The fire service is known for its ability to improvise and do more with less. This is particularly true with volunteer fire departments. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, when the majority of volunteer fire departments were formed, the mindset of the Greatest Generation was: “Why buy it when you can make it?”
This mind-set, along with inadequate funding, is the reason many fire departments continue to make or modify firefighting equipment. Or firefighters use equipment in a manner that is not intended – you know, the “Hey, watch this” moments. As a wise old midwife once told me, “poor folks has (sic) poor ways.”
Easily the biggest culprit in the category of home-made or modified equipment responsible for killing and injuring firefighters is tankers, or tenders. This line of apparatus is notorious for home-made rigs or adapting tanker trucks that were built for fuel oil or milk delivery. Plenty has been written and documented about that.
As the cost of firefighting equipment has far exceeded the cost of inflation in recent decades, often a decision is made to improvise, modify, self-build or do without. Of course, “doing without” is not in the DNA of a firefighter.
Propensity To Litigate
A major societal change that has occurred since most fire departments were formed is the propensity to litigate everything. Human mistakes and product failures have kept the “feeding trough” of prosecutors and lawyers overflowing. This is clearly evidenced by all the warning labels, signs, notices and advisories on our equipment. As we have traversed the litigation age, it has become painfully obvious that “failure to warn” is solid ground for a lawsuit.
What are the implications for the fire service? Quite simply, higher costs for product liability insurance for equipment manufacturers that are passed along to customers. And the higher costs force us to look for cheaper ways.
We take on enough liability by the nature of our business without assuming additional risks. Suppose your department decides to modify a piece of equipment, make its own equipment or substitute a similar product that was not designed for fire service use. Are there standards for that equipment? Are there certifications for that equipment? Does that equipment have care and use standards? Remember comedian Bill Engvall’s famous trademark line – “Here’s your sign.” Don’t do it.
A few years ago, a well-intentioned mother of a firefighter in my department started making firefighter hoods and selling them to firefighters in the area. Apparently she had access to Nomex knit material and was skilled as a seamstress. She was selling the hoods considerably below market price. Once she learned of the product standards (including design and performance), product certification through third party testing and the certainty of a thorough investigation of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the event of a line-of-duty death, she decided her assets were not worth the risk of making a few bucks. Though she was well-intentioned and meant no harm to anyone, there were firefighters who were equally uninformed about the risks of purchasing the hoods.
There are many similar case studies. For example, in reviewing www.firefighternearmiss.com, the following “close calls” were found:
“I hope this info helps prevent a similar type incident from occurring in your department. It seems sometimes no matter how much you brief or have procedures set in place, things still happen that leave you shaking your head. This is one of those times.
“We have a modified hose cap set up to fill fire hose with compressed air so it can be used as a flotation device during water rescue or for a boom during a Haz-Mat response. During the daily vehicle/equipment checkout, 2 firefighters decided that they were going to test it to determine if the threads on the airline coupling were long enough to work with [name deleted] SCBA air cylinders. Instead of connecting a regulator and using a fire hose, they just capped off the hose connection. When they opened the 4,500-psi air cylinder charging the high pressure line (the cylinder knob never made it more than a half turn), the cap set exploded like a mini pipe bomb into three pieces.
“One piece stayed in place, attached to the bottle. The larger of the two struck FF [A] in the right shin, and then hit FF [B] in the left shin. The smaller piece also hit FF [A] just below the first point of impact. Both individuals were taken to the hospital with injuries. FF [B] was cleared and returned to duty soon after. However serious these injuries may be, we had Saint Florian watching over us and are extremely lucky that they weren’t gravely injured. The shear force of the larger piece of the equipment flying through the air could have killed someone.”
Another close call involved a substitute stepladder.
“After the fire was extinguished we began to check the structure attic for fire extension. The homeowner had a 10-foot stepladder sitting at the attic access. The firefighter used that ladder rather than getting our ladder off the truck, which is our policy.
“As he was climbing back down the ladder a rung came loose and he began to fall. He was caught by another firefighter standing behind him, keeping him from falling to the ground and getting injured.”
A third close call resulted from help offered by a well-intentioned good Samaritan.
“After pumping 103,000 gallons through the master stream on our aerial ladder at a barn fire, the soil around the truck became saturated, and the truck was unable to move. The farmer attempted to pull the truck out with a tractor and chain. The chain broke sending one end into the windshield of the ladder truck. The truck was occupied, but the chain did not penetrate through the windshield.”
These incidents and others raise a number of key points to remember.
Never, never use PPE unless it has been certified to the appropriate National Fire Protection Association standard by a recognized independent third party certification organization. (This includes items such as goggles and extrication gloves.)
Be especially reluctant to make or modify any piece of equipment that operates under pressure or is electrically energized. The same is true if the equipment requires extensive training.
Never use a product in a manner that was not intended.
Before making or modifying any equipment, read the labels and warnings for a similar piece of equipment that is available in the marketplace. Would you or your department assume the liability that the manufacturer has assumed? If that question is raised, “Here’s your sign.”
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 a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee 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.