EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – The Eglin fire department recently went green when firefighters exchanged gas-powered tools for energy-saving and environmentally friendly electric equipment carried on their emergency response vehicles.
Now hydraulic rescue tools, chainsaws and exhaust fans are powered by a 60-volt battery system. The key to the switch and gain in efficiency is utilizing the same battery on all of the tools regardless of its function.
Approximately 175 electric tools replaced the gas-powered equipment on 26 vehicles. The new electric tools are now the standardized platform at all 10 Eglin fire stations. Eglin is one of the first bases to make the switch to all electric and definitely the largest base to do so, according to Tech. Sgt. Perez, 96th Civil Engineer Squadron, who’s been a part of the transition from the beginning.
The motivation behind the transition, was finding ways to improve mission capability by incorporating new safer, smarter and more cost effective technology into emergency services delivery, according to Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Suddarth, the project lead.
The initial goal was to find a better tool to help firefighters cut aircraft canopies faster to rescue aircrew members. That research led to the battery discovery and a more effective and environmentally-friendly way of completing the mission.
The projected savings for this innovation idea isn’t just financial, it’s a time saver with ease of movement and faster starting of tools. The electric tools eliminate fuel costs, reduce maintenance costs, reduce training time, and improve on-scene communication, according to Suddarth.
A gas-powered exhaust fan weighed 90 pounds and took two people to maneuver. The electric replacement reduced the overall weight to 40 pounds, easily handled by one person.
Also, with the electric tools, there is no need to carry extra gas in the vehicles to refuel the equipment. It is also much less weight on the vehicle itself, thus improving fuel economy across the fleet.
Prior to the electric change, each fire station had equipment of different ages, sizes and complications of use. Now, the equipment is standard and uniform throughout.
Previously, the firefighters needed to be trained on how to use the equipment, in particular how to start and maintain the gas-powered tools. Many of them were crank-start with a pulley and choke system. With electric tools, it’s a flip of a switch or trigger pull.
The uniformity of tools across all stations reduces training time by removing the need for firefighters to understand multiple operating systems, according to Perez.
The electric tools eliminate excess sound at an already noisy emergency scene. The noise elimination helps with the communication across firefighters, security and medical personnel, according to Suddarth.
When in use, both gas and electric tools produce high-decibel sound. With gas-powered tools, just being turned on, the tools produce above-average decibel level noise. With the electric tools, there is no sound until the tool is engaged or in use.
Gas-powered tools have to be operated in the up-right position, inverting the equipment to cut an aircraft canopy from below or on the side was not an option because the engine would stall out. Now, the firefighters can use the electric tool at any angle to successfully operate the tool.
The electric tool idea began in 2019. Suddarth’s idea received funding from the 96th Test Wing Innovation Office and Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center’s Innovation Rodeo. The fire department began testing the electric tools to see if they had enough power to meet mission need.
The tools had the power, but the difficulty came from the different brands of tools all containing proprietary parts and batteries. At one point, there was a need to have four different battery chargers to power the various equipment.
The hurdle that held back the idea moving from concept to reality was the lack of a universal battery platform.
“To really make this concept a true innovation, we needed a battery to work across multiple platforms,” said Suddarth.
The discovery of Supervac, a fire and rescue fan manufacturer, and AMKUS, a fire and rescue hydraulics manufacturer, paved the way for progress. Both companies’ electric equipment operated off the same consumer-brand, DeWalt, battery. DeWalt’s various electric saws found at hardware stores also used the same battery. The single battery platform across the three equipment types was solved.
With the Innovation Rodeo funds, the fire department created contracts to purchase the new equipment and begin the electric transition.
Swapping the tools through the fire department fleet was just phase one. Now the fire department begins phase two.
Phase two of the program consists of work with AFIMSC on research, development, test and evaluation of current and future tools in different climatic environments. The ultimate goal is to take the successful proof of concept to fire and emergency services enterprise wide.
This platform with reduced noise, improved ergonomics and lowered carbon footprint could springboard other agencies to re-evaluate their current powered tool model, according to Suddarth.