Several apparatus and firefighter safety groups are working to improve fire apparatus seat and seat belt designs. Seats and seat belt configurations in many vehicles make it difficult or impossible for firefighters to properly fasten their seat belts. Over the past two years, there has been a major effort encouraging firefighters to fasten seat belts. Vehicle related accidents are the second leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty fatalities. Every year unsecured firefighters are killed in apparatus crashes, ejections or falls from moving vehicles. Most fire department policies require use of seat belts as do the motor vehicle laws in every state. Estimates are that less than 50 percent of firefighters routinely fasten their seat belts while riding in apparatus.
Fully Functional Seat Belts
The project goal is to ensure that every fire truck has a fully functional, safe and user-friendly seat and seat belt system. The first objective is to review current standards and practices to ensure that safe seating systems are standardized in new apparatus. Longer term efforts are directed toward correcting problems in older vehicles and developing new and innovative approaches for the future emphasizing safety.
The concern with seating configuration and design began at an open meeting held in Indianapolis, at the 2006 Fire Department Instructor’s Conference. The Safety, Health and Survival Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation discussed strategies to increase seat belt use among firefighters.
Members of several groups, including the NFPA 1901 Fire Apparatus Committee Safety Task Force and representatives of the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers Association (FAMA) participated as did several apparatus and equipment manufacturers, fire and safety officers and others.
The problem was presented by Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Lt. Mike Wilbur of Ladder 27, who had been conducting research in preparation for the meeting. Several firefighters had commented that the vehicle design made it difficult or impossible to fasten their seat belts while wearing protective clothing.
Vehicle photographs were presented as evidence, showing firefighters in cramped seating areas struggling to reach and fasten their seat belts, some giving up in frustration.
Wilbur described the problem as a systems integration failure; the result of individual apparatus builders and component suppliers working on different parts of the problem and failing to recognize the real needs of firefighters.
This news came as an uncomfortable revelation to several individuals who had been directing their efforts toward seat belt use education and behavior modification. The meeting organizers emphasized that their objective in bringing attention to these technical concerns was not to provide justification for firefighters who did not use the provided seat belts or for fire departments that failed to adopt or enforce mandatory seat belt use policies.
They stressed that seat and seat belt configurations in most fire vehicles are adequate and the reported problems are more severe with certain cab and seating configurations. Efforts must be directed toward correcting any design issues that make seat belt use problematic in existing vehicles and ensuring that all new apparatus are designed to address realistic user requirements.
The discussion resulted in a project to examine existing standards and practices and ensure that the design parameters and assumptions are accurately based. A second meeting was held in Baltimore in July, at the Firehouse Expo and a third meeting will be held in Dallas in September, at Fire Rescue International. The priority is to identify changes to be made in NFPA Standard 1901 by the next revision cycle.
Most seat belt systems installed in fire apparatus are derived from systems used in passenger automobiles. Securing a firefighter is much more complicated than securing a passenger into an automobile seat.
Protective clothing adds bulk and restricts the mobility of firefighters, while equipment carried in pockets and attached to the outside of protective clothing creates more complications. Firefighting gloves make it difficult to manipulate buckles and release buttons that were designed for automobile applications.
Firefighters come in a wide range of sizes and shapes, including double-extra-large, yet many seats and seating areas are designed for an average-size person wearing street clothes.
Considering All The Factors
The problem is further complicated by self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which are integrated into most fire apparatus seatbacks. The typical SCBA adds an additional set of shoulder straps, a waist belt, several hoses, attachments and accessories. All of these factors must be considered in the design of seats, seat belts and seating areas.
The seating configuration varies with cab design and the number of seats installed in a particular vehicle. While some cabs provide generous room for each individual, others have crammed those extra-large firefighters into spaces where they can barely fit. Reaching around to find and fasten a seat belt in some cabs is a serious problem.
The logical solution is to establish seat dimension and arrangement standards, based on realistic expectations of the size and shape of firefighters and actual user requirements.
The NFPA 1901 committee has already directed considerable effort toward seating requirements in new apparatus. These requirements only apply to apparatus that is constructed under the applicable provisions of each successive edition of the standard. There are no retroactive requirements for older vehicles.
