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Hazmat Vehicle Designs Reflect Unique Requirements

Issue 8 and Volume 17.

Alan M. Petrillo

If you’re trying to identify a typical hazmat vehicle, you may be looking for a long time, because most makers of such apparatus concede that hazmat vehicles are as unique as the fire departments that purchase them. Manufacturers further note that such vehicles simply reflect the needs and strategies of the agency or municipality seeking to protect its citizens from specific hazardous situations.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Bill Himstedt, sales application engineering manager for E-ONE, says customization is the key when it comes to hazmat apparatus. “With hazmat vehicles, they are very customized to the end user,” he notes. “What one department calls a hazardous materials vehicle another might call a heavy rescue. What departments want differs from department to department and from state to state.”

Himstedt says that although E-ONE’s hazmat vehicles have run the gamut of sizes, it has been building more of the large hazmat vehicles on custom chassis. But the important element in such work, he says, “is to listen to what the customer wants to do with the vehicle and build what it wants.”

(1) KME built this walk-around hazmat unit for the United States Air Force, which stationed it at March Air Reserve Base in California.
(1) KME built this walk-around hazmat unit for the United States Air Force, which stationed it at March Air Reserve Base in California. (Photo courtesy of KME.)

Himstedt says a department’s choice of a walk-in or a walk-around hazmat unit often depends on if it wants a command area and the amount of equipment it intends to bring to a scene. “If they’re bringing a lot of equipment, they usually go with a walk-around style body,” he says. “Some also choose to have large PTO-driven generators and light towers on them to light up a scene.”

Andy Yenser, rescue truck product manager for KME, says his company also has produced a variety of hazmat vehicles this past year, from small light-duty hazmat units to large vehicles on commercial or custom chassis that have slide-out sections and extras like complex camera systems.

KME typically builds the smaller hazmat vehicles on Ford F-550 chassis with 10- to 13-foot bodies, usually in full walk-around configurations, Yenser says. “A lot of the smaller departments are ordering this type of truck, and they generally are looking to store equipment easily on it,” he says.

In the medium-duty range, KME builds two- and four-door vehicles on International 4400 or Freightliner M2 chassis in walk-around configurations. “The typical box runs from 13 to 16 feet long and has a lot of compartment space for storage,” Yenser points out. “Most of the medium-duty vehicles are two-door models because [a] hazmat [unit] is a specialty vehicle, and typically departments staff it with one firefighter operator to get it to the scene to support the firefighters already there.”

(2) Ferrara Fire Apparatus built a walk-in hazmat unit for the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) that includes a command and communications center.
(2) Ferrara Fire Apparatus built a walk-in hazmat unit for the Fire
Department of New York (FDNY) that includes a command and
communications center. (Photo courtesy of Ferrara Fire
Apparatus.)

Once departments make the jump to a heavy-duty hazmat vehicle, then KME mainly builds custom cab and chassis configurations in either walk-in or walk-around models. The walk-in rigs often have communications/command areas, Yenser says, and some even have a small laboratory area where substances can be tested on the scene. “For a laboratory, we put in a sink, ventilation hood, eyewash station, and stainless steel interior,” he adds.

Paul Christiansen, marketing director of Ferrara Fire Apparatus, agrees that each fire department’s needs are unique to its coverage area, meaning each hazmat vehicle is different from the next. “We’re a custom builder, so we have built everything from a big custom chassis and large walk-in body hazmat unit for the Fire Department of New York to commercial chassis hazmat vehicles like the two-door International 4400 chassis with walk-around style bodies we did for the Lake Charles Fire Department, in Louisiana.”

Broad Definition

Bill Proft, senior chief engineer and marketing manager of rescue products for Pierce Manufacturing Inc., agrees that hazmat is such a broad term that it doesn’t mean the same thing to all fire departments. “What it means to them depends on the local environment, geography, industry, railways running through their districts, and their hazmat training,” Proft says. “What a fire department carries on its hazardous materials vehicle depends on a number of those different factors, as well as how large a chassis it wants, what gear it will carry, and whether it will be a walk-in or walk-around unit.”

