About 25 percent of all firefighter deaths are attributed to apparatus crashes and a disproportionate number of those accidents involve tankers/tenders.
To help mitigate this disturbing trend, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), through the U.S. Fire Administration, assembled a team of experts to study the problem and come up with a report that offers some insights into why accidents with tankers happen and, more importantly, ways to prevent these devastating mishaps.
The report, which is more than 150 pages long, is aptly called “Safe Operation of Fire Tankers.” It pools the collective information and knowledge from people with decades in the fire service, firefighters, tanker operators, tanker builders, insurance company representatives and a smattering of others with useful information to be gleaned for the report which was published in 2003.
Available On Line
It is available on line, from FEMA’s website, or by requesting it through the mail. Ask for publication FA-248.
In the introduction of the report, the authors write: “It is hoped that fire department leaders and training officers will use the information contained in this document to reduce the risk of their fire department tankers becoming involved in some type of crash. …All of the information, when analyzed and implemented appropriately, can lessen the frequency and severity of crashes involving fire department tankers.”
Four Broad Topics
The report covers four broad topics encompassing factors of tanker/tender crashes, crash statistics, studies of case histories and recommendations for preventing crashes.
Opening the report are explanations of several factors contributing to tanker crashes. The first on the list is insufficient training.
Improper backing, excessive speed by firefighters, and lack of skills are at the top of the list for contributing factors, according to the report.
“A significant portion, if not the majority, of causes of fire department tanker crashes can be traced to at least one human factor,” the report states.
Departments are required to appropriately train drivers to the type of apparatus they are expected to operate by National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1500.
“All drivers must complete a through training program before being allowed to drive a fire department tanker under non-emergency or emergency conditions,” the FEMA report states.
Other human factors most often connected to tanker crashes include insufficient driver experience, overconfidence in driving ability, excessive speed, inability to recognize danger signs, failure to have or follow departmental standard operating guidelines and disobeying traffic laws, according to the report. Not all human factors in crashes are attributable to firefighters. The report also states that civilian drivers’ failure to yield the right-of-way to fire apparatus can be a huge factor in crashes.
Civilians who behave erratically and unpredictably when approached by fire apparatus can cause collisions as can the drivers who fail to stop at signals and signs, or are inattentive to approaching emergency vehicles.
Apparatus designs can be a factor in tanker crashes, according to the FEMA report, which concludes design is the second most commonly found factors involving tanker crashes.
Weight is a big factor as tankers can often weigh in excess of 25 tons with tractor-trailer trucks weighing much more. Drivers of these apparatus often do not take the weight into consideration while driving tankers and do not handle the apparatus appropriately or with the due care required.
Apparatus age can be a factor in crashes, although an age is seldom the single cause of crashes. Older apparatus can be more prone to mechanical failures with greater frequency. Poor maintenance, metal fatigue and age can lead to failures and ensuing crashes.
High Center Of Gravity
Some tankers, by design, have high centers of gravity and are top heavy which and they are more severely affected by quick turns and maneuvers than those with lower centers of gravity. Top heavy vehicles have a tendency to want to tip over if they are driven through curves at unsafe speeds, according to the report.
Most manufacturers of tankers/tenders do a fine job of adhering to Department of Transportation and NFPA requirements, but the nature of the beast often makes it necessary to have high centers of gravity, even though they meet the requirements.
Well-designed, safe apparatus can quickly be turned unsafe when departments modify apparatus by adding lots of heavy equipment to the tankers/tenders, increase the size and capacity of the tanks with which they were originally equipped, or by changing the function of an apparatus, from an aerial to a tanker for example.
Along those same lines, retrofitting non-fire service vehicles to work as tankers/tenders can lead to serious crashes. Apparatus built on non-fire service vehicles may be in questionable mechanical condition to begin with. The report suggests that the vehicles were retired and perhaps worn out before the fire department acquired them. And, when considering tankers, the chassis upon which they are being built may not be designed for the weight and failure may soon become inevitable. Tanks that hold fuel were not designed to carry water which is much heavier and may not have adequate baffling to prevent slosh and the rocking action that results, affecting the handling of the apparatus.
