UTVs for the Fire Service, Part 1

This UTV wildland unit features modifications for the fire service, including roll-over protection structure (ROPS), robust suspension, positive locking mechanism for long-handle tools, chevron striping, and containment netting for restraint of lower legs andfeet.
This UTV wildland unit features modifications for the fire service, including roll-over protection structure (ROPS), robust suspension, positive locking mechanism for long-handle tools, chevron striping, and containment netting for restraint of lower legs andfeet. (Photo by author.)

In my December 2010 column, I wrote about ATVs, the role they are playing in emergency services, and the potential safety concerns surrounding them. In this month’s column, I’ll discuss the subject a bit further. I am now using the acronym UTV (utility terrain vehicle) rather than ATV (all terrain vehicle), as it is more appropriate for the fire service. The overwhelming majority of UTVs in the fire service are “side-by-side” units. This means there is seating for the driver and at least one additional passenger.

Safety concerns for the fire service include lack of design/performance criteria, lack of training, and UTV transport. The lack of any design/performance criteria is compounded when fire departments purchase stock UTVs and modify them to meet their service needs. The modifications are performed by contractors or by fire department members. Modifications can be as major as extending the wheelbase or as simple as mounting equipment.

For emergency services, the fire service should make sure that any major modifications are done with the written permission of the manufacturer. Keep in mind there are very few “aftermarket” conversion companies that have written permission from the manufacturer for major modifications. Making major modifications, or purchasing a UTV with major modifications, carries a liability risk and safety risk that no fire department should assume. Concurrently, a department should ask for the results of any performance testing conducted by the manufacturer or modifier. For example, ASAP (known for its wildfire, beach-and-trail patrol/rescue, and enclosed patient transport UTVs) has taken steps to help make its units specific to the mission of emergency services. It has an independent third-party test for its vehicles for slope-climbing, braking, and stability (tilt table). And, the air-conditioning system on its enclosed patient transport unit is independently third-party-tested. These tests, combined with tight quality-control measures, have convinced Polaris to extend its factory warranty on its Ranger 6×6 chassis after ASAP has made chassis modifications.

Load requirements are as important with UTVs as they are for fire apparatus. Cargo capacities range from 400 to 1,250 pounds for stock units. For the mission of emergency services, most UTVs will be at the heavier end of this range. Other considerations for heavier payloads should include heavy-duty springs, heavy-duty drive belt and clutch, and power steering. As I said in my December 2010 column, fire departments should take a look at the Legends Air Suspension system. This Kevlar® air spring technology will increase payload over standard shocks. They are adjustable “on the go” and make the ride on tough terrain smoother. Another company that makes a product to increase UTV safety is TCB Brake Systems™. Similar to ABS, they prevent premature lockup of the braking system.

Another safety concern is training—or the lack thereof. While searching for UTV training information, I found very little covering the advanced needs of emergency services. However, I had an interesting conversation with Travis Weeks, Performance East Training Group, to get a perspective on training. His group has done hands-on training for the military for the past five years. The group admits that it is not a basic safety training operation. It provides a course for the advanced rider who is looking to improve his skills. With more than 2,900 acres for training, the organization seeks to maximize the potential of each student. The program includes driving while using night vision and the proper way to use a winch. It offers a train-the-trainer program and a mechanics training program.

I asked Weeks what he saw as deficiencies in UTV training as it applies to emergency services. He says the students have no understanding of the machine. For example, they don’t understand the handling characteristics of belt drive systems and the UTV four-wheel-drive capabilities and limitations. He also sees a lack of maintenance and, as no surprise, overloading of vehicles with stock suspensions.

Weeks says that when purchasing a UTV, one of the most important things to have is proper suspension. He also said that a rollover protection structure (ROPS) is not an option for the fire service. It must be demanded. And, wearing a helmet and seat belt while driving or riding a UTV is not optional. In fact, the helmet and seat belt are integral to the safety protection provided by the ROPS. For example, in a collision or rollover, an occupant’s head is very likely to strike the ROPS. Structural fire helmets are not designed for crash protection while driving or riding a UTV.

Travis notes there is no governing body that sanctions side-by-side UTV training. He also noted that manufacturers offer very few additional features and modifications. This is predominantly an aftermarket process.

In next month’s column, I will discuss the safe transport of UTVs.

ROBERT TUTTEROW is safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).

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