A Blaze of Innovation

Having developed a new technology to fight fires from outside burning buildings, Albert Foo and Sharath Anand are introducing it one step at a time - starting with high school science fairs. 
Foo and Anand, both 17, are seniors in Skyline High School's Design, Technology, and Environmental Planning Magnet program. Their capstone project for the Magnet program is the firefighting invention dubbed the ExtinBreachR. And although the name sounds a tad sci-fi, the invention itself is thoroughly researched, tested, and tangible.
"We really wanted to do something that would help out the community in some way, so it would be meaningful," Anand says. "Our main thinking was that it might not actually help firefighters, but at least it would be good at the science fair."
The duo began work on the project last fall, as the culmination to their three years in the Magnet program under teacher Tom Pachera. After Magnet students devote their sophomore and junior years to learning the nuts and bolts of engineering and design, Pachera says senior year is when his students really put that knowledge into action.
"I don't teach much their senior year," he says. "I become the cheerleader and the motivator. The kids start with about 20 ideas and narrow it down and narrow it down and narrow it down."
In Foo and Anand's case, even once they decided to focus on developing a firefighting device, there was still a lot of narrowing-down to be done. The duo conducted interviews with Scio Township and Ann Arbor firefighters, learning that it was imperative to create a light, hand-held device that used steam, not foam, to extinguish blazes.
"We thought it would be cool if you could put in some foam and it would just expand and kind of muzzle the fire," Foo says. "But we learned that if you can create steam, it creates a lot less water damage."
So the duo landed on the basic concept for the ExtinBreachR, which allows firefighters to safely battle blazes by drilling a hole through the wall of a burning structure and pumping water inside. The hand-held device consists of a power drill mounted on a metal bracket with a side-mounted attachment for a fire hose. Water from the hose is routed up the oversized drill bit through a cone-shaped adapter, which disperses water as a fine spray for maximum steam conversion. 
Thanks to a $16,000 Magnet program sponsorship from Maker Works, Foo and Anand had access to high-tech fabrication equipment - as well as practical advice from the many local makers who frequent the facility and its regular "GoTech" meetings. Foo says that Maker Works member George Albercook gave the duo a crucial bit of advice as they tried to solve the problem of how to give the ExtinBreachR its drilling power.
"We thought we were going to build our own DC motor, which was way over our heads," Foo says. "George told us basically not to reinvent the wheel, to use a drill or something firefighters would already have."
A conventional power drill (borrowed from Pachera's student teacher, Frank Norton) now sits at the heart of Foo and Anand's ExtinBreachR prototype. Although the device has yet to put out an actual blaze, Scio Township firefighters have conducted a successful test on a mocked-up wall. Scio firefighter Jordan Burns has worked with Foo and Anand from the start, and he says the prototype addressed most of the concerns he raised to the inventors, many relating to ease of use.
"We were about 90 percent satisfied," Burns says. "We were like, 'Oh my God. Almost everything we first envisioned actually came to us in the final project.'"
In addition to the Scio firefighters' support, Foo and Anand's efforts have also garnered scholastic recognition. At this year's Southeast Michigan Science Fair, they placed first in the high school team category and third amongst high schools overall. Their work also recently earned them a $1,000 grant from the A2Awesome Foundation. Having previously funded the project out-of-pocket, Foo says the A2Awesome grant and science fair winnings are a shot in the arm for the project.
"Now that we have more money we can be more flexible," he says. "We were hoping someone would just come up to us at one of the GoTech meetings and say, 'I'd love to fund your project.' But it didn't really work out that way."
As they ready the ExtinBreachR for more science-fair appearances and a trial on an actual fire, Foo and Anand are considering possibilities for actively marketing the final product to area fire departments. But they say they're still fighting an uphill battle in a field that generally favors more traditional solutions.
"We thought, with firefighters, they might be like, 'Cool, a new idea,'" Foo says. "But they're very traditional. Their favorite tools are, like, a sledgehammer and an axe. So for our slogan, I came up with 'Where tradition meets innovation.' The concept has been done, but there's obviously a gap because firefighters don't know about it."
Pachera says Foo and Anand have the savvy to push the project to the next level. He estimates that Anand and Foo are "in the top ten percent nationwide" for the standardized curriculum he uses, a statement that prompts a quick grin and a high-five between his otherwise highly professional pupils.
"They're two of the smartest young people in our school," Pachera says. "They've both been accepted to the University of Michigan and that alone says a lot." 
They'll be headed in different directions once they get there - Foo will be studying art and design, while Anand is headed for pre-med. But they're still planning to keep pushing the envelope with their firefighting innovation.
"It's pretty good," Anand says. "But we haven't peaked yet."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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