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Rurally Speaking: What Is the Most Overlooked Equipment on Your Fire Trucks?

By Carl J. Haddon

This is a question I recently started asking while visiting fire departments across the country. I’ve asked the question in some of the biggest city departments in the country, and I’ve asked it to small rural volunteer departments. After compiling and looking at the answers I received, the results might surprise you. What about you and your department? Are there a couple of pieces of equipment on your apparatus that are overlooked, rarely inspected, and—heaven forbid—not well maintained?

Before I go any further, don’t get the wrong idea about me asking this question. I’m no armchair quarterback or keyboard warrior. As I travel the country on training assignments, I see things and I listen to lots of different firefighter perspectives, which is all good. Many of the things I hear and see cause me to reflect back on my own firehouse, equipment, and fire apparatus. I was as guilty as the next guy when it comes to this question. My goal is to enlighten and broaden your field of view—maybe offer you an “ah ha” moment that you will share with other firefighters or fire departments that helps to make all of us better and keep us safe.

We all know the story (or should know the story) of caring for our irons. We clean and inspect our axes and our halligans regularly, as they are figuratively (and often literally) an extension of our arms. We do daily, weekly, and monthly inspections and preventive maintenance on our fire apparatus. We service, inspect, and decon our gas-powered saws and hydraulic rescue tools. We HOPEFULLY have learned the importance of inspecting, CLEANING and maintaining our turnout gear and other personal protective equipment: SCBA, rapid intervention gear, technical rescue equipment, boats, ropes, etc. We pay close attention to all of that equipment, right?

Ground Ladders
When was the last time you REALLY inspected and maintained your ground ladders? During a recent ground ladder class in the southern part of the country, we discovered that a couple of the department’s ground extension and roof ladders were not functioning properly. The firefighters were having a hard time with raises as the flies were sticking badly, and halyards struggled. Their roof ladder hooks did not want to swing and lock into position. We quietly took the troubled ladders out of service and into the bay to see what was wrong. What we found was nothing you’d likely imagine. The departments in the area in which we were teaching are big into participating in local parades. Their rigs are always clean and spit polished as the firefighters and officers take great pride in their trucks and their departments.

As we started figuring the problems with the ladders, we discovered melted (and rehardened) Tootsie Rolls and wrapped taffy-like candy welded inside the tracks of the ladder beams and in the rope grooves of the halyard wheels! I know what some of you must be thinking, and I know that those of you who participate in parades know EXACTLY how this happens. For those who don’t, at least in rural America, fire trucks in parades are known for distributing huge amounts of candy (out of, or off of) the apparatus as it travels down the parade route. Local kids can’t wait for the fire trucks, because they know they’re like a rolling free candy stores. As the candy is thrown out of the hosebeds or off of the coffin boxes, some falls from the hands of the thrower, landing on the exposed ladders that sit on their racks. Subsequent truck washings do nothing to dislodge the candy that found its way into the beam tracks on the ladders. The trucks goes out into the sun, and the candy melts. The truck comes back into station, the candy hardens. Repeat several times and presto—ladders are jacked up! Didn’t see that one coming did you?

When was the last time you REALLY inspected and maintained (where applicable) your cribbing? Cribbing is probably the single-most overlooked adjunct that we carry on our trucks. Catastrophic cribbing failure is responsible for more than 100 fatalities each year. Greater than 99 percent of those failures involved wood cribbing.

So, let me ask again: When was the last time you really inspected your cribbing? What are you inspecting for? Do you require your personnel to wear puncture- and blood-borne-pathogen-resistant gloves while handling wood cribbing? Why would I ask that last question?

I hear more and more about fire departments that have agreements with local home improvement stores should they need additional cribbing or lumber. Albeit admirable and commendable on the part of the store management, have you looked at the quality of lumber available at most home improvement stores lately? I have literally stood in the lumber section for hours, looking for building project lumber that is semi straight and not green. Simply stated, lumber just isn’t what it used to be. In light of the quality of lumber available to us, how do we know if that same lumber will hold up for a major cribbing (school bus), or shoring/collapse situation?

More importantly is the question of what kind of shape your current wood cribbing is in. Is it cracked, warped, weathered, or splintered? Does it have knots in the wood? When was it put into service, and how much usage does it have? Hardwood is really no different. As a matter of fact, the benefit of soft over hard wood is that soft wood (unlike hard wood) will usually give warning signs and sounds before it fails.

To round this question out, do you remember why wooden spine boards were taken out of service a number of years ago—before we stopped using spine boards altogether? It was because of the blood borne pathogen exposure issue and not being able to decontaminate the wood backboards. So, tell me what the difference is between us using contaminated wooden backboards and using contaminated wooden cribbing? Does my question about being required to wear puncture- and blood-borne-pathogen-resistant gloves while handling wood cribbing make a bit of sense now?

If you and your department inspect and maintain your ground ladders and your wooden cribbing, I commend you. If, like many of the departments I queried, you don’t, perhaps it’s time to start doing so. I am an advocate of plastic cribbing, for reasons that I will go into in a future article. I get that wood cribbing is cheaper and easier to obtain. Are you willing to bet your crew’s and patient’s lives and well beings on “cheaper and easier”? Remember that just like fire, life-altering/life-ending diseases don’t care who you are or where you come from. More importantly, remember that many of these diseases are easily contracted from a simple splinter that has been contaminated. It’s all part of your personal situational awareness and personal risk management. 

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.