Sometimes things happen that make us think we are moving in the right direction. The last time I had the opportunity to write for this column, right after FDIC 2010, I expressed a personal concern—one that I know is shared by many others—over the severe lack of space in the driver and officer seating positions of many custom fire apparatus cabs. I challenged the industry to get the smart guys working on a solution to that problem.
Lo and behold, I arrived at FDIC 2011 just in time to witness the unveiling of the new Pierce Dash-CF cab and chassis, which accomplishes almost exactly what I was urging. The engineering guys at Pierce figured out how to move the motor back to create a full-width unobstructed cab space up front for the driver and the officer. The new configuration also drops the motor down between the frame rails, lowering the doghouse to leave more than sufficient room for two crew members in the rear section of the cab and adequate space for two more if necessary. Considering that most career departments are operating with no more than four crew members on their apparatus, the new cab should meet the requirements of many potential customers.
I expect that we will see additional configurations for the new Dash-CF and probably competition from other manufacturers in the near future. So far, the lowered engine mounting design has only been applied to mid-size engine blocks. It remains to be seen what can be done with the big-block locomotive engines commonly used for large-capacity pumps and aerial apparatus.
No one ever said it would be easy to produce fire apparatus that meet the needs of modern fire departments while complying with both safety and environmental standards. When we made the big switch to tilt cabs about 20 years ago, which moved the engines forward between the driver and officer positions, we created much more space in the crew compartments and still provided adequate space up front. Since then, Environmental Protection Agency standards have required engine manufacturers to produce superclean diesels. Each step along that path has demanded more cooling capacity and has claimed more physical space, displacing interior cab room to the point that there is barely room for an average-sized individual to squeeze into the spaces between the doghouse and the cab doors. When we add protective clothing to the body of a frequently above-average-sized firefighter, many individuals are squeezed in so tightly that they cannot fasten their seat belts or manipulate the numerous communications devices and other gadgets that we install in the cabs. It is very good news to see manufacturers developing alternatives to produce fire apparatus that will meet our needs for the next several years.
Although designers are working on improvements, other concerns also require attention. We are beginning to see seat belt configurations specifically designed for fire apparatus cabs, with the belts more within firefighters’ reach while sitting in the seat and wearing protective clothing. The new systems also incorporate more powerful mechanisms to quickly and efficiently retract the belts when they are released, so they do not hang outside and become entangled with the Nader pin when the door is closed. Most custom apparatus manufacturers are also offering air bag systems that are just as sophisticated as the systems in modern passenger cars. The air bag systems are optional. But, why wouldn’t we pay a little extra to have the same margin of safety in our fire apparatus as in our personal family vehicles even if the federal government has not gotten around to mandating them?
Accessorizing the Cab
Looking around the cab, we should focus on all of the add-on accessories that can do almost everything. Today, most apparatus cabs resemble the showroom at a local electronic gadgetry outlet, with numerous devices mounted wherever there is available space. The add-ons come in all shapes and sizes, with unique mounting brackets and wiring harnesses. They tend to be replaced two or three times within the life cycle of the vehicle.
The map books and clipboards we used to depend on have been replaced with computer terminals that can do much more. The variety of computer hardware and mounting system options for those computers appears endless, and most of them look like they were assembled from a crate of miscellaneous spare parts.
I have to believe that apparatus manufacturers could get together with the gurus who develop these different hardware systems and come up with a standard way of installing a highly durable touchscreen computer that is compatible with a wide range of applications. The computer should fit neatly into a location where it is within reach, is easy to view, does not block the driver’s vision, and is securely attached to the vehicle.
Maybe I am dreaming in color, but I keep imagining a universal device mounting system that can accommodate different radios, microphones, siren controls, battery chargers, cell phones, and similar items likely to be installed in an apparatus cab. That magic solution would require some cooperation from the techno-gizmo producers to configure their products to be compatible with the universal mounting system.
Or, maybe all of the devices could be mounted out of the way within a secure electronics cabinet and connected to a single, highly-durable, user-friendly, universal multifunctional control panel. The control panel would have to be easy to configure (and reconfigure) to work with all the different devices, but that should be easy enough to accomplish.
One item that should be included in every modern apparatus cab is a high-quality backup camera. Almost every vehicle we purchase comes with a huge blind spot that follows it wherever it goes. For a very reasonable cost, we can mount a camera on the back of each vehicle to provide a clear image of the area where we are prone to back into or over things. Those systems are available. So, why don’t we just make the rear-view camera system part of the standard equipment on every new piece of fire apparatus, just like a windshield and outside rear-view mirrors on both sides? The apparatus manufacturers could work with the companies that make the camera systems to come up with a standard system that places the image right where the driver can see it when backing up.
There are probably some readers who are asking themselves why they should spend the extra dollars for a rear-view camera when their departmental SOPs require a crew member to get out and act as a guide/spotter whenever the vehicle is in reverse. It seems to me that it would be difficult to justify not spending those few extra dollars to provide an additional measure of safety if only to reduce the risk of accidentally backing over the spotter. In addition, we all have to recognize that sooner or later there will be a situation where the driver will need to back up and no one would be available to provide a set of human eyes back there. Let’s just make it part of the standard equipment on every new vehicle.
My wish list goes on for several pages, but I don’t want to push for too many advances at one time. I will check at FDIC next year to see if my lucky streak is still going.
J. GORDON ROUTLEY is a division chief and technical advisor to the chief in Montreal, Canada. He previously served as assistant to the chief in Phoenix, Arizona; as chief in Shreveport, Louisiana; and as safety officer in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He is a professional engineer and provides consulting services to fire departments and fire service-related organizations in the United States and Canada with an emphasis on firefighter health and safety.