SANTA MARIA, Calif.—North American Fire Hose Corp. remained in business throughout the pandemic as an essential business, but it wasn't always easy.
The first 30 days were just sheer panic, according to Michael Aubuchon, president and CEO of the Santa Maria-based manufacturer of fire hose. "It changed all the rules we lived by for so many years. Employment rules, social rules—just how you exist," he said.
Supplying products to the fire and emergency services helped NAFH be classified as an essential industry, but in turn it forced the company to learn all about COVID-19 protocols and enact them as they were evolving.
To do that, though, required some ingenuity on the part of the firm. When face masks were all but impossible to obtain, Aubuchon engineered a face mask. He had to figure out what material and design made a proper filtering-type face mask, and source the material. Then he found a local company to manufacture the masks for the firm to distribute to its employees.
A lot of the work areas North American Fire Hose's main factory in Santa Maria are separated by six feet. But for the few areas where that wasn't the case, staff designed their own separators and dividers. If that wasn't enough, they also made their own hand sanitizer.
For Aubuchon, working remotely wasn't a good option. He knew when his wife asked him when he was going back to work, that was it.
"I needed to be here and physically see the building," he said. "As a manufacturer, we have to be at our facility, observing, kind of hands-on. With engineering and things like that, it's hard to send that home and work remotely on any of those projects."
Despite the sharp business decline when the pandemic forced shutdowns early on, sales for NAFH bounced back and actually were up 1.6 percent over 2019. "Considering everything else that was going on, I felt pretty happy about that. Our whole team was. Maintaining sales was the goal, and even a slight increase was welcome."
New fire hose standard
One bit of business that did get accomplished during 2020 was a revision to the National Fire Protection Association 1961 standard on fire hose. Aubuchon said it was updated to include a new category for hoses that need to adhere to much higher levels of heat resistance as well as to be able to stand radiant heat, conductive heat and convective heat loads.
"The nature of fire has changed from many years ago, and the heat load in an involved structure is much higher than it was years ago, so NFPA saw the need to increase the level of the fire hose," he said. "I think you are going to see some new products emerging from various manufacturers to raise the bar as far as heat resistance. That's exciting from a research standpoint."
The NAFH CEO spent a good deal of time working on the NFPA committee studying the new nature of firefighting. "The increased BTU thermal loads presence as compared to 50 years ago have been documented. It's quite alarming and interesting how the severity of fires have increased."
He said the new revised fire hose standard will address it and continue to evolve, just like other standards for firefighter turnout gear, breathing apparatus, helmets and boots. Doing the committee work remotely was a bit of a challenge, which caused the revision to take longer than normal, he said.
NAFH is working on several new products to reflect the new standard that will be introduced in the near future, said Aubuchon, who expects to see similar offerings from competitors.
"It's a new area for our market, more of a specialty, highly heat-resistant hose segment," he said. "It's still servicing the municipal market, but it will involve completely new products.