The current (2003) edition of NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, states: “Each crew riding position shall be provided with a seat and an approved seat belt designed to accommodate a person with and without heavy clothing.” The standard specifies minimum seat width (18 inches) and depth (15 inches from the front edge of the cushion to the seatback) and requires 22 inches of width at the shoulder height. There are also minimum above-seat headroom dimensions, but no specific legroom requirements.
The seat belts are required to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). NFPA 1901 requires a three-point system for forward facing seats that are adjacent to cab walls and at least a two-point (lap belt) system for all other seats, including the tiller position on ladder trucks. The seat belt is required to be mounted on a rigid or semi-rigid stalk, so that the buckle is accessible.
One issue discussed in Indianapolis was that firefighters appear to be larger than the NFPA 1901 committee anticipated. The dimensions in the standard were based on anthropomorphic data for the general population. The North American firefighter population probably includes more tall and large bodies than the general population.
The average firefighter wearing full turnout clothing is also considerably more bulky than previous generations. When portable radios, hand lights, escape ropes, harnesses, extra gloves, and whatever tools the firefighter has placed in the pockets are added to the package, an 18-inch wide seat with 22 inches of shoulder room could be inadequate.
The problem requires a detailed anthropomorphic analysis of firefighter bodies, with and without protective clothing and equipment. Following the meeting, a measurement methodology was quickly developed by Roger Lackore of Pierce Manufacturing Inc. for the FAMA Technical Committee and field tested by the Charlotte and Los Angeles fire departments.
The preliminary results indicate that a significant percentage of firefighters exceed the dimensions the NFPA seating standard was intended to accommodate. If this data is representative of the firefighter population, wider seating spaces, longer belts and an increased headroom requirement are needed.
The project team is planning to obtain measurements for at least 1,000 United States and Canadian firefighters, before the meeting in Dallas to develop proposed amendments to NFPA 1901.
The anthropomorphic study could be conducted using laser scanning equipment to measure every pertinent dimension of a statistically representative selection of firefighter bodies. This technology is used to design seating for special applications, such as fighter pilots and race car drivers. This alternative is being researched to determine if the cost is affordable and whether the data would be significantly more accurate.
The majority of non-driver seats in fire apparatus incorporate a cut-out and mounting bracket for self-contained breathing apparatus. In most cases, the apparatus manufacturer purchases the seats and seat belts, the SCBA brackets, and the breathing apparatus from three different suppliers and then installs all the parts inside the apparatus cab.
In most new custom cab apparatus, the seats and seat belts are installed as a combined bolt-in unit, while the seat belts in commercial chassis apparatus must be bolted to the separate anchorages provided by the chassis manufacturer.
The ability to don an SCBA en route has created a generation of firefighters who expect to arrive at the scene ready for immediate action. At the same time, the integrated SCBA-seat has greatly complicated the seat belt design problem. The SCBA has its own set of shoulder straps and a waist strap, which secure it to the firefighter’s body. The SCBA also adds an assortment of hoses and attachments that must be considered in the design.
The SCBA must be securely attached to the bracket, so that it remains in place in any predictable situation, including a collision or rollover. A loose SCBA could become an extremely dangerous projectile inside the cab; more than one SCBA has exited through the windshield during a collision.
The SCBA must release quickly and easily from the bracket when the firefighter needs it. Since many responses do not require donning an SCBA, the system must allow a firefighter to use the seat and seat belt without securing the SCBA straps.
The current NFPA standard is intended to ensure that the SCBA will be properly secured until the firefighter releases it, presumably after the vehicle has arrived at the scene. The restraint system must be strong enough to keep the SCBA in its bracket when it is subjected to a 9G impact, assuming that the seat is unoccupied and the only mass that must be restrained is the SCBA.
In many older vehicles the SCBAs are not secured; however, the current edition of NFPA 1901 requires a device to prevent stowing the SCBA in the bracket unless the restraint system is used properly.
The SCBA restraint design concept assumes that the firefighter’s weight will keep the SCBA in place. If the SCBA is secured to the bracket and the firefighter is properly restrained by a seat belt, this should work as intended.
If the SCBA is strapped to the firefighter and the firefighter is not securely belted into the seat, the existing SCBA restraint systems are not sufficient to keep the combined mass of a firefighter and an SCBA in place.
In a severe impact, the firefighter and the SCBA are likely to become a combined projectile inside the cab. If the firefighter is loosely belted to the seat and the SCBA straps are attached to the firefighter, the SCBA could slide up and impact the firefighter’s head.
