Offutt Firefighters Protect the Environment and Ensure Fire Protection

  • Published
  • By Gary Chesley and David Eblin
  • 55th Civil Engineer Squadron

They are called Aqueous Film-Forming Foam agents and they are the most effective foams available to defeat flammable liquid fires. 


This fact alone would explain why Air Force bases have been interested in them, not including how they provide rapid extinguishment, cooling, vapor sealing to inhibit re-ignition, and have a long storage life with no chemical property or capability degradation.  


Basically, the foam is widely used to extinguish petroleum fires among military and industrial operations.


In fact, Offutt has a mutual aid agreement with the communities surrounding the base to assist when needed and available. This agreement was put into action on Oct. 7, 2016 when Offutt Firefighters were requested at a dangerous and persistent ethanol plant fire in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Offutt Firefighters were able to apply AFFF and bring the fire under control.  The fire could not be brought under control with normal firefighting agents until the Offutt AFFF was applied.  The ethanol fire was then quickly extinguished.  


With all the positives surrounding the use of AFFF, there are a couple of drawbacks. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified two components of AFFF as contaminants of concern:  perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid. 


Although both compounds remain unregulated by the EPA, an EPA health advisory has established drinking water concentrations of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS/FPOA.  


The Air Force has placed a high priority on human health protection and development of an approach to assess the potential for PFOS/PFOA drinking water contamination.   The Air Force began replacing legacy AFFF in August 2016 with a new formulation that meets military specifications for firefighting, but free of PFOS, and contains only trace amounts of PFOA.  The goal is to replace all legacy AFFF with the new foam in 2017.


The change out of Offutt’s fire truck legacy AFFF was completed in early February 2017.  The next actions are the shipment and disposal of the legacy AFFF with a centralized contract throughout the DoD.  Additionally, 806 Air Force firefighting vehicles will be modified by January 2018 with an “Eco-Logic” system whereby fire truck turret water can by-passes the AFFF tank during training.  The system will still support firefighter training, but provide even further environmental protection for fire training areas.


The Department of Defense has undertaken a program to protect human health by identifying and mitigating prior AFFF release locations to prevent future contamination of PFOS/PFOA.  As far back as 2012, the Air Force began to identify potential AFFF release sites and related drinking water contamination.  The Air Force has spent $137 million to investigate and address drinking water contamination.  The bill is expected to exceed $250 million even before cleanup technologies are implemented.


A pilot study of remediation technologies capable of cleaning up PFOS/PFOA began at the former Wurtsmith AFB, MI fire training area in October 2016.  Three remediation technologies are being tested:  a granular activated carbon system, an enzymatic oxidation process, and a proprietary remediation material called “RemBind.”  Although Offutt does not have any suspected AFFF-contamination areas, a site inspection will be conducted in April as part of an effort to sample soil and groundwater at every Air Force installation. 


With the recent completion of Offutt’s fire truck AFFF change out, Offutt firefighters are now able to better protect the environment, but are still able to ensure fire protection for Offutt’s people, infrastructure and aircraft assets.   


KETV Omaha and Jennifer McDermott, Associated Press, contributed to this article.