Safety Equipment and Fire Trucks: Enough or Just Right?

Have fire trucks been “safety-ized” enough that their occupants are being properly protected while riding to and from a fire scene and while using the apparatus to do their jobs? Or are there other safety elements that could be incorporated into fire trucks that would make them safer? Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment spoke with fire vehicle manufacturers about the required standards in today’s apparatus and what might be on the horizon for the future.

Bill Doebler, vice president of sales and marketing for Crimson Fire, says that in the past 10 to 15 years, fire apparatus have made strides that are in the “light year classification in terms of safety advancements.” He states that modifications to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard have made fire apparatus and their operation safer for firefighters.

“However, one of the most unsafe pieces of equipment on a truck can be the master stream deck gun, and it’s something the NFPA hasn’t addressed yet,” Doebler says. “We put a firefighter on top of a truck to operate a master stream by hand, moving the monitor up and down and from side to side. But, the top of the truck is one of the most unsafe positions, with its uneven footing and assorted equipment stored up there.”

Doebler notes that all the pumpers in Crimson Fire’s Transformer series negate that safety issue by having electrically-operated deluge guns controlled from the ground instead of the top of the pumper.

“There’s been no mandate from the NFPA about deluge guns on top of pumpers, but it probably will come in time,” Doebler says. He thinks the NFPA ultimately will call for the deluge guns to be controlled from the pump panel or remotely by a handheld unit or console mounted elsewhere on the rig.

Harold Boer, president of Rosenbauer, agrees with Doebler on the deck gun issue and says that manufacturers have been offering remote-controlled deck guns for awhile, but the issue is that “fire departments have to be able to afford spending the money to make the deck gun remote-controlled,” an issue that’s difficult for many departments in a budget-squeezed economy.

Yet, Boer notes that anything manufacturers can do to keep firefighters from having to climb on top of a truck would be a good thing in terms of safety.

As an example, Boer cites that Rosenbauer promotes the use of hosebed and hoselay covers, which are recent NFPA standard requirements, to protect firefighters from falls and ankle injuries while walking on an unprotected hosebed and secure hose from falling off a truck accidentally.

“Safety elements that are mandated should have a reasonable chance of improving the situation,” Boer points out, “like the issue of open-side cabs in years past. Firefighters were falling out of them when the apparatus turned sharply. Putting firefighters in closed cabs solved the problem.”

Joe Hedges, E-ONE’s product manager for aerials and chassis, says a number of items required in NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, (2009 edition) are positive steps in making apparatus safer.

“The vehicle data recorder required by the NFPA monitors and records what’s happening in the truck over a short period of time,” Hedges said. Some of the vehicle elements monitored include the speed, acceleration and deceleration, percent of throttle, whether the interlock brakes are on or off, seating occupant belt status by position, master warning on or off, and time and date.

“The occupant seat belt detection is an excellent safety feature,” Hedges points out. “No matter what safety features you put on a fire truck, if firefighters are not belted in, they risk being ejected in a crash, especially in a rollover event. Seat belts are key, and firefighters should wear them—anything that encourages them to do so is a good thing.”

Electronic Stability Control

One safety element Hedges considers an outstanding value in fire trucks is electronic stability control. “Roll stability control came into play based on wheel spin data that would apply the brakes to rear wheels, but it didn’t measure vehicle yaw well—that is, how much the vehicle was sliding,” he says.

Hedges notes that electronic stability control, as offered by major brake manufacturers for fire trucks, takes into account which way the steering wheel is pointed, the yaw of the vehicle, and the spin measurement of all the wheels. The system responds to the situation the vehicle is in, takes that data, and slows the vehicle through a retarder that applies the brakes and backs off on the throttle. “The electronic stability control system does it much faster than a human can react,” Hedges pointed out.

He states that large, heavy aerial devices generally don’t meet the 16.5 degree tilt safety test, meaning that “electronic stability control is a huge benefit for them, giving them an added measure of safety to prevent rollovers.”

Hedges continues, “I think it (electronic stability control) is the single best safety item that the NFPA brought into its standard. It’s a completely passive system, but does a lot of things to prevent a rollover that a human could not do.”

Another requirement introduced in the most recent NFPA 1901 that Hedges likes is the speed limitation. “A vehicle over 26,000 GVW can’t go over 68 mph,” he says. “And if the vehicle has a water or foam tank of over 1,250 gallons or is more than 50,000 pounds, then the speed of the vehicle is limited to 60 mph.”

Hedges points out that such limitations may be difficult for many fire departments that respond to calls using an interstate or other high-speed highway, but the standard is there to provide safety. “It’s not letting firefighters go so fast so they have a better chance of maintaining control of the vehicle and stopping quicker,” Hedges says. “It takes a lot more distance to stop a 60,000-pound vehicle than it does a passenger car or pickup truck.”

Phil Gerace, director of sales and marketing for KME, says that although fire truck manufacturers must take into account a number of safety standards when building a truck, often fire departments demand that items be added that are beyond what the standard requires.

“First and foremost is frontal collision protection for the cab occupants,” Gerace says, pointing out that KME offers a Total Occupant Protection (TOP) system to address that need in the event of a collision or rollover.

“These systems deploy within a quarter of a second to help protect firefighters by pretensioning the seat belts, lowering air seats to the safest position, and engaging air bag cushions or the steering wheel air bag to protect the head and neck of the driver while inflating a knee bolster air bag to protect the officer’s knees.”

Gerace says KME often gets requests for its “Smart Wheel” steering wheel with function control on the wheel to allow the operator to control the siren and master light switch.

Maintain Cab Integrity

Integrity of the cab also is a concern for KME, and departments want a cab that goes beyond minimum protection standards, Gerace says. KME has spent millions of dollars in cab engineering and research and development, Gerace notes, and its cabs and chassis have met and exceeded all crash and crush test standards for frontal and side impacts and roof crush tests.

Regarding air bags in fire trucks, Boer says his firm hasn’t seen a lot of departments opting for frontal or side air bags in their vehicles. “It would be worthwhile to know how many times an air bag could have made a difference in a fire department rig crash,” Boer says. “A study of accidents for the past five years in the fire service industry would be good to see where air bags could have made a difference. That would be good for the fire service as a whole.”

The vehicle data recorders now required by the NFPA standard are a good thing, Boer believes, although they add a few thousand dollars to the cost of a vehicle. “But, we’re not getting indications from fire departments that they’re using the data in the way it might have been intended,” Boer says. “The NFPA should look at how many times departments use the data in training, which is the way it could prevent accidents, because the recorder tells what happens after the fact. Departments should be using that data to train firefighters.”

Hedges notes that the latest NFPA standard focuses on keeping firefighters safe within the cab of a fire truck. “The crashworthiness of the cab, electronic stability control, occupant protection, and seat belt length were important areas to deal with,” Hedges says. “And another thing in the NFPA 2009 standard was that it requires three points of contact when a firefighter is climbing up or down a vehicle. That means manufacturers have to have handrails or hand holds so the firefighter has two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand on something solid at all times.”

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

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