Custom Cabs: Future

Robert Tutterow   Robert Tutterow

For the past two months, this column has been about the cramped seating conditions inside most custom cabs.

The topic has been an issue for the past eight years and was one of the hot topics this past July at a meeting of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Technical Committee on Fire Department Apparatus. A recently released National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study, “Safe Seating and Seat Belts in Fire Apparatus: Anthropometric Study,” clearly indicated that the minimum seat width for 95 percent of firefighters to have adequate room to buckle a seat belt is 28 inches. The current minimum is 22 inches-a width that many custom cabs barely meet. Anthropometry refers to a study of body measurements. This particular study involved measuring almost 1,000 firefighters from across the country with and without turnout gear. The Technical Committee received a “public input” to increase the width to the 28-inch minimum standard. The input did not pass the vote of the committee. For reasons discussed in the prior two months, it had no support. The official committee action was to “hold for further study.”

According to the NFPA standards development process, “hold for further study” means the proposal will automatically be brought up again for the next revision-in three to five years but most likely in five years. Unless the fire service begins to insist on wider seating configurations, the issue will likely be rejected again because of the same arguments presented this past year. The NFPA process will not allow an input or comment to be held for further study more than once.

Fresh Cab Design Approach

NFPA standards can be used to advance improved design and technological changes, especially for safety issues. Some NFPA technical committees are more proactive than others when setting standards to advance a problematic issue. The NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Department Apparatus has a very conservative approach to standards revision. It will typically only make changes that every apparatus manufacturer already does or can very easily accommodate.

The “hold for further study” was a way for the committee to “kick the can down the road.” The chances of “further study” are slim and none, and the safe bet is on none. Firefighters aren’t likely to shrink in the next five years. A more appropriate term would be “hold for further development,” but that is not a choice in the NFPA standards development process.

It will be interesting to see if any, or how many, manufacturers aggressively and proactively address the issue. More importantly, though, will be whether or not firefighters and fire departments start insisting on adequate seating width. As I said in previous columns, there are very few custom cabs that currently meet the proposed 28-inch minimum width. Improvement will likely require a fresh approach to cab design. Maybe the European designs can be modified to suit the North American fire service. At one time, John Dennis Coachbuilders, in the United Kingdom, made apparatus without frame rails by using truss construction. This allowed the engine to be lowered by several inches. There have also been apparatus designed around a rear-engine-mount bus chassis. Maybe a fresh approach to engine cooling and serviceability for midengine mounts needs consideration. If the fire service fails to press the issue, the manufacturers will assume all is well. This will result in the same discussion for the next NFPA revision cycle and will again result in no progress. Unfortunately, the substantiation for not changing will be the same: “It is not possible to build to those dimensions in the current configurations commonly used, especially in the officer’s seating area.” The North American fire service really needs “noncurrent” configurations.

A note of caution: If the increased seat width should become a reality, the costs for custom apparatus will likely increase. Although some might be quick to blame the NFPA for the price increase, there is history to show that is not exactly the case. For example, Gary Handwerk’s August 2008 article “The Cost Of Safety: NFPA 1901 Standards” (“> called out manufacturers who were saying that changes in NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus (2009 ed.), would increase the cost of apparatus by as much as $20,000. However, Handwerk conducted an item-by-item cost breakdown of the new requirements and found the price to be closer to $8,000.

Most logically minded people understand the safety benefits of being seated and buckled. The fire service has advocated this for the past generation. If firefighters are expected to be seated and belted, then everything possible should be done to facilitate that process. I concluded last month’s column by saying, “Remember Life Safety Initiative 16: ‘Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.’ ” Perhaps that initiative should be modified to read, “Safety must be the primary consideration in the design and specifying of fire apparatus and equipment.”

ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).

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