This and last month’s columns were prompted by several “public inputs” (formerly public proposals) to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Apparatus Technical Committee in September 2013. Interested parties submitted the public inputs to try to improve the cramped conditions.
Unfortunately, the committee rejected all of the public inputs. The reason for the rejections was the same for all: “It is not possible to build to those dimensions in the current configurations commonly used, especially in the officer’s seating area.” The use of the words “commonly used” is most interesting. The entire premise of the public inputs was to improve what is “commonly used.”
During the second draft meeting (public comment) of the Technical Committee this past July, J. Gordon Routley, division chief, Montreal Fire Department, made an in-person plea to the committee to at least increase the minimum seat width from 22 to 28 inches. As a reminder, the substantiation for the public comment was based on detailed scientific evidence of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study titled, “Safe Seating and Seat Belts in Fire Apparatus: Anthropometric Aspect.” Anthropometry deals with human body measurements. The study indicated that a minimum width of 28 inches is required to accommodate 95 percent of firefighters wearing personal protective equipment. The current 22-inch minimum accommodates just fewer than 50 percent of firefighters.
NFPA Technical Committee Decision
The committee’s unanimous decision regarding increasing the width to 28 inches was to “hold for further study.” What else is there to study? This is not a new issue. The committee learned of the situation more than eight years ago. And, the committee has probably never been presented with as much science-based evidence to accept a public input before. Historically, the committee has regularly used lack of scientific evidence as a reason to reject public input-and rightly so. And, it has accepted public input on anecdotal evidence-and rightly so-when it seemed entirely logical.
The committee also rejected a compromise suggestion to increase the seating width to 28 inches for just the back seats of the cab. One of the reasons was that it would eliminate 10-person cabs. How many emergency responses are made each year with 10 firefighters on board? Maybe it happens occasionally if a volunteer or combination department is having a training session at the station when it receives a call.
The discussion in the meeting room was puzzling to say the least. The truth, as stated on more than one occasion, is that there are custom apparatus on the market today that meet the proposed 28-inch minimum seat width standard. Granted, there are very few. Yet with every mention of this fact, the room collectively ignored the statement. It was like one of those political television talk shows when one side “nails the other side.” The other side ignores the “nailing” and quickly diverts the discussion. More disturbing were the position and comments from the fire service representatives on the committee. Except for one comment, they were in “lock step” with the position against the proposed 28-inch minimum.
In defense of fire apparatus manufacturers, they are not in an easy position. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations have caused an increase in the overall dimensions of the engine compartment. Despite some valid reasons, the fire service gets no exemptions from the EPA like certain military vehicles do.
Many manufacturers have dedicated significant time and resources to improving custom cab ergonomics. Seat and shoulder harness configurations have improved in recent years. And, I acknowledge that a complete redesign of a custom cab is expensive and typically takes about three years to complete. Manufacturers that have taken a proactive approach and have cabs with wider seat dimensions are to be commended. Note that this is not a seat manufacturer issue but a cab configuration issue.
Furthermore, manufacturers are also absolutely correct when they say that the fire service is not demanding wider seating positions. Why is it that way when surveys indicate firefighters want more room? Fire departments may inquire about more room, but they do not press the issue. There are various reasons for this. The fire service has historically taken what has been provided without asking why or why not. Maybe firefighters are conditioned to think their seating positions are supposed to be an afterthought. Our history includes riding the tailboard, canopy cabs, and open cabs. And, many departments value going from zero to 60 miles per hour over occupant protection. Consequently, these departments specify the biggest and most powerful engines available. These engines require a lot of real estate inside a custom cab. Is your department willing to give up a little horsepower or other in-cab considerations for better seating configurations?
Remember Life Safety Initiative 16: “Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of 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.).