Expanding Role Of ATVs Raises Issues Of Safety

Robert TutterowBy Robert Tutterow

All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) – sometimes referred to as UVs (utility vehicles) – have grown very popular in the past 25 years. They are used as both work and recreational vehicles, and the fire service is benefitting from their capabilities.

This utility vehicle by Summit tows a trailer for rescue. The UV and trailer can seat a crew of nine or transport three patients.
This utility vehicle by Summit tows a trailer for rescue. The UV and trailer can seat a crew of nine or transport three patients.
This ATV, which was exhibited at Interschutz last summer, is equipped with a high-pressure extinguishing system.
This ATV, which was exhibited at Interschutz last summer, is equipped with a high-pressure extinguishing system.
ASAP Off Road Specialty Vehicles makes a mini-ambulance with a fully enclosed driving cab (above) and an ATV equipped to fight wildfires (below).
ASAP Off Road Specialty Vehicles makes a mini-ambulance with a fully enclosed driving cab (above) and an ATV equipped to fight wildfires (below).
ASAP Off Road Specialty Vehicles makes a mini-ambulance with a fully enclosed driving cab (above) and an ATV equipped to fight wildfires (below).

As work vehicles, they have become commonplace at farms, parks, campuses, golf courses and almost any large venue setting. They are primarily used to transport people and equipment in areas that are difficult to access. They can also be used for towing and pushing (snow plowing). If equipped with a winch, the ATVs can self-recover or aid in rescue. In addition to all-terrain versatility, they are very effective in all weather conditions. Their application is limited only by the imagination.

With their compact design and versatility, it is only natural that fire and emergency services have found ATVs to be very functional. They can be equipped for wildland firefighting with a small skid unit. They can be adapted for patient transport, rescue and incident support. For EMS, they can be designed as fully enclosed mini-ambulances.

Rural departments find them to be most practical in remote areas, such as wilderness trails. Urban departments use them for response on greenways and at festivals and other large-scale events.

There is very little information about ATVs and safety in the emergency services. The National Fire Protection Association does not have any design or performance standards for them. Admittedly, the thought of ATV safety in the fire service had not entered my mind until I spoke with a vendor at last spring’s Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis. The vendor, Legend Air Suspensions, was displaying air-suspension systems for ATVs. I did not quite understand the need and application until I realized that we do the same thing with ATVs that we often used to do (and still do on occasion) with fire apparatus. We OVERLOAD them!

The Legend Air Suspension system uses Kevlar air spring technology to provide increased payload over the standard shocks installed. The improved shocks take stress away from other vehicle components. Equally important, the shocks are adjustable “on the go” from the driver’s seat. The settings can be changed as the load and terrain change. With them, extremely rough terrain is much easier, smoother and safer to navigate. An added benefit is that the entire unit can be raised or lowered, similar to a “kneeling bus.” The company has information and a video on its Web site. Watch the video. The visual illustration is far better than words can describe.

Another company that offers an aftermarket safety feature for ATVs is TCB Brake Systems. The TCB system measures the coefficient of friction from the tires to prevent premature lockup. The system produces a braking effect similar to ABS systems to help maintain safe control of the vehicle. Interestingly, both Legend Air Suspension and TCB Brake Systems have their origins in the motorcycle industry.

ATVs are very dangerous, and safety is a big issue with recreational use. As a result, the ATV Safety Institute was created. There is an opportunity for “cross pollination” from the institute’s recreational guidelines to emergency services applications.

The institute has eight golden rules. The first and last golden rules can easily apply to emergency services. The first states, “Always wear a DOT-compliant helmet, goggles, long sleeves, long pants, over-the-ankle boots and gloves.” It must be stressed that firefighters’ helmets are not appropriate. They are not designed for crash protection, and the heavy weight of firefighters’ helmets sitting (often top heavy) on the head can increase the risk of spinal injury as the human body is jerked about on rough terrain or in a collision or rollover. The last golden rule is, “Take a hands-on ATV RiderCourse and the free online E-Course.” Visit ATVsafety.org, or call 800-887-2887. (Several states use the institute’s training program.)

Departments that have ATVs likely have a trailer to haul the unit. They are typically utility or cargo trailers. Ironically, there are standards on trailers, as found in Chapter 26 of the NFPA 1901 apparatus standard. The areas covered include carrying capacity, braking systems (if applicable), suspension, wheels, hitch, safety chains, wheel chocks, low-voltage wiring and reflective markings. Accidents involving trailers are often attributable to the lack of driver training and experience. Understanding the dynamics of stopping a vehicle when it is towing a trailer is crucial to safe operations.

If your department has several trailers, there may be issues with ball hitches, especially when there are various size hitches and balls in the fleet. A 2-5/16-inch hitch on a 1-7/8-inch ball is “excitement waiting to happen.” Another common problem with utility trailers is failure to secure the load. Departments should have a standard and safe way to secure the ATV to its carrier. If you have trailers in your department, do you train on safe towing, backing and load security?

Maintenance of specialty vehicles such as ATVs and trailers often does not receive the attention given to the rest of the fleet. For example, tire pressure, lug nuts and lights may never get checked. The daily or weekly apparatus maintenance checks should also include trailers and ATVs.

Speaking of trailers, ATVs in the emergency services may tow trailers to increase service delivery. One company, All Terrain Res-Q, specializes in trailers to be towed by ATVs. The company has many special designs such as a compressed-air foam system (CAFS) unit and patient transport. An ATV towing a trailer, especially if heavily loaded, can have problems with braking on steep terrain. Departments that tow a trailer under those conditions might investigate the brake system described earlier.

Considering the nature of our business, departments should seriously consider roll bar or cage protection. Of course, there must be a mandatory seat belt usage policy. A spare tire and wheel along with a toolbox should be given serious consideration.

Don’t forget ATVs are “big boy” toys. They can be a lot of fun, and they can also be very dangerous. Never let kids drive or ride on your ATV. Never use them for recreational purposes. Train and maintain!

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow is safety coordinator for the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active with 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.).

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department health and safety officer. He is a former member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee and is on two other NFPA committees, the Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Ensemble Technical Committee and the Technical Correlating Committee for Fire and Emergency Services PPE.

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