While firefighters can access fresh water from pump trucks or hydrants, and even utilize special foams and swimming pools when the situation calls for it, a handful of fire services are beginning to explore the use of treated wastewater as a more sustainable alternative.
One fire service in the small country of Wales, part of the United Kingdom, has initiated a new pilot project to use treated wastewater as part of an environmental objective to achieve Net Zero Carbon Status by 2030.
The Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service has begun filling trucks with UV-treated effluent water to be used at fire incidents, ending a reliance on what could be considered clean water, particularly during droughts.
“By substituting this volume of water which otherwise would have been taken from the potable water supply, it will help in the preservation of our supplies for customers especially in the face of increasing climate change impact on our natural resources,” announced a spokesperson for Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water in a statement.
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The fire service has partnered with Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water and Natural Resources Wales for the pilot project. Natural Resources Wales had moved all parts of Wales to drought status in September 2022, during what was the country’s driest spring and summer for more than 150 years (drought conditions are now normal in Wales, following an extremely wet July this year).
According to the fire service’s Corporate Risk Assurance Manager, Seamus Doyle, using treated effluent water will also enable firefighters to respond more efficiently to fire calls where water supply may be limited. In some cases, Doyle said water needs to be shuttled upwards of an hour from the incident, delaying the emergency response time of the firefighters. Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service is responsible for providing emergency response cover to nearly 12,000 square kilometres, almost two-thirds of Wales.
The average modern firetruck has a 1,800-litre water capacity. Firefighters using large amounts of water can occasionally cause issues like low water pressure for smaller communities, the fire service warned.
Determining the potential risks of using treated wastewater is something that has been studied in the Czech Republic, but questions still remain. In 2020, Czech officials flagged factors such as coliform bacteria and the risk of contaminating on-site drinking water sources as concerns.
Certain treatment levels for the effluent would need to be established for firefighting purposes, the study suggests, as well as to protect the safety of firefighters.
“The hazardous aspect of recycled wastewater and its use lies in setting the sanitary limits regarding potential health consequences for people who came in contact with such water,” the Czech study states. “This is one of the reasons why hygienists are somewhat skeptical about the use of recycled water in areas where people can easily come into contact with it and inadvertently swallow it.”