Defective Fire-Safety Equipment to be Replaced in Military Trucks

By Stew Magnuson
MONTEREY, Calif. — A fire suppression system designed to put out flames in burning humvee trucks failed in combat after the power source that it relies on to spray retardant malfunctioned, said the Army official who oversees vehicle programs.

The equipment failures have raised concerns among troops in the field. Marines have even refused to wear specially designed seatbelts for fear that they cannot escape if their truck catches fire, said a Marine Corps official. Despite years of catch-up efforts to make humvees safer, it appears that the military’s workhorse hasn’t entirely escaped its reputation as a “death trap.”

The Army expects to have the problem fixed by the end of March, when humvees on Iraqi streets will have three fire suppression bottles that spray retardant, said Lt. Col. Sam Homsy product manager for light tactical vehicles at the Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM).

“What we found sometimes in theater is that the electrical system sometimes fails [and] disconnects the battery,” he said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s tactical wheeled vehicles conference.

Currently, two red bottles that resemble everyday fire extinguishers are set to automatically deploy, Homsy said. In March, a backup battery will also be installed in case the primary one fails to send a signal to release the retardant. A third bottle that can be manually deployed by first responders is also being added.

The third manually deployed bottle will allow first responders to “get in there and remove the soldiers from the burning vehicle,” Homsy said.

A request to TACOM for more information on how this system would work was denied. Craig MacNab, a spokesman for humvee manufacturer AM General, referred questions to TACOM.

Armor and other protective devices installed on trucks, known as fragmentation, or frag, kits, are required for humvees when they leave forward operating bases in Iraq.

At the end of March, humvees arriving in Kuwait depots will have the sixth generation of frag kits installed, which will include the updated fire suppression system, Homsy said.

It is unclear how long it will take to outfit the rest of the fleet with the more robust fire suppression system, and whether models with the fifth-generation frag kits will be allowed to leave secure bases.

After insurgents in Iraq stepped up their use of improvised explosive devices in late 2003, TACOM has installed various ad hoc solutions to make the vehicle safer. Added armor was among the first priorities. But heavier steel plates made doors more difficult to open. Special latches to help open doors and windows in the event of a fire were then installed. Other innovations included new harnesses and blast resistant seats.

Daniel Pierson, deputy program executive officer at the Marine Corps program executive office for land systems, indicated that Marines still believe there are not enough safeguards against fires.

Some troops are shunning special harnesses designed for their own protection.

“That fear of burning to death, that fear of [not] being able to get out of the vehicle is so strong, they refuse to wear these things,” he said. It is a “myth” that the new generation of harnesses will trap occupants, he noted. “Oh my God, all this money we’re spending on these hitches and blast seats, how can you not want to wear them?”

Pierson said the Marines will work on an informational video that will reinforce the need to wear seat belts.

Commanders must convince their troops that they have to wear these harnesses, he said.

But then added: “When you see these things engulfed in flames it became clear to me that’s a real problem,” Pierson said. “You can’t get those people out of that vehicle.”

As for the Army, Homsy said that he had not heard that soldiers were refusing to wear their seat belts for fear of being burned alive.

“I have heard of guys not wanting to wear their harnesses for other things,” he said at the conference. “That has always been a challenge — trying to get the gunners to wear their harness.”

Pierson wondered why trucks couldn’t be equipped with the self-sealing fuel tanks that are found in helicopters, which prevent the tanks from leaking fuel and igniting. “Why don’t we have these on the ground?” he asked.

In a sign of possible disconnect between the two services, the Army for four and a half years has been using a system that seals fuel tank holes. One contractor’s system is already in operation on heavy trucks, fuel tank trailers and one model of the mine resistant ambush protected vehicle (MRAP).

Russell Monk, operations director at High Impact Technology (HIT) of Tigard, Ore., said he informed Pierson after his speech that the company’s self-sealing technology was rushed into the field in 2004.

At the outset of the Iraqi conflict, fuel tankers were being destroyed at an alarming pace. During ambushes, insurgents were filling the tanks with bullet holes, then firing rocket propelled grenades to light the leaking gas. Some military units were in near mutinous states. They were refusing to travel in convoys without adequate protection, Monk said.

The Army then sent out an emergency request for information to vendors. One of HIT’s products, the Battle Jacket Containment System, was deemed as a possible solution. Company officials flew immediately to the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., to demonstrate the technology.

Battle Jacket — a self-sealing external fuel tanker membrane system — minimizes the fuel leakage caused by small arms fire, according to HIT. It is sprayed on in three layers. The middle layer has a chemical that plugs the holes. Once the tank is breeched, the substance fills the hole and expands. It’s similar to how coagulants in the bloodstream stop a wound from bleeding, Monk added.

The Army wasted no time speeding the technology to the field. Within 10 days of the request, contractors were in Kuwait spraying the Battle Jacket on the tankers.

It protects against bullets and smaller IED fragments, Monk said. A massive incident, such as another vehicle ramming into a tanker, would not prevent a fire.

Almost five years later, the product is being sprayed on some, but not all, Army truck fuel tanks.

It is being tested for use in the humvee, he added. He declined to specify which MRAP model is using the product.

Self-sealing fuel tanks have been a necessity for helicopters. Helicopters can’t be as  heavily armored as ground vehicles and a bullet piercing a fuel tank can be fatal.

They use a bladder system inside the tanks. That is a valid approach, Monk said, but they don’t hold their shape well for fuel tanks that hang off the side of some of the larger trucks.

Lt. Col. Lewis Johnson, product manager for heavy tactical vehicles at TACOM, said the Army has employed a fire suppression system for exposed external fuel tanks that are common on large trucks such as the heavy equipment transporter.

The Fire Panel, manufactured by Firetrace Aerospace of Scottsdale, Ariz., doesn’t “self-heal” like the HIT technology, but upon impact releases a cloud of fire suppressing powder that prevents the fuel from igniting, Johnson said.

Homsy said the Army plans to conduct a “market survey” to determine what other fire suppression technologies are available.

Topics: Combat Survivability, Land Forces

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