FA Viewpoints: Pump Panel Design

Pump panels and how they are arranged can impact various aspects of how a fire apparatus is designed. This month, we ask Bill Adams and Ricky Riley, “What is your ideal pump panel design?

Eliminate Clutter on Your Pump Panel Designs

A universal pump panel design might not be considered ideal by every motor pump operator (MPO), purchaser, or fire department. Individual idiosyncrasies and departments’ standard operating procedures (SOPs) affect choices. That said, my response encompasses personal ideas, theories, and concepts—leaving readers to agree or disagree and to pick and choose as they see fit.


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Many MPOs can no longer remain stationary at the pump panel for the duration of an incident. Limited staffing has forced them to become an integral part of the working crew. Depending on the order of arrival at the fire station, a volunteer may not always be an MPO and not necessarily on the same rig. By nature of their occupation, career MPOs have more time “on the panel” of the same rig. Regardless of the vocation, the MPO’s assignment of running the pump should be made safe, efficient, and expeditious.

ELECTRONICS AND NONBELIEVERS

Some “seasoned” firefighters, especially those in the purchasing and decision making process, have an inherent distrust of electronics. It is acknowledged in some locales there may be a specific electronic device that is not “workable” for valid reasons. However, firefighters not accepting all electronics probably shouldn’t serve on an apparatus purchasing committee (APC). Don’t like computers and electronic wizardry? What controls the apparatus motor, transmission, pressure governor, and aerial controls? What controls everything in your personal automobile or your home’s furnace, water heater, automatic coffee maker, and your “smart” phone?

Most pump functions in the future will be controlled by computers, sensors, and electronic gadgetry that I personally don’t understand. Touch-screen controls might be permanently mounted or tethered to the rig by wires or controlled by a remote laptop or one of those small handheld does-everything devices the size of a cell phone.

Apparatus purchased today will be around for decades. Purchasers should educate themselves in electronics, consider them at the least, or embrace them at the most. Sooner or later, the apparatus OEMs will be doing it for you. Don’t be like the APC chairman who proudly boasted he bought the last rig the manufacturer built with open jump seats.

TRADITIONAL PUMP PANELS

Most pumpers today feature a midship-mounted pump, traditional pump house, and road-side operator’s panel. My observations are not reflective of any manufacturer; fire department; or specific requirements, regulations, or recommendations by a governmental or standard promulgating entity. Some observations could be applicable to alternative pump and panel locations.

* Fire hose connections should not be on, above, or immediately next to the operator’s position. It is dangerous to have a pressurized hose next to your kneecap, cranium, or reproductive organs. If you feel invincible, at least consider the safety of your crew if you are rendered immobile by a failed coupling or a burst hose or by tripping over one.

* One fire industry employee ventured MPOs should keep their “boots on the ground” at all times after exiting the cab. (Sorry, top-mount panel aficionados.)

* Does it matter if operator panels are polished stainless, brushed stainless, painted job color, aluminum or a black vinyl, paint, or sprayed-on application? What are their advantages, disadvantages, benefits, and costs? You wrote the specs—defend your decision.

* Master gauges should be a minimum of 6-inch diameter. Line gauges should be a minimum of 3½ inches and only go up to 300 or 400 pounds per square inch unless you pump higher pressures.

* Make lettering on labels large enough to read without squinting, standing close, or fumbling for your glasses.

* Eliminate unnecessary clutter on the operator’s panel. If the MPO has to “hunt and search” for a priority control, someone did a lousy job laying out the panel.

A CLUTTERLESS PANEL

My ideal design for any operator’s panel is to eliminate clutter. It will lessen the possibility of operator error and increase efficiency. The latter is not blasphemous nor an accusation of MPO malfeasance. To err is human, and all operators are. Move “out of the way” everything that’s not required to immediately get water on the fire.

Traditional pump panels are usually recessed about 10 to 12 inches from the running board. The cab’s rear wall is usually to the left of the panel, and the face of the side running board compartments is to the right. That is where to mount warning and caution labels; radio speaker; generator switches; auxiliary lighting controls; pump hour meter; fuel tank gauge; booster tank spec sheet; pump data sheet; UL test label; pump test ports; foam system spec sheets; warning lights and buzzers; spanner wrenches; and the manufacturer, dealer, and service provider’s advertising labels. They’ll be visible but not in the MPO’s way.