The SCBA creates questions regarding the proper sequence for donning protective clothing and respiratory protection. The philosophical mindset incorporated into NFPA 1901, along with NFPA 1500, assumes that firefighters will follow a consistent sequence and comply with rules while responding to emergency incidents. Unfortunately, most firefighters are unaware of the “approved” sequence and many fire departments do not teach or enforce it. The operational assumptions need to be revisited and possibly revised.
The generally accepted sequence assumes that the firefighter will don all protective clothing before occupying the seat and fastening the seat belt. All firefighters must be seated and belted in place before the apparatus begins to move and then remain so until the vehicle arrives at its destination. Unfastening or loosening the seat belt to get dressed en route is unacceptable.
The alternative accepted practice is to wait until the apparatus arrives to put on protective clothing. This option applies when the apparatus is already on the road when an alarm is received; the choices in that situation are find a convenient place to stop and dress before responding or wait and dress after arrival.
Again, dressing en route is officially unacceptable, although the rules are broken many times every day.
When an SCBA is mounted in the seatback, and the firefighter intends to use it, there is an added complication in the sequence. The SCBA straps could be pulled on before fastening the seat belt, or the firefighter could wait until the apparatus arrives, then release the seat belt and don the SCBA straps.
Putting the SCBA straps on at the beginning of the response means that the seat belt must be extended over the SCBA straps and regulator, placing the SCBA hardware between the firefighter’s chest and the diagonal seat belt. In the event of a sudden stop or impact, the firefighter is likely to be injured by extra hardware being compressed against the chest.
The safer alternative is to wait until the vehicle has stopped and the seat belt has been released before pulling on the SCBA straps. This procedure delays the firefighter’s exit from the vehicle by a few seconds, but reduces the risk factors while the vehicle is in motion.
In most existing fire apparatus, this should be the officially accepted and enforced practice; however, it is not the common procedure in many fire departments.
Most fire departments let their firefighters determine the donning sequence. Many firefighters attempt to wiggle into the SCBA shoulder straps en route, while wearing a three-point seat belt, meaning the diagonal belt must be loose enough to perform this complicated maneuver. Even more firefighters appear to use this problem as an excuse to leave the seat belt unfastened so that the SCBA can be put on en route.
At least three alternative approaches have been proposed and one has been implemented in a few fire departments. The Phoenix Fire Department decided several years ago to remove all SCBAs from cabs and put them back into compartments on the apparatus exterior.
This approach effectively eliminates all concerns with SCBA straps interfering with seat belts, and the risk of an unsecured SCBA becoming a projectile in the cab. It takes a few extra seconds for the firefighters to don their SCBA after arriving at a fire scene; but the delay is not appreciably longer than the time it would take to release the seat belt and then put on the SCBA straps inside the cab.
Two additional benefits have been recognized with the Phoenix approach. First, the delay of a few seconds gives the company officer some valuable time to size-up the situation and determine the most appropriate action, while the crew members prepare. A few seconds of planning can make a huge difference in the success and the safety of an operation.
The second benefit is that firefighters are no longer dismounting from the apparatus with an SCBA on their backs. Many knee and back injuries are caused by firefighters stumbling while dismounting from apparatus, often because they are off balance and in a hurry to get into action.
Removing SCBA Seating
Removing all SCBAs from apparatus cabs and designing a seat and seat belt system to fit the firefighter is an option that fire departments should consider. What appears to be a step backward could be a step in the right direction for firefighter safety.
The second option is to use the SCBA straps in place of a seat belt. Some variations of this design have been installed in European apparatus. Some North American fire departments have unofficially adopted the practice, using existing hardware, believing it is both expedient and reasonably safe.
Why not use the SCBA straps as the seat belt? The immediate problem is the current SCBA and bracket combinations are not designed to be used as a vehicle restraint system and have not been tested for compliance with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.
The SCBA straps are designed to meet NFPA and NIOSH requirements; they can support the weight of the SCBA and resist severe heat exposure, but they are not intended to secure the weight of a firefighter in a collision.
While it is theoretically feasible to design an SCBA and a bracket to function as part of an integrated seat and restraint system, it will require some engineering to get there.
To produce this type of system, all of the components, including the SCBA, the bracket and the seat would have to be integrated into a functional package that meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The bracket, the SCBA backplate and the straps must be strengthened. In addition, the modified breathing apparatus would have to be tested and recertified according to the NIOSH and NFPA respiratory protection equipment.
