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Damaged masks line a table in the station’s repair room.

Magnolia Fire Department becomes tech-savvy with 3D printer

Prompted by a communication breakdown during a massive wildfire, the department invested in a Gigabot 3D Printer to help them cope with increasing demands on the fire service.

The Riley Road Fire of 2011 burned nearly 19,000 acres in the county northwest of Houston, taking firefighters nearly ten days to contain. In the process, it knocked out much of the cell service in the area.

Off the table was the fire department’s method of sending alerts to residents through platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and thousands of residents found themselves without official instruction on how to act.

Assistant Chief of Technology at the Magnolia Fire Department, Chuck Grant, explained that when people found themselves in the dark online, “they drove to the fire stations to try to find out what to do and where to go, and in a lot of cases try to offer assistance.”

Assistant Chief of Technology Chuck Grant stands with a miniature 3D printed fire hydrant model.

Assistant Chief of Technology Chuck Grant stands with a miniature 3D printed fire hydrant model.

The problem was, there was almost no one in the stations – they were all out fighting the fire.

Using the public’s natural reaction to come to the stations as a guide, the department started researching solutions which they could implement at the stations themselves to act as communication mediums to rely on during large-scale emergencies. They settled on large, LED signs – much like you’d see in front of a business or high school – which they could install out front at each of their nine stations. The signs would display alerts and instructions during emergencies, regular community news and updates the rest of the time. Another big perk of the electronic signs is that they would allow the department to change information quickly and from the field in times of emergency when the stations would be empty.

The next matter of discussion became aesthetic – the department wanted to spruce up the signs not only so they’d look better for the community, but also to draw attention to them so residents knew they were there. They decided on a symbol of the fire service: they’d flank each sign with two, oversized fire hydrant statues.

“Well, how are we going to make a big fire hydrant?” Grant recalled the question on everyone’s mind. And not just one, but with two at each station, 18 total. They were looking to make the statues over eight feet tall, and the quotes they were receiving to get them cast in fiberglass or bronze placed them well out of their budget.

Battalion Chief Clessie Hazelwood holds a 3D printed mask mount.

Battalion Chief Clessie Hazelwood holds a 3D printed mask mount.

That’s when Grant’s mind went to the option of 3D printing.

“All firemen have second jobs,” Grant joked. His just so happened to bestow him with the skill of CAD and 3D modeling. He helped his wife with her jewelry business, and when she turned to 3D printing as a way to set herself apart from the competition and move from design to final piece more efficiently, Grant took up the task of 3D modeling the pieces.

If Magnolia was going to use the technology for its fire hydrant project, however, it was going to need something a lot bigger than what he and his wife were using for jewelry.

“In doing a little more research, I found Gigabot,” he said. “Knowing my 3D modeling skills, I knew I could make a fire hydrant. It was just a matter of scaling something up from, say, an inch tall to 99 inches. And the Gigabot was able to do that for us.”

Before getting their own 3D printer and justifying the roughly $10k sticker price, the fire department wanted to ensure there was a longer-term use for the printer post-project completion. One benefit of a 3D printer is its versatility – they’re known to inspire projects or provide solutions to problems that weren’t even on the radar for the 3D printer in the first place. Their use is limited only by the imagination of the team operating it, or the CAD skills of whoever is designing the prints.

Damaged masks line a table in the station’s repair room.

Damaged masks line a table in the station’s repair room.

The Magnolia team had a ready list of projects for which they saw potential for a 3D printer to help them. And at the top of that list was a project that had been previously left in limbo: RFID tagging their equipment.

As any firefighter knows, fire stations abide by a strict set of regulations that govern everything from the lifetime of equipment to how much equipment must be on a truck before it’s allowed to respond to calls. It all amounts to quite the logistical exercise for fire departments: ensure your trucks have the necessary equipment aboard to permit them to respond to calls at a moment’s notice, ensure that equipment isn’t past its designated expiration date, and track all the equipment that’s in for service and repair.

Increasingly, fire departments are turning to technology to help them ensure they’re abiding by regulations and are ready to respond to emergencies with everything they need.

Magnolia found this solution in RFID tags, small radio frequency tags that can be scanned from a distance to instantly create an electronic inventory of what’s aboard a fire truck. They can also use the software to track countdown timers on their gear so they know when a tool needs to go in for routine maintenance or be retired altogether. And when a piece of equipment is damaged, they can see where it is in the repair process so they know when to expect it back in circulation for use. In the words of Grant, their implementation of RFID tagging “very quickly gives the firefighters the chance to scan the truck and know that the vehicle is ready for them to respond to a call the minute they come into work.”

