To the people at AAI Corp., there is not a big difference between a fire in the berth of a Navy destroyer and the bedroom of a downtown apartment.
With that in mind, the Cockeysville defense contractor is taking advantage of an $8.9 million Navy contract it received earlier this year -- to produce fire-fighting training equipment to teach sailors to fight ship fires -- to expand into the commercial market.
The company demonstrated its new trainer system yesterday for about 30 fire department officials from Baltimore, Baltimore County and surrounding states.
The computerized, gas-fueled system simulates the conditions that firefighters encounter answering actual alarms. They face real flames, intense heat and obscured visibility from heavy smoke.
Designed for installation at new or existing fire training buildings (cinder-block structures used by fire departments to simulate burning buildings), the AAI system duplicates conditions encountered by firefighters in actual fires with such realism that even a flashover or rekindle can be simulated. (In a flashover, gases rise to the ceiling and are ignited by heat.)
If all of the options on its military contract are exercised, AAI will produce more than 20 units for the Navy, totaling about $32 million.
Lawrence J. Rytter, executive vice president of AAI, sees a larger commercial market for the equipment -- perhaps as much as $250 million. It can be used by fire academies across the country, he said.
A single-room simulator sells for about $250,000. The company's first sale was to the Bucks County, Pa., Fire Department.
Mr. Rytter said the fire training system marks a major move by the company to limit its dependency on military contracts.
He said the company's goal over the next few years is to expand its non-defense business from the current 5 percent of sales to 35 percent.
Before the demonstration of the AAI system for the visiting fire officials, Mr. Rytter explained that the trainer uses extinguisher sensors that determine whether the firefighter applies the proper firefighting agent to the flame. For example, he said, "if they put water on a oil fire instead of foam, the flame will flare up." The system has built-in safeguards to protect trainees. If a student gets into trouble, the operator or the trainee can hit a switch that turns off the fire-producing gas, removes the hot air and smoke, and brings in fresh air.