Fire Departments Embrace Pierce Frontal Airbag Option

In the spring of 1996, the Chesapeake (Va.) Fire Department lost two firefighters – John R. Hudgins Jr. and Frank E. Young – who were fighting a fire inside an auto parts store when its truss roof collapsed.

“For those of us who were here that day, the terms ‘firefighter safety’ and ‘everyone goes home’ took a whole new meaning,” said Deputy Chief Edmund Elliott. “You can look at our department pre-1996 and post-1996, and there’s a radical difference in the way that we think and operate because of those two fatalities.”

One aspect of the department’s operations that changed was the way its leaders go about purchasing equipment.

“We do not touch safety features, we cut out other things,” Elliott said. “That’s just the philosophy we’ve taken, whether we’re talking about turnout gear or SCBA or apparatus.”

Last year, when Pierce Manufacturing became the first fire apparatus maker to offer front airbags, Chesapeake began ordering them. The department has received seven apparatus so far with them – two pumpers, two ladder trucks, a pumper tanker, a pumper with a water tower and a hazmat command truck. In addition the department has three more under construction – a platform ladder, a pumper and a pumper tanker.

Chesapeake is one of more than 50 departments that have ordered apparatus from Pierce with front airbags, an option available as of last spring. By the end of 2007, Pierce had more than 100 apparatus scheduled to be built with them.

 “We were expecting that the frontal airbag system was going to be well received, and it certainly has been,” said Neil Engel, Pierce’s platform manager for custom chassis and component systems.  “You’ve got the big city accounts like Las Vegas and Portland and Miami-Dade that are interested in this, and then you have lots of small volunteer fire departments that are also inquiring about it and spec’ing it into their vehicles.”

The system is available as an option on four Pierce custom chassis – the Velocity, Impel, Quantum and Arrow XT – and is frequently combined with other safety options, such as the company’s side roll protection system, which was introduced in 2003.

Five years ago, Pierce was the only fire apparatus manufacturer to offer side roll protection. Today, according to Engel, nearly 50 percent of Pierce’s custom chassis orders include that option – and the company’s major competitors offer it as well.

He said Pierce’s side roll protection system proved its worth in a fire truck rollover accident two months ago. “There was significant damage to the cab,” he said, “but the driver survived.”

Engel declined to identify the firefighter or the department involved in the accident, but he said he had talked directly with the department’s firefighters about it. “They really believe that side roll protection was a key factor in that driver surviving that accident,” he said.

Pierce developed side roll protection before front airbags because most serious injuries and fatalities from fire apparatus accidents are caused by rollovers, according to Engel. “The occupants get thrown up against the side of the truck and typically what ends up happening is they’ll receive head injuries or internal injuries,” he said.

In head-on accidents, he said, fire apparatus most often collide with cars and because of the tremendous weight disparity, the injuries to firefighters are usually not as severe as rollover accidents.

360-Degree Protection

When Pierce introduced side roll protection, the company developed a program and a slogan – 360-degree Protection from Every Angle – to underscore its commitment to building the safest fire apparatus. The front airbag option is the latest advancement in the evolution of that program.

Engel said the 360-degree program incorporates preventative as well as protective systems. An example of a preventative system is electronic stability control, which monitors a truck’s lateral acceleration and applies braking to slow the vehicle and maintain stability to try to prevent a rollover. “It can prevent it from rolling up to the limits of physics,” he said, “and then if the vehicle rolls, you have systems like side roll protection to help the occupants survive.”

Pierce developed both the side roll protection and frontal airbag systems working in partnership with LifeGuard Technologies, a division of Indiana Mills & Manufacturing, Inc. of Westfield, Ind. LifeGuard bills itself as a world leader in commercial truck occupant protection and operates a sophisticated testing facility called the Center for Advanced Product Evaluation (CAPE).

Extensive Testing

Engel said the development of the side roll and front airbag systems required extensive and expensive testing and analysis at the CAPE facility. For side roll, he said, a cab outfitted with seats was mounted on a test device, which moved the cab as required. But for front airbag testing, he said, fire trucks had to be smashed into concrete barriers.

“We ended up having to crash several fire trucks to create a software program that differentiates between a scenario where the airbags need to deploy versus a scenario where the air bags shouldn’t deploy,” he said.

In Pierce’s frontal airbag system, a sensor inside the cab monitors the truck’s longitudinal accelerations. If it detects a frontal crash of significant magnitude, it sends a signal to inflate a steering wheel-mounted airbag, as well as a knee bolster airbag on the front passenger side.

“The frontal dash area is not something that the officer typically would strike, but there is potential for his knees to move forward into that area,” Engel said. “So we incorporated a front knee bolster to help reduce leg injuries.”

While the fire service has a reputation for honoring tradition and resisting change, he said he believes the acceptance of new apparatus safety features, such as front airbags, has a lot to do with familiarity.

“I think they’re comfortable with these levels of technology because they’ve seen them in action,” he said. “When a fire department responds to an automobile accident with airbag deployment, they’re seeing the outcome of that sort of an accident. The tangible benefits are real.”

Some safety features, such as seatbelts, require firefighter participation – something that many departments have found to be difficult to achieve.

The leaders of the Chesapeake Fire Department were frustrated to learn last year that many firefighters were not wearing seatbelts despite aggressive enforcement of their mandatory seatbelt policy. As a result, effective July 1, non-compliance with the policy was placed in the most serious category of violations, one that could lead to termination of employment not only for the firefighter, but also for the driver and the officer.

Seatbelt Enforcement

Three days after the enforcement change, according to Deputy Chief Elliott, a Chesapeake pumper slid off a rural road when the freshly-paved road surface broke away. The apparatus plowed through a ditch and took out a utility pole, ending up nearly on its side. He said four firefighters were in the truck, buckled into their seats, and were able to walk away with minor cuts and bruises.

Elliott, reflecting his department’s philosophy, is passionate about safety.

“We’ve spent three years just hammering on seatbelts,” he said, “and one of the things that sticks out across the nation is that you have an incident like Charleston, and we lose nine firefighters at one time. During 2007, we’ve lost 11, maybe 12 firefighters due to not using their seatbelts. Not using seatbelts killed more people than the Charleston nine.”

The Value Of The Dollar

The Chesapeake Fire Department has close to 400 uniformed firefighters covering a largely suburban area of 365 square miles with a population of 221,000 and two large commercial districts. The department has 15 stations with17 engine companies, three ladder companies and a heavy rescue squad. The department’s Web site rates Fire Station 2 as among the busiest 100 in North America, dubbed by firefighters the “Castle of the Sleepless Knights.”

Chesapeake’s apparatus are made by Pierce, E-ONE and American LaFrance, but all its recent purchases have been from Pierce.

“We’re going to go with the best, safest apparatus for the department, and when we take a look at everything that is considered, Pierce comes up to the forefront,” Elliott said. “Right now we’re satisfied with Pierce, but as a government agency we really cannot lock in on a particular company. It keeps going back to the value of the dollar, how do we spend the dollar, how do we get service on the product and how safe is the product.”

For information on Pierce frontal airbags, go to

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