Commentary: The Height of Uselessness

By Bill Adams

Some dictionary definitions of uselessness include ineffectiveness, inefficiency and impracticality. Pick one and apply it to the way some people design fire apparatus. Those people might include past their prime specification writers whose last ride on a fire truck had their feet resting on a buckboard. Others could be fire service members who are not, are no longer, or have never been active firefighters. But, they get to decide how and where to store equipment on a rig. Equally culpable are vendors who promote an apparatus that is easier and more financially beneficial for them to sell than it is practical for the fire department to utilize. “Don’t worry about laying out the equipment until you get it home—I’m on to the next deal.” Naiveté is merely reading a set of compartment specifications or looking at a rig’s compartmentation on a blueprint without inquiring if it will be safe, easy and efficient for firefighters to access the equipment stored on it.

Too High?
Some equipment is stored so high it can’t be easily removed. Is it at 5-foot or 6-foot from the ground, somewhere in between, or even higher? Tiny, the 6’6” 225-pound chauffer on the ladder truck has a bit longer reach than the 125-pound 5’2” firefighter riding on Engine 6.

The blueprint might show a shelf 54 inches from the bottom of a compartment that holds a 20-pound submersible pump. That seems like a reachable height until you realize that compartment’s floor is 25 inches from ground level. Engine 6’s chauffer should be able to reach a shelf over 6 feet from ground level but will he have the strength to lift that pump up 2 inches to clear the lip of the shelf and safely retrieve it. What looked good on the blueprint might make a mess out of that firefighter’s smile if the pump is dropped.

The Tailboard
Whose brilliant idea was it to eliminate the tailboard from pumpers? Also known as the rear step, it served as an ideal work platform when or if required to reload hose or access equipment stored up high at the rear of the apparatus. Some spec writers only specify access steps that just meet the standards. They should be the ones who have to balance one foot on a 35-square-inch step while retrieving a 10-foot length of hard suction. Today, purchasers clamor for more compartment space to store more equipment. Perhaps they ought to prioritize safely and efficiently accessing equipment needed to secure a water supply or get that first attack line in service.

One of the most beneficial uses of the tailboard is to mount whatever hydrant “make-up” equipment such as wrenches and valve(s) are carried—regardless of whether it is held in a box, bucket, or bag. Usually, the open butt of the supply line or lines, often with a hydrant valve preconnected, is extended down to the tailboard and safely secured. Companies that opt to pull an extra fold of hose when making a plug can use a rope or strap hanging down—accessible from the ground.

A firefighter should be able to walk up to the tailboard and grab everything needed to hit the plug and walk away. A tailboard along with common sense should make the task quick, easy, and less prone to injury. There shouldn’t be a need to climb up on the rig or open a door to access the hydrant make-up or make two trips to the plug. Good luck to the firefighter who must retrieve the hydrant bag from a side compartment—possibly in a traffic lane.

Many pumpers have rear hosebed covers/restraints to prevent inadvertently losing a hose load while responding. How many departments spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a pumper and end up with a firefighter having to climb up the back of the rig to unfasten the hose restraint to access the supply line or an attack line. Brilliant. We can safely send people to the moon and back but can’t design a fire truck to safely access primary equipment from the ground.

Low Hosebeds
There’s no doubt low hosebeds look good and certainly are efficient when a firefighter can walk up to a rig and reach, pull, stretch, or shoulder load the number of folds necessary for the task at hand. A consideration to consider is reloading a low hosebed, some of which can be up to 48-inches deep. The wingspan of most firefighters is around 3 feet. Besides the supply line, there could be several beds holding only a single tier of hose. Reloading may be difficult especially if there isn’t a hosebed walkway.

Utopia is a place somewhere between a wish and a dream. If apparatus purchasing committees would ask the hydrant man or the nozzleman (equally gender neutral) how they would like to access their primary tools, it might make for a better fire truck. Ditto for the black coat you send to retrieve the submersible pump or smoke ejector. If a firefighter has to climb onto the fire truck to access a primary piece of equipment, someone did a lousy job laying out the rig. How well an equipment layout works on the fireground depends on the time expended in designing it.

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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