Apparatus Purchasing: Steps and Specs

“Apparatus Purchasing” last addressed access steps in October 2012. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard on Automotive Fire Apparatus (2009 ed.), was in effect then and still is today.

Nothing has changed concerning minimum sizes, slip resistance, or spacing. Requirements for handrails, access ladders, and work platforms are the same. Recent apparatus deliveries show firefighters may still be “inconvenienced” when entering and exiting some chassis cabs. Safely climbing onto a rig to access equipment is still challenging. Squaring off the back ends of pumpers and eliminating rear steps have resulted in many manufacturers providing access ladders. Others still provide fabricated and folding steps that are minimally sized just to meet NFPA 1901. When they are stacked vertically in-line above each other, climbing them is like climbing a pompier ladder. Good luck.

Unless somebody gets hurt, little attention is paid to steps. Then, finger pointing starts. Apparatus manufacturers (OEMs) are usually faulted until someone points out the fire department wrote the specifications (specs)-including the step requirements.

At recent trade shows, I saw many types of materials used for stepping surfaces. I show no preference or recommend one in lieu of another. This article addresses common NFPA-compliant stepping surfaces and how purchasing specifications sometimes fail to adequately describe them. When fire departments are not specific in detailing step sizes, materials, and locations, manufacturers are only bound to comply with NFPA 1901’s minimum requirements.


The terms treadplate, tread bright, diamond plate, grip strut, bustin insert, open grating, and perforated steps are often used generically for materials similar to trademarked products. As an example, Grip Strut® is a trademarked product of B-Line Products by Cooper Industries. Bustin Industrial Products manufactures open steel and aluminum grating-both commonly called bustin inserts. McNichols manufactures Diamondback® stepping surfaces and Perf-O Grip®, which, according to the company, is a “grating with a unique surface of large debossed holes and perforated buttons to provide slip resistance.” Industrial Metal Supply’s Web site says aluminum treadplate comes in two alloys and three styles. Spec writers should check its informative site.

Jim Kirvida, of CustomFIRE, says, “Today’s NFPA-compliant four-way Treadplate, called 3003H22 TB FTQ (3003 alloy/H-22 temper/Tread Brite/Fire Truck Quality), is nothing more than the original C-104 pattern aluminum treadplate. But instead of the raised diamonds having sharp top ridges, the tops are flattened and are left with very slight cross-sectional gashes.” Unless otherwise noted, all materials referenced herein are NFPA 1901 compliant for slip resistance. Technocrats and safety gurus desiring comprehensive data should refer to NFPA 1901; any of the aforementioned metal suppliers; and the “Firefighter Tread Plate Slip Resistance Study” done by William Marletta, PhD, CSP, in 1999 for the NFPA Committee on Fire Apparatus.

Historically, running boards were made of wood (photo 1). Steel treadplate followed with progressive manufacturers such as Young Fire Apparatus using perforated mild steel called Morton Cass in the early 1970s (photo 2). Aluminum treadplate became the industry standard for steps and running boards and still is. For unknown reasons, stainless steel treadplate is seldom seen.

OEMs purchase complete steps from outside suppliers or they fabricate their own. Those manufacturing their own usually outsource the actual stepping surface material. Several fabricate everything in-house. Purchasers should use caution. If you desire a particular trademarked product, spell it out explicitly in your specs. Be aware that potential bidders may not be familiar with local or regional terminology. A purchaser’s nebulous description allows OEMs to provide whatever material they interpret the purchaser as wanting.


Some OEMs’ suggested purchasing specs for stepping surfaces are equally, and sometimes purposefully, ambiguous, allowing them to supply a multitude of materials. It could be the OEM’s standard, the least expensive, or whatever the OEMs are overstocked with. Exact examples of manufacturers’ and purchasers’ specifications are quoted below. My comments are in italics. All material referenced below is presumed to be NFPA 1901 compliant for slip resistance.