When line gauges first became popular, most were located immediately adjacent to their respective controls. In the mid 1970s, the rage was to have all discharge controls in a row with the gauges immediately above them. They may look nice, but is it a necessity or even functional? It requires MPOs to “hunt and search.” It also gives the plumbers fits in piping them and mechanics a pain when working on them.

THE BIG FOUR

Unless a department’s SOP is to reverse lay fire to a hydrant, I venture most MPOs exit the cab, chock the wheels, and look for the “Big Four”—the tank-to-pump control, the control for the most commonly used preconnect, the pump pressure controller, and the master discharge pressure gauge. Then the MPO is off securing the water supply or performing other assigned duties.

These controls can be installed in a logical sequence, one above the other, in a natural order of use immediately below the master discharge pressure gauge. Inline valves can be controlled by cable-operated levers if direct mechanical linkages are not feasible and electric valves are not desired. Everything could be in close proximity to each other and reachable without moving, twisting, bending, or having to look around. The balance of the pump’s controls can be functionally laid out with ease of maintenance and repair considered. Lay out the panel for the majority of the calls requiring water.

SAFETY AND SPECS

Pump panel design should be contingent on several factors. The first and foremost—and without exception—is the safety of the firefighters whose lives may depend on the efficient operation of a vehicle’s fire pump. The improper operation or mechanical failure of the pump and its components can have catastrophic effects.

Apparatus OEMs, component part manufacturers, and National Fire Protection Association 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, address, as much as possible, the mechanics of the fire pump and its operation including safety-oriented features such as pressure control systems and warning indicators. An ergonomically designed panel could help the MPO perform necessary tasks quickly by making controls easy to find and lessening the possibility of human error.

Nonspecific terminology in purchasing specifications such as “operator safety,” “ease of operation,” and “functional” are often used to describe MPO panels. They are meaningless and unprovable unless exact locations are defined. Minor changes in an MPO’s control panel probably can be made without breaking the bank and giving the apparatus manufacturer angst. Ask!

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.


Ideal Pump Panel Design

The evolution of pump panels in the past couple of decades has proven that proper attention has been paid to this important component on our engine companies by our manufacturers. The engine company has one of the most important jobs on the fireground and one of the simplest jobs. The engine carries supply hose, attack lines, water, and the fire pump to deliver the water to the fire. Get to the scene, establish a water supply, advance attack lines, and put water on the fire. This water application comes through the fire pump, the pump panel, and the trained driver who manipulates the pump to ensure water goes to the right line at the right pressure and volume. He completes this job by using the pump panel on the rig.

The pump panel is the face of the fire pump and is a mass of gauges, levers, and lights. The design of these panels can be awfully confusing with all the numbers and colors that are on them today. That is why when designing a new engine, the purchaser should take a lot of time when the engineering conference comes to the pump panel design. The layout, size, and ease of operation for the pump panel should be the top priorities when designing your apparatus.

PUMP PANEL SIZE

This part of the design has a number of factors that have to be decided in the overall construction of your engine, the first being what size pump is required for your department’s response area and service delivery. On average, fire pumps are anywhere from 1,250 to 1,500 gallons per minute (gpm) and are single-stage pumps. The number of discharges has to be decided all around the apparatus and then what is actually going to be located on the pump panels on the driver’s side and the officer’s side. What size are these discharges going to be? The piping and valve sizes have a say in the size of the pump—driving the size of the pump panel. Are we going to use anything special in the fire pump such as foam discharges or possibly a compressed-air foam system? All of these will take up a lot of real estate on a pump panel and drive the size of the panel up in total inches to accommodate all the peripheral devices needed with those systems. The factors listed above will determine how wide this pump panel will need to be. As that size is determined, pay close attention to how this panel is going to affect the fire apparatus’s overall length and wheelbase. Regardless of the area you serve, the overall size of the rig and the ability to turn it around should always be concerns for the department.

