations out.

Have you ever heard of the water triangle? My dad pushed this for a long time back in our education years. Everybody knows the fire triangle. So he invented the water triangle for pumping to automatic nozzles. You’ve got three limitations: power, you can run out of throttle; pressure, you’ve reached the maximum SOP of pressure that your department wants to use; and supply, 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 segments he had 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 people to understand how to pump 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. It’s brainless.

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

Like everything else, it’s a tool. If they’ve got a confined-space fire, it is an absolute fire killer. If you have a structure that is still sealed up, like a transformer, a basement, a tunnel or any place where you have restricted air flow, 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 atomized 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’s where people can get hurt, and that’s where they fell out of favor. A tool should not be blamed when it is misused. That’s another education problem.

In New Zealand they’ve used high pressure on their boosters for years. But they do it for a different purpose. They still have 100-pound nozzle pressures. They use high pressure to get high flow out of a small, maneuverable line. So they are getting 100 gallons per minute out of 200 feet of 1-inch line by pumping it at 300 or 400 psi. They are using one of our nozzles [versus the wand style]. People misconstrue when they hear New Zealand using high pressure. They think it is that they have high pressure at the nozzle, but they have high pressure at the pump to utilize the friction loss to get the more maneuverable line. It’s not a bad concept.

This article was originally published by Hemming Fire.

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