Cantankerous Wisdom: Nosebleeds, Splinters, and Weight Ratios

By Bill Adams

The caption for the adjoining photograph could be Pull the Left Rear Preconnect. I’d say You pull it—I might get a nosebleed climbing that high to reach it. In all fairness, I don’t know if that left side bed is preconnected or not. Each department has its own priorities when laying out its fire trucks. Most are justifiable. They shouldn’t be second guessed. But, it’s fun to do so—especially if you’re old enough to think you can get away with it. If the hose load is that high by design, so be it. If it ended up being that high because someone didn’t do a proper job writing their specs, then that’s another…ah never mind.

I read in an article the other day that the first sliding pole in a fire station was invented in Chicago in 1878 by career Captain David Kenyon of Engine Number 21. I thought brass sliding poles were always brass. The first one started out as a 4×4 shaped into round wooden pole, three inches in diameter, sanded smooth, varnished, and coated with paraffin. I hope it was sanded smooth. A splinter could’ve resulted in a lot of sopranos riding number 21.

The new 2016 edition of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, is out. Three sentences, identical to the 2009 edition, are worth pointing out under sentence 4.13.2 Weight Distribution—one of my personal pet peeves.* “When the fire apparatus is loaded to its estimated in-service weight, the front-to-rear weight distribution shall be within the limits set by the chassis manufacturer.” “The front axle loads shall not be less than the minimum axle loads specified by the chassis manufacturer under full load and all other loading conditions.”

A. “The distribution of the weight between the front wheels and the rear wheels should be a major consideration, because improper design will seriously affect the handling characteristics of the fire apparatus. Too little weight on the front wheels can cause a front end skid and, on bumpy roads, can cause the front of the apparatus to veer from side to side. At the very least, it would be difficult to keep the fire apparatus under control. Too much weight on the front wheels reduces the traction of the rear wheels and can result in a rear-end skid or difficulty in traveling over unpaved roads or in mud.”

The asterisk denotes that a sentence, in this case A., is in the appendix, which explains why a proper front-to-rear axle weight ratio is so important. It is not something as trivial as carrying an ancillary piece of equipment like an ax or a pike pole, having a certain cubic footage for preconnected hose, or whether vehicle data recorder software is compatible with Windows and Apple operating systems. They are talking about getting the damn rig SAFELY to the scene. I concur 100 percent with the NFPA on this one and authored a piece several years ago about front-to-rear weight distribution in Fire Engineering.

I don’t think the industry or the fire service has given much thought to the NFPA’s front-to-rear load distribution requirements. Is it a percentage ratio? Is it a figure based on each gross axle weight rating (GAWR)? Is it in writing anywhere? The wrinkle squad at the morning firehouse coffee clutch can’t figure it out either.

In reviewing a dozen recent purchasing specifications recently, it appears fire departments merely reference applicable NFPA requirements and say manufacturers must meet them. Most of those specifications were spinoffs of manufacturers’ specs. Actually determining in writing what those ratios are supposed to be may never be addressed unless—Lord forbid—there’s some sort of litigation because of an accident.


• NFPA 1901 says that when you load your fire truck, you have to meet the front-to-rear weight ratio set by the chassis manufacturer. Does it? Do you know what it is? Is it documented?

• Look in your factory delivery papers. Can you find where the manufacturer told you what the minimum weight is that you have to keep on the front axle of your fire truck?

• The NFPA appendix says you are responsible for properly loading the equipment on your fire truck to meet the front-to-rear weight distribution and you have to “verify that the gross vehicle weight and axle weight distribution are within the chassis and axle ratings.” Did you or can you?

The late Bob Barraclough was a former member of the NFPA 1901 Technical Committee on Fire Apparatus and president of Best Fire Apparatus Resource Incorporated. A good friend, he was well respected for his fire service knowledge and enthusiasm in promoting fire apparatus safety. He always acknowledged that complying with NFPA standards was voluntary. Paraphrasing what he said in a piece, fire departments are wise to stay in compliance with NFPA guidelines. If there is an accident where a truck is not up to NFPA standards, it will go to court. The first thing a good lawyer—any lawyer, even a bad lawyer—will do is pick up copies of the NFPA standards to suggest liability.

Remember the canopy grab rail lawsuit that put Peter Pirsch out of business? Fire departments are not immune from liability. Please don’t kill the messenger. 

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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