Proft notes that National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, doesn’t dictate what a hazmat vehicle is but that an appendix describes the equipment that departments should consider carrying for hazmat response, such as a pH test kit, decontamination shower, traffic cones, and other gear. “What our customers are typically buying is what we call a combo unit,” Proft says. “A portion of the body is nonwalk-in and all storage, while the walk-in area can be used for personnel to don hazmat gear or as an incident command post.”

(3) The command and communications center is located behind the crew cab on FDNY's hazmat vehicle.
(3) The command and communications center is located behind the crew cab on FDNY’s hazmat vehicle. (Photo courtesy of Ferrara Fire Apparatus.)

Usually the incident command area is in the rear portion of the cab or in the front part of the body, he notes. “In the walk-in portion of the apparatus, often there’s a slide-out room or two that give more space when on the scene. It allows you to add three feet or so to one side or both sides of an eight-foot body.”

Proft says Pierce has built hazmat vehicles with laboratories in them to analyze samples, with stainless steel interiors and countertops, a sink with a fume hood over it, and a pass-through door to the exterior to receive specimen collections from outside.

Pierce recently built two hazmat vehicles for the Union Pacific Railroad that are intended for use when a tank car is derailed, has a ruptured tank, and is leaking liquid. “The units are equipped with an array of different sizes of pumps and hoses on their own cart that can be used to offload the liquid into a separate container,” Proft says. “There’s a lift gate on the back of the vehicle to raise and lower the pumps up to and out of the body. Total apparatus length is 40 feet, and the body portion is 28 feet with a lot of exterior compartments and an interior fold-down bunk.”

Yenser points out that his company has built some hazmat units with slide-out rooms but that such amenities have lost favor in the current budget-pinched economic climate. However, communications and command areas are still popular. “Some departments order a three-door cab and put their command area behind the third door,” he says. “We’ve built them with radios, computers, video screens for digital cameras, a hazmat library, and even weather stations.”

Christiansen adds that many hazmat vehicles are built with a communications or command center, typically with radios, video screens, digital cameras, and even fresh and gray water tanks.

(4) E-ONE built a hazmat unit that includes a command and communications center behind the crew cab for the Birmingham (AL) Fire Department.
(4) E-ONE built a hazmat unit that includes a command and
communications center behind the crew cab for the Birmingham (AL) Fire Department. (Photo courtesy of E-ONE.)

Used for More Than Mitigation

A couple of years ago, Ferrara built two decontamination (decon) vehicles for New York City, Christiansen notes. “These were large shower trucks to handle mass decon,” he says. “The trucks were set up with individual shower stalls on each side, one each for male and female. You would get in the back, shed your clothes in one area, step into the shower, move into another area to put on a one-size-fits-all jumpsuit, and exit at the other end.” He adds that the decon trucks were “complex to build, especially because of the electrically powered hot water heaters and temperature control units on board.”

Yenser notes that KME has proposed several vehicles with a storage area for robots. “Robots can be used in hazmat situations and we’ve bid on some vehicles to carry them, but most of the vehicles where robots are used are in bomb squad units. Usually there’s a roll-up door with a pull-out ramp that is used to give the robot access.”

Himstedt notes that some hazmat units incorporate fold-down awnings, decontamination showers and oil-dry hoppers for material to soak up spills, along with standard compartments for other hazmat gear. “We’ve even seen some hazmat gear being put on heavy rescue trucks,” he says. “They might carry a 55-gallon drum where they store their hazmat materials like lightweight suits, gloves, and absorbent rags.”

He says that fire departments check out other hazmat vehicles for ideas when considering their own purchase, but ultimately the decision of what to build comes down to the department’s unique needs. “The biggest issue in creating a custom hazmat truck is talking with the customer about how it plans to use it,” he says. “Together we come up with a plan that puts the pieces of the puzzle together to create a vehicle that meets its needs.”

(5) The emergency response hazmat unit that Pierce Manufacturing built for the Union Pacific Railroad has a lift gate at the rear to allow off-loading and on-loading of pumps and hose platforms used to contain spills from tank cars.

(5) The emergency response hazmat unit that Pierce
Manufacturing built for the Union Pacific Railroad has a lift gate
at the rear to allow off-loading and on-loading of pumps and hose platforms used to contain spills from tank cars. (Photo courtesy of Pierce Manufacturing Inc.)

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.