Improving Safety For Older Apparatus

Chevron striping can be added to any fire apparatus to improve roadway safety.
Chevron striping can be added to any fire apparatus to improve roadway safety.

(First of a two-part series)

The economic times are likely causing many departments to keep apparatus longer than they anticipated. Earlier this year, I received a phone call from a fire chief inquiring about ways to make older apparatus safer. His community had funded a very aggressive replacement program, but he still had three older apparatus that had to remain in-service until the full program could be implemented.

His priorities were in order as he was concerned about the safety of his firefighters. He also wished to do something with his older apparatus that would maximize resale or trade-in value. We are obviously entering an era where safety will play a key role in the value of used apparatus.

This phone call prompted me to think about ways to make older apparatus safer without doing a total refurbishment. Two things are paramount to apparatus safety – driver training and maintenance.

Lack of proper maintenance was brought to the forefront of the fire service with the brake failure of Boston Fire Department’s Ladder 26 that claimed the life of Lt. Kelley this past January. In Boston, the bill finally came due for years of short changing apparatus maintenance.

With a high quality maintenance program as the backbone, there are other things fire departments can do with older apparatus to improve safety.

Consider installing a vehicle data recorder. This item is believed by many to be the most important safety component of the 2009 revision of the National Fire Protection Association 1901 apparatus standard.

VDRs capture the activity of the vehicle, especially how it is being driven. Clearly, most line of duty deaths in fire apparatus are single vehicle accidents, and the cause is driver error.

Because NFPA 1901 is a design and performance standard, its scope does not include driver training or qualifications. However, technology has advanced to the point that human behavior can be monitored. A focus of modern day risk management is “behavioral-based safety,” and one of its key components is to capture the events – the behavioral actions. With captured actions, training and education can eliminate or greatly minimize unsafe actions.

The objective is to show the driver where improvements can be made before an accident rather than after an accident. The objective of the VDR is not to use it as a disciplinary tool. If punitive action is how fire chiefs choose to use the data, they are defeating the purpose of capturing it. This will create a culture that is detrimental to both officers and firefighters.

Capturing the driving behavior for post accident investigation is a secondary benefit of the VDR. We know that the majority of apparatus accidents where other vehicles are involved are the fault of the other driver. The VDR will validate that, and it is a useful tool welcomed by both insurance companies and risk management divisions of local government.

VDR Capabilities

Keep in mind that by 2011, all automobiles will have a black box. If litigation stems from an accident, the winner is usually the side with the best data. The capabilities and potential of these systems is enormous, especially real-time feedback.

You do not have to wait until you purchase an apparatus manufactured to the 2009 revision to get a VDR. They are available for fire trucks from three companies: Akron Brass, Class 1, and Fire Research, Inc. Not all older trucks may be candidates for a VDR, and other upgrades may be required. Check with the manufacturers for compatibility. They will likely need to know if your apparatus is equipped with an SAE J1939 cable.

If you do a Level One refurbishment – using a new cab and chassis and other components to bring the apparatus to current NFPA requirements – you will be getting a VDR.

Seat Belt Monitoring

Another recommended upgrade for older apparatus is to install a seat belt monitoring system. Line of duty deaths during response and return from incidents have a common denominator of firefighters not being belted. The numbers never seem to diminish. Hence, the 2009 revision of NFPA 1901 requires a seat belt monitoring system.

As with VDRs, a department does not have to wait to purchase a new apparatus. The three manufacturers of VDRs also make seat belt monitoring systems that can be retrofitted to older apparatus. There is an additional cost to seat belt monitoring; in many cases you may need to replace the seats and restraining belts because of the need for built-in seat sensors. In the 2009 revision of NFPA 1901, seat belt monitoring must be captured by the VDR.

Another suggestion for improving the safety of older apparatus is chevron striping. It can be applied to any apparatus regardless of age. We are all aware of the number of emergency responders and vehicles struck while operating at roadway incidents. As 2009 apparatus are put into service, we will see many more red/yellow chevron striped apparatus on roadway scenes. It seems logical that the quicker we can operate apparatus with a standard appearance – just as roadway signage has standard appearance – the safer it will be. If you are resistant to the appearance of the chevrons, you were probably a “kicker and screamer” with the coming of enclosed cabs, turnout pants, incident management, large-diameter hose, and roll-up doors. How smart was that?


Continuing with the conspicuity theme, be sure your older apparatus are equipped to protect firefighters operating at roadway emergencies. This must include the emergency responder safety vest as required by new Federal Rule 23 C.F.R. Part 634.

In addition, you should have other related equipment required by NFPA 1901 that includes the 28-inch traffic cones and road flares. Additional equipment to consider are the watermelon-colored “Emergency Ahead” signs.

Appropriately placed advance warnings are key to providing roadway incident safety. Directional arrow bars have been popular with many departments for years.

If you want to really take a big step, consider installing a flip-up message board on the cab of your apparatus. It’s a great way to study the effectiveness of those devices before including them in bids for new apparatus. Though rarely found on apparatus, they are the most visible and versatile advance warning devices available for apparatus mounting. In addition to directional arrows, they can display other messages.

As a reminder, please never shortchange your driver training and maintenance.


For proper maintenance practices, get a copy of the 2007 edition of the NFPA 1911 Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus.

If you are thinking about refurbishment, get a copy of NFPA 1912, the standard for apparatus refurbishing. It contains requirements for both Level One and Level Two refurbishment (upgrading of major components and other systems to bring the apparatus back up to the standard to which it was manufactured).

Check back next month for more ideas on making older apparatus safer.

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 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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