The project requires a tremendous amount of cooperation and coordination, in addition to major time and expense investments. At this point, it is a conceptual design that might be realized in the future.
The third concept is to design a fire apparatus restraint system similar to cage systems installed on amusement park rides. The cage would drop down around the firefighters to keep them firmly in their seats. The concept is appealing; however, the realization is far from easy to accomplish.
Another concern is the amount of headroom required in seating positions and whether firefighters should be wearing helmets inside the apparatus. A caution statement in NFPA 1500 warns of the risk created by wearing a helmet with a projecting rear brim while riding in a high-back seat.
In a collision, the helmet brim impact on the seat is likely to cause a neck injury. The helmet might also cause firefighters to lean forward in the seat, keeping the shoulder belt slack and creating an additional risk of whiplash injury in a collision.
The minimum headroom standard in NFPA 1901 assumes that firefighters will not be wearing their helmets. In a low headroom cab, a tall firefighter might have to slouch down in the seat to accommodate the extra inch or two that is added by the helmet.
If the helmet is not worn, what does the firefighter do with it? During a collision, a loose helmet could become another projectile in the cab, just like an SCBA, axe, handlight or any other loose object. The firefighters who were present at the meetings observed that most firefighters wear their helmets en route to calls, in spite of the concerns.
Reinforcing Seat Belt Use
The first issue that has to be addressed is reinforcement of the importance of seat belt use in fire apparatus while the vehicle is in motion. A common perception among firefighters is that the urgency of their mission justifies disregarding basic safety measures. This perception is directly connected to the self-image of a firefighter as an invincible risk-taker, riding in a vehicle that appears to be equally invincible.
The 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives campaign is directed toward changing this cultural orientation and increasing personal safety accountability. Firefighters must be convinced that their safety is important and they must be accountable for their actions. Every firefighter should be seated and belted in an approved riding position, without exception.
Existing Apparatus Issue
Existing apparatus must be addressed promptly, using the best solutions that are available. The issues are not tremendously complicated:
A fully dressed firefighter must be able to sit down and easily reach and fasten the seat belt.
The seat belts and SCBA belts must not interfere with each other.
It is the fire department’s responsibility to ensure that there is a seat with a functional seat belt for every firefighter. If the firefighter can’t find, reach or fasten the seat belt, the vehicle is unsafe and it must be fixed.
In some cases this will require significant modifications to existing apparatus or changes in the procedures for donning protective clothing and SCBA. Some fire departments may have to restrict the use of some seats in existing apparatus or remove SCBA from cabs. Every existing vehicle needs to be examined to ensure functionality.
It is also the fire department’s responsibility to ensure that members use the provided seat belts. Every fire department must clearly establish the seat belt use expectations, including the approved sequence for dressing, seating and securing seat belts before the apparatus moves. There must be no question as to what is expected and what is permitted. Once the rules are established, they must be enforced. When purchasing new apparatus, fire departments must ensure that the seating arrangement not only meets the requirements of NFPA 1901, but also meets the “real user needs” of their organization. It might not be realistic to squeeze eight seats into the crew compartment, even if there is enough to make it work on paper. The cab layout must be safe and functional and removing the SCBAs from the cab may be the best solution.
Apparatus manufacturers have begun to look closely at current production models to identify potential problems. Looking toward the near future, the NFPA 1901 Fire Apparatus Committee, along with the NFPA 1500 Fire Service Occupational Safety and Health Committee, will be looking at the existing standards and at the anthropomorphic data to determine if the seating area requirements need to be updated or additional performance requirements need to be added. The design requirements must be coordinated with use standards and expectations, to ensure that the overall system works as intended.
The apparatus manufacturers, seat and seat belt suppliers, SCBA manufacturers and bracket providers must all coordinate their efforts to ensure that their finished products work together and meet the fire service’s needs. Alternative configurations, such as 4-point or 5-point belt systems, which are available today, may be a better option than a 3-point automobile style belt system.
We cannot wait for the “perfect” solution to be developed. A fully-integrated SCBA-and-seat belt system could become available in the future, if fire apparatus, breathing apparatus, seats and restraint systems manufacturers can all coordinate their efforts and invest in the necessary research and development.
Future fire apparatus may have an alternative type of passive restraint system. In the meantime, every firefighter must be in a safe seat with the seat belt fastened.