Designing And Driving Tankers Safely Saves Lives

While attending this year’s Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., I was saddened and frustrated to see family members grieving for loved ones that could have been saved if safety rules had been followed. It is heart wrenching that 20 to 25 percent of all firefighter deaths, each year, is apparatus-related.

These statistics include personally owned vehicle (POV) collisions, apparatus collisions and falls from moving apparatus.

Virtually, all these deaths are preventable. When looking specifically at apparatus collisions, it becomes quite clear that the most dangerous apparatus operated daily by fire departments are tankers or water tenders, depending on the region. For this article, we will use the term tankers.

Tanker Accidents

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) estimates that tankers account for 3 percent of the country’s total fire apparatus, yet they account for 21 percent of the apparatus collision deaths, more than pumpers and aerials combined. During the 2006 Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial Weekend, an event conducted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), several recognized firefighters died because of tanker accidents.

Clearly, the number of tanker-related deaths is directly correlated to how they are driven.

A 2003 report on fatal tanker collisions by the USFA noted that the primary cause of two-thirds of the fatal tanker collisions were directly attributable to the vehicles’ right-side wheels leaving the driving surface. These accidents often occur because the vehicles are driven too fast and the drivers are unable to keep the vehicles on the road.

Reducing Collisions

A number of important factors in tanker design can reduce collisions, injuries and deaths involving these vehicles. This article will focus on the factors that have the biggest impact on apparatus and firefighter safety.

First, let’s consider seatbelts. The number of firefighters who faithfully buckle up when driving their personal vehicles, yet fail to onboard an emergency response vehicle mystifies me.

The reasons they cite are many and varied: the belts have been removed; it is difficult to buckle up wearing turnout gear; the response urgency leaves no time to buckle up; and finally, the misconception that the vehicle’s large size will protect the occupants. Every reason or perception is wrong – dead wrong.

The 2003 USFA tanker report found that 82 percent of firefighters who were fatally injured in tanker collisions were not wearing seat belts. Today that is unacceptable, and reprehensible.

There is absolutely no reason for not having operable seatbelts for every riding position in every fire department vehicle. A 2006 USFA-funded apparatus safety training program, developed by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) encourages firefighters to refuse to ride in, or operate an apparatus unless proper seat belts are provided for every riding position. Even older, retrofit vehicles can have effective seatbelts added.

Until recently, not a lot of thought has been put into designing apparatus seatbelts. Seatbelts can be difficult to don while wear protective clothing. While it may be true, it is not an acceptable excuse. Get it done and buckle up.

Fire service leaders, led by FDNY Lt. Mike Wilbur, are in the early stages of formal research on effective firefighter restraint systems. Their work can’t get done soon enough.

Simply put, the number of firefighter injuries and deaths in tankers and other response vehicles can be reduced, if every tanker has operable seatbelts and every firefighter uses them every time the vehicle is driven.

What’s The Rush?

It is not rocket science, yet the misguided sense of urgency when getting in these trucks, and the ignorance on proper operation and safety is killing firefighters.

Tankers are typically the largest vehicles operated by a fire department and they often handle much differently than other fire department vehicles.

There are many reasons why the vehicles handle so differently, but chief among them is the vehicle’s large weight, coupled with a high center of gravity.

Tankers Are Heavy

The vehicles will be heavy because of the large amount of water they carry. There is little that can be done about that fact except to specify smaller tanks, and that is somewhat counter productive to a tanker’s mission.

What can be controlled is how the vehicle is designed to carry the given amount of water.

Tall vehicles with high centers of gravity are inherently less stable. They are more susceptible to loss of control or overturning, than a vehicle designed with a lower center of gravity.

There are a number of reasons why tankers have excessively high centers of gravity. Among the biggest culprits can be found in home-built tankers. Often, departments fail to recognize the dangers of a high center of gravity and, thus build apparatus that violate that basic law of physics.

This apparatus design error most frequently happens when military surplus vehicles are converted into fire department tankers. By placing a tank in the flatbed of a military personnel hauler, a vehicle with a high center of gravity is created. The problem can be made even worse if the tank has legs.

Spread Water Low

If you are converting a vehicle, do whatever is feasible to spread the water out as low as possible.

Another common problem is fire departments specify apparatus to carry too much water for the vehicle length. This commonly occurs when a fire department has size limitations because of fire station restrictions. Unfortunately, there are some departments that refuse to reduce the amount of water in which they wish the vehicle to carry.

If the vehicle length can’t be extended, there’s only one way to go to increase the tank size – up.

Excessively heavy, overly tall, short wheelbase vehicles are a recipe for disaster. If your department has a need to limit the tanker length, recognize that this should also restrict the amount of water you can safely carry on the vehicle. Getting greedy can have tragic results.

Sometimes departments and apparatus manufacturers simply fail to recognize the hazards of a high center of gravity and fail to lower it when designing new apparatus.

Competitive Nature

Then, there is the old competitive nature of fire departments, dating back to the days of Ben Franklin. Firefighters always want to be bigger, better, “badder” than the next department.

While a little competitiveness is good and it keeps us on our toes, it can translate into counterproductive behaviors. Competing with apparatus designs is one way this occurs. If one department buys a new tanker with a 1,500 gpm pump and 3,000-gallon water tank, their “arch rival” down the street immediately starts drafting the specifications for a 2,000 gpm tanker with a 4,000-gallon water tank.

It is likely that neither department did a proper analysis of what was the appropriate sized tanker for their needs. Many factors determine the optimal tanker size in any given jurisdiction.