  • “All steps shall be covered with material that meets or exceeds the NFPA requirements for stepping surfaces.” Any material meets this, including those that could be sprayed, glued, or painted on.
  • “Aggressive Walking Surface: All exterior surfaces designated as stepping, standing, and walking areas shall comply with the average slip resistance of current NFPA standards.” Any material also meets this one.
  • “The top of each step shall be covered with aluminum treadplate trim.” This is self-explanatory.
  • “They shall be fabricated of polished aluminum treadplate with nonslip pattern.” This is self-explanatory.
  • “The top surface of the steps shall be covered with nonskid aluminum treadplate trim.” This is self-explanatory.
  • “The steps shall be provided with a grip strut tread material.” Because a trademarked product isn’t identified, any material with an open grating works. It could be steel, stainless steel, or aluminum-even fiberglass if it meets NFPA criteria.
  • “The step(s) shall incorporate a safety grip stepping surface with proper drainage to allow use in inclement weather.” Any “open” material meets this.
  • “All stepping surfaces on the trim package shall be in accordance with NFPA by including a non-skid Bustin tread welded insert installed into the NPFA-compliant embossed aluminum diamond plate. (NO EXCEPTIONS.)” Bustin® only? What is embossed diamond plate?
  • “The steps leading to the pump operator panel and seating positions shall be aluminum grip strut steps.” Grip Strut® only?
  • “The first step closest to the ground shall be constructed of 14-gauge 304 stainless steel or equivalent with indented perforations and offset from the middle step. The perforations shall allow water and other debris to flow through rather than becoming trapped within the stepping surface.” Perf-O Grip® or OEM-fabricated?
  • “It shall incorporate a ventilated ‘Diamondback’ material with an extruded stepping surface.” Diamondback® only?

Terms such as aggressive, safety grip, nonslip, and nonskid cannot be measured, evaluated, or compared. Save the ink and leave them out of purchasing specs.

Cab Steps

In photo 3, the size “openings” in the raised portions of the bustin-type material on this chassis vary from the upper and lower step. It’s unknown why the leading edges of the upper step are tapered while the bottom edges are not. An outsourced perforated material with tapered edges is shown in photo 4. Photos 5 and 6 show steps with identical open-style grating.

One specification reads: “The cab shall incorporate a progressive two-step configuration from the ground to the cab floor at each door opening. The progressive steps are vertically staggered and extend the full width of each step well, allowing personnel in full firefighting gear to enter and exit the cab easily and safely.” Both steps in photos 5 and 6 are staggered, but one is offset more than the other. If a purchaser wants steps to be offset, the purchaser should specify a minimum distance. Photo 7 shows a 10-year-old rig with the same step material. However, the steps were not specified to be staggered. It’s hard getting out of this cab.

Some OEMs fabricate aluminum treadplate cab steps with individualized “perforations.” Photo 7 shows perforated aluminum treadplate on a pumper, and photo 8 shows another manufacturer’s version. Ask the dealers to explain the differences in the “holes.”

Photos 10 and 11 each show three steps leading into separate custom cabs. Photo 10 has a full-width treadplate top step, a tapered bustin-type middle step, and a tapered treadplate bottom step with what appears to be elongated drain holes. Photo 11 has a full-width treadplate top step, a tapered perforated middle step, and a square bustin bottom step. I don’t know why different materials are used and why some steps are tapered and others are not.

A specification for auxiliary steps reads: “Lower cab access steps shall be provided. One grip strut step shall be installed below each cab door for a total of four steps.” Photo 11 is a fabricated auxiliary step rigidly attached below a front cab door. It hit something-it “bottomed out”-oops. Photo 12 shows how one manufacturer provided a degree of flexibility in the bottom step.

Ask your favorite apparatus salesperson if the angles of approach and departure on his rig include all low hanging auxiliary steps. He may squirm if asked if his overall width (OAW) measurement includes all the cab steps. Photo 14 shows steps on a Pierce cab, and photo 15 shows them on a Rosenbauer. Almost all custom cabs and bodies come in different widths. However, vendors should be able to provide that information. In real tight firehouses, mirrors can be “swung inward.” Steps can’t.

Photos 16 and 17 show a Rosenbauer SmartCab door configuration. The crew cab entry steps are fabricated into the swinging door assembly. It’s not part of the body or cab. Steps do not protrude from the body in the closed position. It’s a unique idea.