In most designs that I have done in the past couple of years, the overall size of the pump panel has been rather small in comparison to panels designed in the past. A lot of this is attributed to the manufacturers that employ pump house engineers to ensure the customers’ requests will actually work and will fit on the rig. Watching these pump houses and pump panels come together is a rather detailed operation by the builders. Stuffing all the components, valves, piping, and wiring into these small panels is quite the engineering marvel some days.

Operationally and for the benefit of the overall design of the apparatus, small panels are great. But, they do have some drawbacks that must be considered for the overall functionality and repair of the rigs. What we cram into these panels can have a direct effect on how the valves actually open and what linkage is required to move around all the hardware and wires in these small areas. Pay close attention on the actual angles of the push/pull valves and how many knuckles may need to be put in line for slow-close valves. The hardware and angles could have a direct effect on how easily these valves might open regularly and under pressure.

EASE OF OPERATION

How gauges, levers, and controls are laid out on a pump panel should be under the direction of the purchaser. This direction needs to be in conjunction with the manufacturer’s design engineers to ensure that it can actually be done and what the final product is going to look like with the size of the panel. There are many examples of pump panels that are well laid out with the gauges and controls in a perfect line, which makes the panel very easy to operate with minimal chances of confusion. This ease of operation usually comes with an increase in pump panel size and, as discussed before, will increase overall length and wheelbase. But if ease of operation and simplicity are more crucial for your department than overall length and wheelbase, I say go with it.

On the small pump panels, the use of gauges located close to the lever or handle can also ease operation. In departments with a medium or large fleet, standardizing these small panels will help firefighters with ease of operation and familiarity.

Eye lines should also be considered for ease of operation. The operator needs all his important gauges, alarms, and lights to be easy to find on the panel. Placing these at the average height of the firefighter will lower the operator’s need to search the panel for this information. And, at what size are we making the gauges for ease of reading the correct pressures? The use of larger gauges with easy-to-read displays is always a plus for the pump operator.

REPAIRS

Firefighters don’t like when their regular rig is in the shop. They want to be operating off the normal apparatus that they normally run and not a reserve rig. So on our pump panels, we need to make sure we allow for access to reach all valves, controls, and the mass of wiring that is on all of our apparatus pump panels. Access panels or doors may take up a little room on the pump panel, but they could pay off in reducing apparatus downtime overall. An area that is sometimes forgotten is access to the pump from the front of the pump house. This is the area that is exposed when the cab is tilted on the apparatus. Working with your manufacturer, making this area as open as possible, will help your mechanic as he works to make any repairs. The last area is access from the top of the pump through the dunnage area above the pump. Placing a removable floor there will make your mechanics happy to make any repairs. So, yes, I will give up room on pump panels for this access to ensure that the rig is repaired quickly and back out on the streets where it is supposed to be—not in your shop.

WHAT I REALLY WANT IN A PUMP PANEL

The pump panel and pump house need to be small, usually around 45 inches wide. In our response area and building stock, this allows for the ability to take in water from both sides via 3-inch and 4-inch supply lines, then provides us with the ability to flow all our attack lines from individually plumbed discharges. The driver’s side pump panel will then have additional 2½-inch discharges for supplying supply lines and large-diameter attack lines. The officer’s side panel can then also have additional 2½-inch discharges, including a large-diameter hose discharge. The pump panel itself is coated with a tough material such as Line-X coating to keep the panel clean and take the beating of the caps and couplings hitting the panel.

Behind the panel, all the valves, linkages, and knuckles operate well under water pressure from a charged fire pump without the need to have to use excessive strength to pull the level or turn the handle to open the valves.

And, my small panel would help reduce the overall length and wheelbase of the rig without compromising the operational needs of the firefighters.

These panels need your attention during the design phase to ensure they operate correctly and afford ease of operation on the fireground. What is behind the pump panel also needs the same attention throughout the life of the apparatus. Understanding the preventive maintenance behind all these valves, linkages, controls, and wiring behind the panel will ensure that they operate at peak performance when needed on your next fire. Dedicate time to learning about all these systems that help you put water on the fire.

RICKY RILEY is the president of Traditions Training, LLC. He previously served as the operations chief for Clearwater (FL) Fire & Rescue and as a firefighter for Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue. He also currently serves as a firefighter with the Kentland (MD) Volunteer Fire Department. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board.

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