Beginning in the early 1960s, NRL conducted research on fire suppression that eventually led to one of the most far-reaching benefits to worldwide aviation safety -- the development of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF). AFFF rapidly extinguishes hydrocarbon fuel fires. It has the additional property of forming an aqueous film on the fuel surface that prevents evaporation and hence, reignition of the fuel once it has been extinguished by the foam. The film also has a unique, self-healing capability whereby scars in the film layer caused by falling debris or firefighting activities are rapidly resealed. This firefighting foam is now used on all U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and by major airports, refineries, and other areas where potentially catastrophic fuel fires can occur. In 1979, this NRL-developed fire suppressant was in use at more than 90 airports in the U.S. alone as well as in many civilian fire departments.
In 1987, AFFF was the primary agent used to prevent a major fire disaster in Fairfax, Virginia. The incident happened on June 11, 1987, when a construction bulldozer ruptured an underground gasoline line. The accident left a gaping hole in the pipeline, spewing thousands of gallons of highly flammable liquid and vapors over a wide area and caused the evacuation of an entire community. AFFF was promptly furnished by fire officials from Dulles International Airport, Bolling and Andrews Air Force Bases, Ft. Belvoir, and the Quantico Marine Corps Base. Officials reported that a total of 4,375 gallons of AFFF and two other types of foam were used at the spill site. In a letter to NRL, the Public Information Officer for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department stated, "It was clearly a miracle that no ignition source reached the thousands of gallons of gasoline that spewed from the broken pipeline. Had that happened, the entire community of Singleton's Grove would have been engulfed in flames, and numerous lives undoubtedly would have been lost."