Even things like road designs, grades, sharp curves, adverse weather conditions, lack of or soft road shoulders and limited weight capacity bridges can also be factors in crashes, according to the report. And, even emergency scene congestion can be a factor in tanker crashes.
“In general, [accidents are caused by] human error, poor apparatus design and/or maintenance, poor road conditions, inclement weather, emergency scene factors and failure to wear seatbelts,” the report states.
The report reviews and reports on 38 case histories to learn more about why tankers crash and who is driving them. The report concludes that age and experience are factors in tanker crashes as drivers in the 20- to 29-year-old age bracket illustrating that inexperience might be a significant factor.
“Through this study, it was learned that most crashes occur in daylight hours, on clear dry, paved road,” according to the report. “It has been deduced that driver inexperience may pay a role in the crashes because of the large number of young drivers who were operating the tankers at the time of the crashes.”
A substantial portion of the report focuses on methods for preventing accidents, including the implementation of driver training programs, adherence to applicable NFPA standards, and a through apparatus maintenance program that allow the vehicle to perform as intended at a moments notice.
The report spells out, in detail, the kind of training drivers must be given, and successfully complete before being allowed to drive tankers and skills they must maintain to keep driving. It also gives details about the kinds of maintenance tankers need to handle the weight they’re asked to carry, especially braking systems.
In the report are several tips for apparatus design, including a section describing adequate braking systems, chassis and vehicle weight decisions and water tank design and mounting.
Used and retrofitted apparatus are also addressed in the report. It’s clear the authors do not recommend this practice as there are far more problems pointed out than benefits, and that one being low cost.
“Converting any vehicle, whether it be a piece of fire apparatus, a non-fire service tanker, or a military surplus vehicle is not the preferred manner for obtaining a reliable fire department tanker,” the report says.
Several pages of the report focus on safe operations at the incident scene, including how to safely position tankers and how to operate a water shuttle operation.
“Water shuttle operations involve a significant amount of maneuvering and driving on the part of the tanker driver,” the report says. “…Any measures that can be taken to reduce the amount of fine maneuvering that must be done at the fill or dump site will accordingly increase the level of safety at each location and will reduce the fill and dump site times.”
The report ends with 20 conclusions designed to help reduce accidents and firefighter fatalities. Synopsized, they are as follows: operate tankers at safe and reasonable speeds; obey cautionary signs; equip tankers with anti-lock braking systems; keep all wheels on the primarily road surface at all times; travel with the water tank either completely empty or completely full; avoid operating retrofit tankers if possible; know the weight of your apparatus; require mandatory training for tanker drivers; and establish an effective maintenance program.
The report also concludes tanker drivers need spotters when backing and need back-up alarms; they need to a complete stop at all intersections with signals or signs; drivers must wear seatbelts; keeping windows rolled up to help prevent ejection; be familiar with roads in your district; avoid poorly constructed or unpaved roads when possible; limit the number of apparatus responding to a prudent number; do not respond at an emergency rate when no emergency exist; have at least one firefighter accompany the driver of a tanker and practice driving the tanker in adverse road conditions.
“Tankers account for the largest number of firefighter crash deaths of all types of fire department vehicles,” the report says. “…This report is part of the United States Fire Administration’s effort to begin corrective action in this regard.”
The report can be found at http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/download.jsp?url=/downloads/pdf/publications/fa-248.pdf
Limited quantities may be ordered from the USFA Publications Office free of charge. Visit the USFA on the World Wide Web at http://www.usfa.fema.gov. Another option is to contact USFA’s Publications Office at (800) 561-3356 or (301) 447-1189.
You may also FAX your request to (301) 447-1213.
Mail orders will also be accepted at the following address: United States Fire Administration Publications 16825 South Seton Avenue Emmitsburg, MD 21727.