The cannon that fights fires

It looks like a snow cannon with tracks. But this South Tyrolean invention is for putting out fires.

  • November 2016

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The cannon that fights fires

It looks like a snow cannon with tracks. But this South Tyrolean invention is for putting out fires.

It all began in this office located in an industrial zone in the south of Bolzano/Bozen. TechnoAlpin, a company with a worldwide reputation for making snow cannons, took their first steps here 16 years ago. Since that time, TechnoAlpin has moved into a new building on the other side of the road. 

EmiControls, a 2011 spin-off of TechnoAlpin, was established here. So too was director Francesco Fritz. He welcomes me with a firm handshake.

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I look around the bright office curiously. Metal parts of various shapes – round, angular, small, large – are set out on a table. I have no idea what they might be for.

We leave the building and cross the road. TechnoAlpin manufactures the machine that we came to see today.

Work areas

EmiControls has specialised in two areas – firefighting and dust elimination. Water vaporisation is a lesser area. 

It looks like a snow cannon…

I stand in the middle of the enormous storage hall and look around in astonishment. Snow cannons are lined up one after the other. There are 300 machines waiting to be delivered or sold. I have trouble telling the fire extinguishers from the snow cannons until Francesco Fritz points to a line of cannons marked “EmiControls.” The basic technology is the same, but all other requirements of the two machines are completely different, as are concept, development and production. 

Nevertheless, existing TechnoAlpin components have been used where possible. For example, the shapes of the turbine and the blades are identical, though a different material had to be used.

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When a good idea appears

While the snow cannons were in use on the slopes in winter 2007, further down in the valley in Bolzano/Bozen the fire service was hastily unrolling its water hoses. Fires were and are by no means a rarity.

The division of tasks had previously been clear. But why not develop an extinguisher cannon? The fire service turned to TechnoAlpin with its idea. While the company did not specialise in firefighting, the proposal piqued its curiosity. Was an extinguisher cannon even possible? Bit by bit, 3D drawings were created in the office together with the extinguisher turbine in the production hall. It could be fitted on rubber tracks or on the fire engine itself. “It isn’t realistic to draw up plans first then try to realise them,” Francesco Fritz, now an expert in the matter, explains. It took a year before the prototype stood ready in the hall.

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“We made errors during the development phase. Some of them were crucial in helping us.” Francesco Fritz, sales director

In the meantime 20 to 30 extinguisher turbines are now manufactured each year. But why did no one think of the idea before? Every firefighter knows that a water spray can extinguish fires better than water. However, previously it was not possible to target the spray over a distance.

Francesco Fritz drives the machine into the centre of the storage hall and operates a small lever. Surprised by the strong air jet, I step aside. The extinguisher cannon has a range of up to 70 metres and can thus direct its jet over a good distance. 

It’s the water that does it

Francesco Fritz talks with delight about the development of the extinguisher turbine. Previous snow cannon models could spray out 500 litres of water a second, the contents of a large paddling pool. Today’s extinguisher cannons pump out ten times the quantity. At first they believed this was physically impossible until, as he modestly says, they actually managed it. His eyes shine: Physics in action. 

The benefits of a water spray

Water, particularly in the form of water spray, not only cools the source of the fire but also extinguishes the flames through oxygen starvation. The concept is simple: The large water droplet surface maximises heat absorption, thus optimising the use of the water used for firefighting.

Simple, yet still a heavyweight

As I look inside the turbine I am surprised at how simple it all looks. “The skill lies in hiding the technology as much as possible,” says Francesco Fritz and points to the back, where most of the equipment sits under the cowling.

“Building a complicated product can be done very quickly. Building something simple that also does a lot – now that is very difficult.” Francesco Fritz

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The extinguisher cannon is for use in extreme situations. Thus, it must also be simple to operate. “Firefighters don’t have time to fiddle with a complicated remote control, zooming the image in and out,” says Francesco Fritz. “That wouldn’t work.”

Tradition and innovation in one

With a curious look, careful not to break anything, I walk around the extinguisher turbine. An infrared and a video camera stick out from the sides like two ears. In operation, the turbine can be controlled from a distance of around half a kilometre, improving firefighter safety. The image appears on the display.

Despite some innovations, however, South Tyrol still has a very traditional view of fire fighting. “Too traditional,” says sales director Fritz. “EmiControls is aiming for a transition from past technology to future developments.”

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Francesco Fritz wants future machines to be more intelligent and autonomous: “They can then overcome obstacles independently.” He operates the lever again and parks the cannon in the gap between the others. The cannon can rest for today: A good start has been made.

Text: Katja Schroffenegger
Translation: Gareth Norbury
Photos: Alex Filz
Video: Veronika Kaserer 

When it gets dark…

The Bolzano fire brigade uses the extinguisher cannon for tunnel fires in particular. The province of South Tyrol has a large number of tunnels. Many of them are older and lack adequate extinguisher equipment, making the extinguisher cannon ideal in the event of fire.