The Cost Of Safety: NFPA 1901 Standards

The revised National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 automotive fire apparatus standard is being published, and it will go into effect Jan. 1, 2009.

In my career, there have been about five new editions, and each time we hear the same concerns from the service at large. One question that keeps replaying is – what will this cost me?

Nobody has limitless funds, especially in these economic hard times. To this end I, as a participant in the process, will attempt to give you my personal read on the changes and their probable list price additions to a fire apparatus contracted after January 1.

Before we get into the changes and their estimated costs, let’s look at the NFPA committee make up, its attitude, where it gets influences, and how can you have your say in the process.

Acceptable Losses

When I first got involved in NFPA in the ’80s, I could see the historical focus on minimal standards and keeping apparatus costs down. The standard said very little and gave everybody lots of options to do whatever they wanted. I heard longtime committee members and well-known fire department luminaries say, “Firefighting is inherently dangerous, a few deaths are acceptable losses.”

But the wind of change could be heard, which led to the landmark 1991 editions of NFPA 1901, 1902, 1903 and 1904 (pumpers, initial attack, water supply and aerial apparatus individual documents).

Safety became the big driving force in standards that it is today. Over time the committee became not just safety advocates, but generally more technically knowledgeable. The manufacturers on the committee wanted safety for a couple of reasons – limiting liability and morality. Nobody likes losing friends, including manufacturers.

The committee is made up so no interest group can control the outcome. No more than 10 of the 30-person voting committee can be from the manufacturers. On top of that, many of us on the committee who represent manufacturers defer to the fire service voting block on most issues.

By the way, most of the manufacturing representatives are or were firefighters, or have been directly involved in the industry for decades. They’re not just suits. Plus, most issues get reviewed, debated and voted on over several meetings and go through the NFPA public scrutiny possess.

Firefighters and those who are in the fire service can get involved too. They can attend meetings as they are open to the public. They can also join and participate in one of the work groups and follow the process on the NFPA’s Web site. The people who actively participate over time wind up becoming committee members.

One of the biggest influencing factors in these safety changes is the availability of instant information via the Internet and other communications systems. Each week, I’m inundated with information about and photos of apparatus accidents, repair issues, equipment failures and operational issues from all over the world, and I am not alone.

This kind of information clued us all in that there is a center of gravity and weight distribution problem with many water supply apparatus (tankers and tenders), that fire personnel are not wearing seatbelts, that fire apparatus are being driven too fast and that being rear-ended is still a problem.

That’s why NFPA standards have been developed and have evolved. Yes, they cost money, but not nearly as much as some have said, and none of them have put the fire service out of business.

So, with this background, here’s a cost evaluation of the changes suggested for pumpers which are big parts of any apparatus fleet. For the purposes of evaluation, I’ve assumed a five-occupant cab, and I did not include any federal engine emission control or Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) chassis changes. You can’t blame NFPA for those.

To get list prices for the changes, I talked to people at truck chassis manufacturers, researched the Web and talked to apparatus manufacturers and dealers. In many cases, it looks like the market selling price is not finalized for some items, so I used the best estimated price available at this time. I did factor in labor to install these additional items, along with a profit margin for the apparatus builder and the dealer. In the end the competitiveness of the market will set the prices.

According to my estimates, the cost to make a typical pumper compliant with the latest NFPA standards is about $8,000 per unit. (See chart.) That’s nowhere near the draconian sums of money I have heard some people toss around. And, can we really put a value on a human being?

Now that you have looked at the list of changes, you see for yourself where the money is going. If you still have questions, or comments about the standards, participate in the meetings and contribute to the process. It’s not even necessary to join NFPA to participate.

Editor’s Note: Gary Handwerk is global pump product manager for Hale Products. He has been involved with the fire service industry for 36 years working for various fire apparatus or pump manufacturers and has been a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Apparatus Standards Committee for 15 years.

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