Consider these when deciding what tanker to buy: Think about the road conditions, terrain and bridge capacities within the response district.

Next, think about the training level and experience of the department’s apparatus drivers/operators.

Then, review how the tanker will be used. Whether it will be used as an attack vehicle, a water hauler/shuttler or a nurse tanker, all should be evaluated when developing the specifications.

Jurisdictions that routinely measure tankers’ ability to maintain a constant flow of water between a fill site and a dump site consistently find that smaller tankers, in the 2,000 to 2,500 gallon range, are most effective for shuttling water over an extended period incident.

This is because they load faster, dump faster, and are more maneuverable between the two sites than their lumbering, larger counterparts. Tankers with larger tanks capacities are typically better suited for nurse tanker operations.

Challenging To Drive

The larger a tanker is, the more challenging it is to drive, particularly for personnel who do not drive them regularly.

Bigger is not always better and keeping up with (or beating) “the Joneses” can have tragic consequences. Spend time realistically examining what is best for your community and department. Often, a 2,500-gallon tanker is better than a 4,000-gallon model.

The fire service dwells a lot on speed and efficiency. There is a perception, which is really a misconception, that maximum speed and quickness is always important.

We treat every call like it is a dire emergency and drive every vehicle like life, death, and property depend on saving every second possible.

Realistically, this is not the case. Every call is not a dire emergency.

Many fire departments have adopted modified response policies that allow for non-emergency rate responses to certain calls, such as odor investigations, automatic fire alarms and similar calls.

These departments have shown dramatic improvement in apparatus accident rates with little or no adverse impact to the public they serve. Simply stated, more people are NOT dying and more buildings are NOT burning down because they turned off their lights and sirens and drove at normal rates to select calls.

As well, we must recognize that even on true emergency calls, such as a structure fire, every fire department vehicle that is responding to the incident does not necessarily have to drive at emergency rate driving conditions with lights and sirens sounding. It can certainly be argued that tankers fall in the category of vehicles that may not need to respond to most calls using lights, sirens, and emergency driving tactics.

There is one exception. Pumper/tankers used as attack apparatus are likely to be among the first apparatus to arrive at a scene and begin firefighting operations, and can be justifiably operated under emergency response conditions. The operator, however, must remember the vehicle’s size and make sure to drive appropriately.

Tankers Are Supporters

Tankers, not used for attack, most often fall into the support vehicle category. Their mission is to provide support to the primary attack vehicles.

There is no argument that initial response attack vehicles must arrive on the scene as expediently, and as safely as possible to maximize the saving of lives and/or property.

Realistically, it will make little difference in the incident outcome if the “second wave” of vehicles (which is where tankers typically fall) that will support the initial attack vehicles, take an extra minute or two to arrive. Typically, the difference between operating at an emergency rate and following the normal traffic flow translates into one or two minutes of saved time.

No doubt, there are some traditionalists chomping at the bit, ready to send letters of dissent to the editor, arguing how important it is for tankers to save every second while getting to the scene.

Before firing up the computer, ask yourself this question – how many times has the water on board a water shuttle or nurse tanker made the difference between life and death? I am not talking about saving some property; I am talking about saving a fire victim’s life.

Most fire departments following risk management principles use the simple guidelines established by NFPA 1500, in International Fire Service Training Association manuals and other similar locations.

There are three simple guidelines and they are as follows: we will take significant or calculated risks to our lives to protect savable victims; we will take only inherent risks to protect savable property; and we will risk nothing to save lives or property that is already lost.

Take those principles and apply the risk management philosophy to driving tankers at an emergency rate, which is one of the deadliest activities performed by firefighters.

Water in the tankers, which are second, third, fourth, or later, will not save lives.

If the first arriving attack companies haven’t saved the lives pretty quickly upon arrival, the tanker water will not make a difference in life safety.

Avoid Risks

Accordingly, there is no reason to take significant risk in driving the tanker, and given the fact that tankers are the most deadliest fire apparatus in the US fire fleet, there is no reason to drive it at an emergency rate, especially if it isn’t going to save lives.

On some incidents, the tanker may make a difference regarding property. The risk management model, however, dictates that only inherent risks will be taken to protect savable property. Simply driving the tanker down the street at a normal rate is taking the inherent risks. Upgrading to a Code 3 response is more than an inherent risk. If following the risk management model, there is no reason to operate a water shuttle or nurse tanker at an emergency rate when responding to incidents.

Yellow Warning Lights

An interesting trend has developed in many departments. They’re coming to the conclusion that given their new policies, traditional warning lights and sirens on tankers are unnecessary.

The Orange County Fire Authority in Southern California recently bought several water tenders equipped only with amber (yellow) warning lights and no sirens.

In talking with a friend, who is a chief officer in a department, he explained his department had concluded that the dangers of operating tenders at an emergency rate far outweighed the tactical advantages. They had changed all their department policies to require all tenders to be under non-emergency driving conditions. The only reason tankers have any lights is for safety purposes when they are parked along roadways or operated in smoky areas.

The concept of driving tankers at a reduced speed, or designing them without emergency lights and sirens likely seems unfathomable to traditionalists convinced that every second counts for every responding vehicle.

Unfortunately, it is this failure to change our thinking – our culture really – that causes 100 or more families show up in Emmitsburg every year, year after year, to see their loved one’s name carved into granite.

Personally, I would much rather see you attend next year’s ceremony than your family. Safer tanker design and operational principles are one way to ensure this.

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