OEM-Fabricated Stepping Surfaces

OEMs that fabricate proprietary stepping surfaces may call them by unique names, which may or may not be trademarked. E-ONE’s aluminum treadplate design was commonly called Gator Grip. CustomFIRE calls its puncture-fabricated stainless stepping surfaces Laser Grip. HME calls its stainless stepping surfaces by the same name (photo 27).

Kirvida says, “Purchasers should pay close attention to the technical descriptions when multiple manufacturers use a similar, or even the same, moniker to describe a unique fabrication. Our specifications are very specific, detailing a base metal of #4 finish (brushed) type 304 stainless steel, which is machined in-house with a strategically placed laser-cut pattern. Then a stamped ‘dimple’ is formed upward at the same location as each cut pattern” (photo 19).

Purchasers using unfamiliar technical terminology to describe machining can cause chaos with OEMs. One example is embossing metal, which creates a raised effect, while debossing creates an indented impression. One’s good for gripping and one’s better for draining. As previously mentioned, use caution with regional and generic terminology, because what a fire department thinks it is describing may not be what a bidder interprets it to be.

NFPA Compliance

NFPA 1901 sentence says, “The contractor shall deliver with the fire apparatus a certification that all materials used for exterior surfaces designated as stepping, standing and walking areas, all interior steps, and all interior floors shall meet the requirements of 15.7.4.” Buyers, beware. OEMs must supply certification from the manufacturer of each type of stepping surface supplied (photos 10 and 11). In photo 11, the cab floor’s surface is different than the material on each of the three steps. Consequently, four separate certifications are required. It could even be more if the running boards, tailboard, and auxiliary access steps are different.

If an OEM manufactures its own stepping surface, the OEM must provide a separate certification for it. To keep everyone honest, purchasers should require third-party certification. Do purchasers actually look for stepping surface certifications when apparatus are delivered? If a firefighter slips on a step and nosedives off a rig, the certification might come in handy.

Think Outside the Box

Unfortunately, some spec writers consider access steps as merely necessary evils mandated by the NFPA. Regrettably, cost sometimes takes precedent over accident prevention and safety. Progressive fire departments demand-and some OEMs voluntarily promote-steps that are safe and easy to use. Photos 18, 19, and 20 show variations of OEM-fabricated rear access steps where the square footage of stepping area exceeds NFPA requirements. Photo 18 shows a Pierce with aluminum treadplate steps that are staggered, making them easy to climb. One protects the vertically stacked lights. Photo 19 shows the stamping and machining detail on the tailboard and staggered stainless steel steps on a CustomFIRE pumper. The vertical climbing distance between these steps is much less than the maximum allowed by NFPA 1901. Photo 20 shows a 4 Guys extra wide step with a bustin insert that also protects horizontally positioned rear lights.

Some steps are designed to perform double duty. The pump house on the rig in photo 21 features a full-width hose well with a treadplate cover and a full-width, flip-down, open-grating-style auxiliary step in the up position. Photo 22 shows the cover raised and the step in the down position. Purchasers should be specific in detailing the particulars of the steps desired.

Each running board compartment on the rig featured in photos 23, 24, and 25 supplied by Rescue 1 has a full-width, flip-down access step with open grip-strut grating. Rescue 1’s Mike Marquis, vice president, sales/rescue division, says this rig has an extendable roll-down awning and is also used for rehab, so the customer specified removable seat cushions for each step. If purchasing specs just read, “One access step shall be provided,” a vendor can supply a step sized like the one in photo 26. Photo 27 shows HME’s in-house fabricated stainless steel tailboard, and photo 28 shows one version of a Diamondback® tailboard on a Spartan ER vehicle. Photo 29 shows an “applied” textured finish on a front-bumper extension. If this is a designated stepping surface, the manufacturer should certify that the finish is compliant with NFPA 1901.

Stepping surfaces are not as exciting to talk about as red lights, sirens, hose loads, and aerial ladders. Despite sounding mundane and boring, access steps are used every single time firefighters climb into, onto, or off of their work platform-the fire truck. Spec writers are obligated to ensure firefighters can safely do so. Write your step specs carefully.

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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