Cab Safety Prevents Firefighter Fatalities

Given the unacceptable number of firefighter fatalities while responding to and returning from incidents, a look at cab safety is a natural part of the process to improve firefighter survivability.

A large number of firefighters are also injured slipping and falling while getting into and out of cabs.

There are three primary things fire departments can do to ensure firefighter survivability in a crash. In order of importance they are: make sure everyone uses their seatbelts anytime the apparatus is moving; specify and purchase custom cabs; and make sure there’s no loose equipment in the cab.

The seated and buckled issue is a “no-brainer,” and there’s not much more to add to the discussion that hasn’t already been said. However, in the next revision of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus –  effective in January 2009 – there will a requirement for a seat belt indicator with an audible and visual signal calling attention to any occupied seats where belts are not properly fastened. In addition, the usage of seat belts will be electronically monitored and the data stored for future downloading and analysis.

The use of custom cabs is based on clear evidence from reviews of fire apparatus accidents. When departments are debating the purchase of custom or commercial cabs, the most compelling reason to go with custom is crash worthiness. Take a look at the Web site firefighterclosecalls.com. Take a look under “what’s new” and click on “Close Calls – Apparatus/Vehicle/Highway. Open a few of the articles, look at the pictures and read the stories.

With an occasional exception, you will find that custom cabs hold up very well in crashes while commercial cabs do not – especially in a rollover. Cab integrity is being addressed, to a minimal degree, in the next NFPA 1901 revision. According to that standard, cabs must pass either the European crash standard, ECE Regulation 29, or standards established by the Society of Automotive Engineers, SAE J2420 and SAE J2422.

These standards include both a frontal impact and a cab roof strength test. For example, the static weight applied to the cab roof in the ECE test is equal to the rating of the front axle or a maximum of 22,046 pounds on custom cab apparatus. If a commercial chassis has a 12,000-pound front axle, then the cab roof is only tested to 12,000 pounds.

Custom cabs routinely far exceed these minimum standards. Custom chassis roof cabs routinely have 2.5 to 4 times that test strength. A few manufacturers claim they successfully test up to 100,000 pounds.

Securing cab equipment is also a “no-brainer.” The G-forces emitted during crash propel loose equipment about a cab with potentially lethal results. There is no data on how many injuries occur because of loose equipment. Anecdotally, however, we know that more than a few lacerations, contusions and penetrations from vehicle accidents are caused by loose equipment. In-the-cab video of apparatus rollovers in crash testing shows the dynamics of test dummies being thrown about the cabs. It takes very little imagination to picture the carnage that can result from flying axes, Haligan bars, and other tools and equipment in a crash.

Fully-Enclosed Cabs

History shows enclosed apparatus cabs have resulted in a reduction in firefighter fatalities. Before 1988, three to six firefighters were killed annually from falling off apparatus. Since that time, the average is less than one per year. What happened? The requirement for fully-enclosed cabs and the prohibition of riding the tailboard became effective.

Nevertheless, we still have problems as an average of over 22 firefighters are killed annually while responding to or returning from calls. Out of 406 such victims from 1977 to 2006, more than 76 percent were not belted. A breakdown of the fatalities shows 37.7 percent were in privately owned vehicles (POVs), 22.7 percent in tankers/tenders, 21.7 percent in pumpers, 6.4 percent in ambulances, 2.2 percent in ladders and 9.4 percent in other types of vehicles. Further, the breakdown shows 76.4 percent were volunteers, 14 percent were career, 8.6 percent were employees or contractors for land management agencies,and 1 percent were military or industrial firefighters.

Airbags And Belt Restraints

In addition to the three primary things a fire department can do, there are many other cab safety features to consider. For example, it’s a good idea to consider airbags in apparatus. Now standard on cars, airbags are also available on custom cabs. Airbags can be specified to provide side roll impact and frontal airbags are available from one manufacturer. Airbags, at this moment, are optional and not required by NFPA standards for apparatus.

It’s important to remember airbags are most effective when integrated into the belt restraint system so belts cinch tight against the occupant when the airbags are deployed.

In addition to airbags and belt restraints, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) restraints are improving. If you think you must have your SCBAs in the cab, look at the new products on the market. Many manufacturers have brackets that do not require straps. Pierce has introduced a bracket based on inertia. Manufactured by IMMI, the device is totally hands free and is available to all apparatus makers.

Taking the lead from the bus industry, the fire service is beginning to see improvements in mirrors. Mirrors must be adjustable from the driver’s position, according to the new NFPA standard, and the mirrors should be visible in all weather conditions. If you are using bus-style mirrors, make sure the wiper clears the windshield so all the mirrors are visible. Mirrors should be placed so the driver uses minimal head movement to see them.

Entering And Leaving

Cab ergonomics are getting better too. Many manufacturers are looking at the success of the car industry and are putting controls on the steering wheel. Not only are seats adjustable, but we are now seeing adjustable accelerator and brake pedals.

We still need to see more industry-wide improvements in cab entrance and egress. A firefighter in full turnout gear with SCBA – combined with an adrenalin rush – getting out of the cab is much different than other professions who use trucks.

Consider placing grab rails on the inside of the cab where they are out of the weather and easy to see and grab while exiting. Look at the door latch handles and window handles and consider whether they’ll cause snags. Consider specifying power windows and door locks, and touch pad entry solves the problem of lost door keys. And, it’s always important to make sure the crew can see on-coming traffic before opening a cab door.

Managing Clutter

De-cluttering the cab is also a must. This parallels securing cab equipment. Many new cabs now have storage compartments inside the cab for equipment, which can be accessed from either the inside of the cab or from the exterior or from both.

If there is interior access, be sure there are incentives to keep the door closed during apparatus movement. The next revision of NFPA will require holding devices for helmets as they are not designed to be worn during responses and returns.

Finally, there is no more important component to the cab than the driver. Driver training and driver “checkouts” are not to be neglected because of enhanced safety features. Auto-pilot is still not an option.

To recap, the three primary things fire departments can do to improve chances of firefighter survivability in a crash are; keeping everyone seated and belted whenever the apparatus is moving; specifying a custom cab; and eliminating loose equipment.

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department health and safety officer. He is the chair of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee’s Safety Task Force Group and is on two other NFPA committees, the Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Ensemble Technical Committee and the Technical Correlating Committee for Fire and Emergency Services PPE.

More Fire Apparatus Current Issue Articles
More Fire Apparatus Archives Issue Articles

No posts to display