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Fire Apparatus Tire Blowouts, Case Studies and Causes, Part 1

By Chris Daly

While many may think that the catastrophic failure of a tire is a rare event, they are actually much more common than we might think. The fire apparatus operator must be trained and prepared to handle the sudden and violent loss of control associated with a tire blowout. Failure to train our drivers on this important aspect of apparatus operation can result in tragedy, as evidenced by a review of National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Firefighter Fatality Reports.

Case Studies
On August 19, 2001, an Oregon firefighter lost his life when the tanker he was driving experienced a catastrophic failure (blowout) of the front right tire (NIOSH Report #F2001-36). As a result, the vehicle left the roadway and struck a large boulder and a tree. The firefighter victim became heavily entrapped in the tanker; emergency medical personnel pronounced him dead at the scene (photo 1). 

(1) After suffering a tire blowout, this tanker sustained major damage as it struck a boulder and a tree on the side of the road. (Photo courtesy of NIOSH, Report #2001-36.)

Investigation revealed that the victim was traveling on an interstate highway after picking the truck up from a repair shop. As he traveled down the highway, he attempted to move into the left lane and pass a tractor trailer. After passing the tractor trailer, he was attempting to change back into the right lane when the right front tire blew out. After the blowout, the vehicle traveled approximately 535 feet before striking the boulder and tree.

State Police investigators inspected the vehicle after the crash and found that the tire that failed was “a 1979 model and that the outer shell fragment of the tire revealed a brittle and obviously aged material.” In addition, “pieces of the steel cords showed signs of rust from years of moisture exposure due to openings in the tread.” (1) This fatality occurred in 2001, which makes the tire in question approximately 22 years old at the time of the crash (photo 2).

(2) This tire failed, causing the tanker to lose control. (Photo courtesy of NIOSH, Report #2001-36.)

On March 3, 2004, a Florida firefighter was killed when the right front tire of the brush truck he was driving blew out (NIOSH Report #F2004-15). The vehicle left the road, struck a culvert, flipped over, and came to rest upside down in approximately two feet of water (photo 3). The victim firefighter was trapped in the cab of the vehicle and subsequently drowned. 

(3)  After suffering a tire blowout, this brush truck left the roadway and flipped over in a ditch. (Photo courtesy of NIOSH, report #2004-1.)

Investigation of this crash revealed that the victim was traveling approximately 55 miles per hour along a straight road when the blowout occurred. A crash reconstructionist who investigated the incident noted that the tire damage “resembled similar damage documentation patterns resulting from a previous impact that may have compromised the inner tire radial ply and liner.” In other words, the tire had sustained an impact on an earlier date that resulted in damage to the inside of the tire. As a result of this existing damage and other possible factors, a tire blowout resulted (see photo 4). The reconstructionist noted that this damage is “nearly impossible to detect because the tires may still hold air and show no outward signs of deformation.”(2)

(4) The violent nature of the blowout is apparent in this photograph. (Photo courtesy of NIOSH, report #2004-15.)

Part 2 will discuss the causes of tire blowouts.

References

    1. NIOSH Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation Investigative Report #F2001-36.
    2. NIOSH Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation Investigative Report #F2004-15.

CHRIS DALY is a 24-year veteran of the fire service and a full-time police officer who specializes in the reconstruction of serious vehicle crashes and emergency vehicle crashes. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member. He developed the “Drive to Survive” training program (www.drivetosurvive.org) which has been presented to over 14,000 emergency responders across the country and lectures nationally on the prevention of emergency vehicle crashes. Chris has been a contributing author to Fire Engineering  and a regular presenter at FDIC International.