A piece of your fire department’s apparatus is rolling down the highway en route to an emergency call. It’s a rainy early Fall day. The older rig you’re riding in is in good shape for its age, all of the firefighters are in their turnouts and are wearing their seat belts. Apparatus tires are in good shape and have plenty of tread. Everything on the truck seems to be in good working order. The truck is loaded “heavy” with equipment, as rural apparatus often have to do the work of truck and engine and rescue, which requires them to carry more equipment—I’m certain that the phrase “multivocational apparatus” started in the rural fire service. Something happens that causes the rig to be involved in an accident that appears (at first blush) not to be the fault of the apparatus operator or the rural fire department. The opposing attorney sees things differently when the case goes to court.
During the discovery phase of the case, it is revealed that at the time of the accident, the tires on the fire truck were 17 years old and way past their expiration date. It was also revealed that because of the nature of this rural fire truck’s scope of usage, it was loaded with equipment to the point that the weight of the load exceeded the vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) by 2,500 pounds. The opposing attorney uses this information to successfully prove that these factors led to the apparatus not being able to stop in the accepted amount of time and distance, thereby striking another vehicle and causing bodily injury. The fire department is found liable.
Another rural fire department responds to a call for a routine vehicle fire on the highway. As in the previous scenario, the crew is geared up and doing everything according to policy and procedure. The crew opens up the hoseline on the car fire and is met with an explosion from burning magnesium and titanium components inside the car. Although fully outfitted in proper personal protective equipment (PPE), one of the volunteer firefighters is burned by molten metal that burned through his turnout gear. “The powers that be” conduct an investigation into the matter and determine that although in good shape, this firefighters turnout gear is well beyond the manufacturer’s NFPA expiration date. A risk management nightmare ensues.
These are two simple examples of “forest through the trees” situations faced by many rural fire departments today. At this very moment, I could drive you to a half dozen firehouses not far from here that have overloaded trucks with 20-year-old tires on the apparatus. It is so common it would blow your mind. Before you beat me up at the implication, I get it. Not every rural department can afford to replace apparatus tires every five to seven years (and yes, tires have expiration dates). Nor can every rural department afford to buy new turnouts for all of the firefighters every 10 years, per NFPA. My 10 years as a fire commissioner taught me more than I wanted to know about these very real struggles. It also taught me that I didn’t have to eat the (financial) elephant all in one bite. At that time, replacing one truck’s worth of tires each year was about the best I could hope and budget for. The same thing held true for the firefighters’ turnout gear. I learned that I had to amortize the replacement of gear into manageable numbers. I didn’t have to, nor could I, replace them all at once.
The issue of trucks being overloaded to the point of exceeding the vehicle’s GVWR is a risk that can most definitely be managed. I will never forget a particular 4×4 Type 6 wildland engine we had online when I first hired on here in Idaho. This thing was so grossly overloaded that when its 300-gallon tank (with large older CAFS skid unit) was filled, it literally made the front end lift to the point where driving this truck on any surface other than dry pavement was treacherous. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude at the time was “we have to have everything that is on this truck”. Many departments in similar circumstances have learned ways around the overloading challenge. Inexpensive utility trailers can often be used for things like extra cribbing, SCBA bottles, technical rescue gear, etc., that can be brought to the scene or call without having to try to throw everything plus the kitchen sink on the rig.
The old saying that “the devil is in the details” holds true here. In the rural environment, there exist many common risk management challenges such as staffing, training, and response protocols. The issues of things like the age of apparatus tires and PPE are every bit as important in managing rural fire department risk (and keeping yourself safe as you volunteer to serve your community) as any of those that seem to be the obvious. I have fellow rural chief officers tell me all the time that “we can only do what we can do, and something is better than nothing”. I can’t argue with this good-hearted thought process. From a risk management standpoint (I’m married to a risk manager), I also don’t want to be the officer who knows about or chooses to ignore these issues and has something go bad as a result of inaction. We all want for everyone to go home from a call in as good a shape as when they responded to it.
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.