Photo/IllutrationFire fighters trial new extinguishing agent produced by Morita Corp. that can foam with sea water in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, in August 2013. (Provided by Morita Corp.)

SANDA, Hyogo Prefecture--Naohisa Sakamoto watched the TV in horror 23 years ago as scenes of fire engulfing the city of Kobe unfolded, with firefighters struggling to contain the blazes due to hydrants not working properly.

The awful events sparked by the Great Hanshin Earthquake inspired Sakamoto to do something about the fire extinguishing problem.

He was already working for major fire engine manufacturer Morita Corp., based here, north of Kobe. Since then, he has used his position to develop and produce a series of extinguishing agents that can effectively put out fires with little water, helping save lives whatever the circumstances.

Sakamoto, 55, said he remembers that the events of January 1995 made him ask himself a burning question regarding his company's role and responsibilities: “What can we do to put out a fire if there is no water?”

While hydrants can be found all over most urban areas of Japan, and water supplies can be taken from rivers easily if necessary, in Europe, a foamed extinguishing agent made by mixing water and air is commonly used, Sakamoto said.

After seeing the devastation in Kobe, Morita decided to start developing an extinguishing agent that requires little water.

The company produced an agent that can put out fires more than 10 times as effectively as water alone, and it was employed by fire agencies across Japan. It is also environmentally friendly and can safely flow into rivers, rice paddies and farms.

However, in 2011, about half a month after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, Morita’s product did not work as well as it should have in a critical situation where a building that was destroyed by the tsunami caught on fire in the coastal city of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.

Firefighters used water from a river nearby to mix with the agent, and the mixture did not foam up properly, possibly due to the presence of brine in the river water.

Faced with a new challenge, Sakamoto and his team immediately started to develop an improved version of the product that could be used with seawater.

They interviewed the firefighters involved to find out the details of what happened in Kesennuma, and locked themselves in the company’s lab to experiment with chemicals and seawater day and night.

There were numerous hurdles to overcome, such as making sure the mixture foamed properly, that it did not discolor or corrode metal, and that it was not too expensive to produce. They continued working until they were satisfied, creating more than 400 test samples.

About a year later, they returned to Kesennuma with their best recipe. When the experiment was conducted by the shore using seawater, the new extinguishing agent foamed as well as it would with freshwater.

“I thought they produced a pretty effective extinguishing chemical,” a source close to the local fire brigade said, and the product was officially released in spring 2013.

In April last year, Morita developed another new agent that does not freeze even at minus 20 degrees.

“Lives depend on our work,” said Sakamoto. “So we should be cautious and cannot make compromises.”