By Robert Tutterow
In a previous column, I shared a quote from Glen Usdin, a former magazine publisher, that states, “The fire service is a low-tech market that has zero potential for growth, and the amount of new products and services being introduced each year is very small. We keep our expensive stuff for a long time and don’t really embrace much new technology.” I found this comment to be humbling as it was something I have never considered or heard mentioned.
The quote continued to weigh on my mind, and I started reflecting on fire service product innovations. When I step back to my first experiences in the fire service as a kid in the late 1950s, I can easily see changes everywhere. For example, when my dad became a charter member of a local rural volunteer fire department, there were no pagers and no 911 system. To report a fire, you had to call the local funeral home. It also ran the ambulance service and was available all day. The funeral home would call Mrs. Nina Powell, who lived across the road from the fire station. Fortunately, she was almost always at home and hopefully not on the phone. Yes, there was a backup contact. Mrs. Powell would go to the fire station and activate the alarm mounted on the roof. She would remain outside the station and tell the responding firefighters the location of the fire. This kept firefighters from having to get out of their vehicles. After a few minutes, she would write the information on the chalkboard for any late-arriving firefighters and return home.
The department’s engine was a 1958 Howe pumper on a six-cylinder Chevrolet chassis with a four-speed manual transmission and two-speed rear end. The tanker (water tender) was a tractor-drawn military surplus vehicle. The tractor was a 1939 Federal with “armstrong” power steering, and the tanker trailer had a 2,000-gallon capacity. The tractor was as long as the trailer, and this quickly separated the skilled drivers from the not-so-skilled when it came to backing. There were no two-way radios and no incident command system. Yet, all of this was still a huge improvement over the horse-drawn, hand-pumped, and steam-driven engines of yesteryear. Clearly, the fire service has come a long way.
Emphasis on Safety
However, it’s only been in the past 25 to 30 years that there has been an emphasis on fire apparatus and equipment as it relates to firefighter safety. Almost all the innovations have come from other industries like the military and, to some degree, the space program. Many of the changes have been driven by laws, standards, and litigation-or the fear of litigation. The fire service simply has little horsepower when it comes to driving technological advances. Historically, most of what we do is low-tech, though this is beginning to change.
For apparatus, the biggest change has been in cab design-going from open cabs to fully enclosed cabs. This became a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requirement in 1991. The change was prompted by a lawsuit against an apparatus manufacturer, the Peter Pirsch Company. A Brookline, Massachusetts, firefighter-Joseph Tynan-died from head injuries sustained when he fell from the apparatus during a response. A key point to the prosecution’s case was the grab bar that wrapped around the back of the canopy cab. The defense was not able to determine the purpose of the grab bar other than a place to hold onto while standing during a response. The Pirsch Company was found liable for the accident and was successfully sued for $5 million. Soon thereafter, it went out of business.
Visible warning devices for apparatus have also improved with the emergence of LED lights. Electronics are now the norm in engines and transmissions. Yet, these improvements come from other industries. There have been improvements to the seating and restraint systems in fire apparatus as well as improvements in step and grab handle placement. Steps and standing surfaces are now slip-resistant. All these improvements do not mean that further safety innovation is not possible. For example, in December 2013, an Ohio firefighter slipped and fell from the running board of an apparatus while it was parked in quarters. He struck his head during the fall and died a few hours later from internal bleeding.
Not all ideas and changes are sustainable. For example, there was limited success in taking the engine out of the cabs to reduce noise and heat as well as add more space inside the cab. This included rear engine mounts and midengine mounts. Although these benefits are desirable, this design never became a mainstay across the fire service. The tradeoffs were eventually considered too great.
There will still be advances in apparatus electronics, and ergonomic issues will continue to be addressed. Challenges remain. The apparatus of today are much safer than they were a generation ago. Hopefully in a generation from now, continued safety initiatives will result in apparatus that are much safer than they are today.
So, were Glen Usdin’s comments correct? I think so. However, I think we need to acknowledge that real progress has been made. But, I also think we can legitimately ask, “What took so long?” And, with that line of thought, how long will it take for collision avoidance systems to become standard on fire apparatus?
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).