Green tech boosts efficiency of fire vehicles

Auxiliary batteries equipped on two Poulsbo ambulances allow crews to turn off their engines while at calls. - File photo
Auxiliary batteries equipped on two Poulsbo ambulances allow crews to turn off their engines while at calls.
— image credit: File photo

POULSBO — Equipment being tested on Poulsbo Fire Department vehicles will help firefighters avoid exhaust fumes, while making fuel bills more palatable.

The state Department of Ecology awarded Poulsbo Fire $39,000 to install idle reducers on two ambulances and two fire engines. The technology allows crews to turn off their vehicles’ engines while at the scene of an emergency. That will cut down vehicle wear, wasted fuel and harmful diesel emissions.

Poulsbo Fire is the first department in the state, and perhaps the country, to test the equipment, which could save more than $20,000 each year. If successful, the department will retrofit the gear onto its entire fleet.

“We’re going to save some money, while making things cleaner and safer for our guys,” Battalion Chief Jim Gillard said. “It’s pretty rare when you can put those things together.”

When a standard ambulance or fire engine rolls up to an aid call, drivers usually must leave the emergency lights activated for safety. That means the engines must be left running too, to avoid draining the vehicle’s batteries.

Responders are often breathing diesel exhaust and shouting over the noise of the engine as they work. Patients and passersby are also exposed to the fumes.

An idling fire engine burns up to three gallons of fuel every hour and puts the equivalent of 30 miles of wear on its motor, Poulsbo Fire Fleet Manager Brett Annear said.

The idle reduction technology provides an easy solution. On the fire engines, drivers flick a switch to turn on a small diesel generator mounted in a rear equipment as they arrive at the scene. The generator powers electronics after the fire engine’s motor is shut off. The generator is quieter, and far more efficient, and vents its exhaust out the top of the engine. The generator burns about 0.3 gallons per hour.

The technology is even simpler on ambulances. Each is equipped with a second set of batteries. When a driver sets the parking break at the scene, the ambulance automatically switches from its starting batteries to the backup batteries, powering lights and electronics for up to 45 minutes.

Gillard said firefighters can be resistant to change, but response from crews has been positive so far.

“We had to make a leap from what we’ve always done to something that makes sense.”

The grant is part of Ecology’s campaign to reduce diesel emissions. Exhaust from diesel engines accounts for 70 percent of airborne, cancer-causing pollutants in the state.  It also poses a risk for people with asthma, heart disease and lung disease, and contributes to respiratory ailments. Firefighters are especially at risk for cancer because of their frequent exposure to toxic substances.

Ecology has helped agencies install emissions controls on 8,000 engines, including many school buses.

Poulsbo Fire’s staff brought the fire truck proposal to Ecology, after working with diesel engine provider Cummins Northwest to design a system that would meet its needs.

Ecology spokesman Seth Preston said Poulsbo Fire may be the first department in the country to use the technology. Ecology plans to expand the program to two fire departments in Thurston County and other agencies are interested.

“They’re pretty excited about the potential,” Preston said. “I think it’s really going to take off.”

Poulsbo Fire has pursued several emissions-fighting programs. Puget Sound Clean Air awarded the department $11,000 in 2007 to install advanced catalytic converters on seven of its vehicles. It also uses emissions-capturing crankcase ventilators.


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