One small problem with this ingenious solution was the adhesive on the back of the tags. They were finding that they’d respond to a call and return without many of their tags – the adhesive often couldn’t compete with the rough firefighting environment. A combination of temperature changes, regular wear and tear on equipment during use, and the wide variety of equipment surfaces they need to tag proved to be too much of a challenge for the tags’ adhesive. The department had put the RFID project on hold in the interim while they came up with a solution.

That solution came knocking at their door with the proposal of Gigabot as a fabrication tool for their signs’ fire hydrants.

Using 3D printing, the department could design and print small tag holders which provided a uniform surface onto which they could adhere the RFID tags and mechanically fasten them to gear. With a wide variety of surfaces onto which the tags need to adhere – everything from painted metal to wood – Grant explains that, “3D printing gives us the ability to create that bridge between the tag itself and the object we’re trying to track.”

There’s another benefit to using 3D printing to create tags holders over say, epoxying them to the side of equipment. “All of our items are well-designed, they’re well-engineered, and so for us just to take something and stick something on the side of it isn’t always a great option,” Grant explains.

A 3D printed replica of a light clip shows a hidden pocket designed to hold an RFID tag.

A 3D printed replica of a light clip shows a hidden pocket designed to hold an RFID tag.

Chuck has been deconstructing some of their tools in 3D, replicating a component, and hiding a compartment to hold a tag within it. “It makes the item trackable for us easily, but it doesn’t change the function of the item for someone that’s never seen the tags before.” In high-pressure emergency situations, firefighters need to rely on their basic training and instincts, and part of this is their equipment. The buttons on a radio, for example, are ergonomically designed so that a firefighter can operate it in a dark, smoky room with thick gloves on. The last thing Magnolia wants to do is add a component to a tool that could lead to confusion in a potentially deadly situation.

By replicating components that are already a part of their gear and hiding tag compartments within them, they can secure their RFID tags for inventory and tracking purposes without running the risk of altering the ergonomics of a tool.

In addition to the regulations the RFID tags help them follow, the tags also help Magnolia in another department no doubt every fire department is very familiar: budget. Grant puts it simply, “A lot of the stuff is very expensive.”

The Magnolia Fire Department service room has shelves lined with gear in for repair. The tiny nick on the air valve of a tank that prevents the mask from screwing into it? Five hundred dollars. The air tank itself? One thousand. Later this year, the 86 airpacks throughout the department are reaching the end of their designated lifetime and will need to be replaced. That alone has a price tag of $1.4 million.

So while the RFID tags help the department keep track of inventory for regulatory purposes, it also helps them account for all their gear as they’re leaving a call. A quick scan of a truck with an RFID reader can tell them if they’re leaving anything behind.

3D printing is also aiding them on this front as well.

There’s an entire shelf in the Magnolia repair room lined with just masks. Some of the dings and cracks on the masks are normal wear and tear, but some of it comes from the way the masks are transported to and from calls. Sometimes it’s negligence – masks are tossed onto the seats or floor where they’re more likely to get damaged – and other times it’s hanging masks in a way that puts undue stress on the temples of the design, causing them to crack over time.

The Battalion Chief at Magnolia Fire Department, Clessie Hazelwood, saw a solution at a fire station twenty years which addressed this problem, and the image stuck in his head. But getting that solution made wasn’t easy. He recalled the costly headache that other station had to go through in order to get the component fabricated. “Oh…they had to do machining, set up dies and everything.”

When Magnolia’s Gigabot arrived, Hazlewood asked Grant if there was any way their new 3D printer might be able to recreate the design.

A little CAD tweaking and their Gigabot was printing up the clever mask hanger, which they could install directly into trucks. The circular component screws into the hole of the masks where the firefighters’ air tank connects, keeping them locked into place and off the seats and floor of the trucks – all without putting stress on the facepieces.

Grant prodded Hazelwood about the 3D printing design and fabrication process, “From the time you told me about it ’til the time you held it in your hand, how long did it take?” Clessie paused.

“Less than a week.”

For more information, go to www.re3d.org

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Morgan Hamel is Creative Director at re:3D.

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