Apparatus Built-in Safety Features

Rich Marinucci looks at how makeup components have made apparatus more complex.
In the not-too-distant past, fire apparatus were relatively simple in their components. In fact, many organizations used “backyard” mechanics to keep the vehicles on the road. But, like personal automobiles, the makeup components have made the vehicles more complex.

One of the areas in which the components have evolved is relative to the safe operation of the vehicle. Just as with cars, new developments intended to protect the operators and riders are continually being offered as part of fire apparatus. They will offer improved safety for firefighters for what have been traditionally dangerous times during emergency responses. Those responsible for the acquisition and maintenance of vehicles must be aware of what is available, what is mandatory, and how they impact operations.

Today’s passenger cars have rear cameras and collision avoidance systems to prevent backing accidents. Think of the value to fire departments. If you can reduce the risk of hitting something with fire apparatus while going backward, you will be onto something. There have been too many cases of firefighters and civilians being hit by trucks going backward. Departments have tried their best to eliminate this by using spotters and backup personnel. But because it involves human intervention, there have been lapses and there are still too many collisions.

Firefighters either do not use the appropriate level of diligence or flat-out don’t do what policy requires. In other cases, poor staffing does not permit extra personnel all the time to serve in this role. In addition to the casualties, untold property damage occurs.

But even with safety devices, there is a need for training, human intervention, and sound policies. In some instances, some firefighters, either intentionally or inadvertently have neglected to follow existing policies, which have resulted in crashes.

As an example, I once was investigating an accident where a compartment door was left open while the truck was leaving the station on a call. There were warning alarms in the cab alerting the crew that a door may be open. When asked, the crew stated that they thought the alarm was because they “weren’t wearing their seat belts”!

The point is that the firefighters disregarded a safety device because they thought it was another alarm intended to protect them! So, the components intended to improve safety must be such that they minimize the need for human action to be effective to the maximum.

Any firefighter who regularly and routinely responds to crashes knows how effective air bags are at protecting the occupants of the vehicles when they are deployed. What used to be serious wrecks now result in minor or no injuries because of the safety devices.

Fire apparatus with air bags will prove to be just as beneficial. But the supplemental restraint systems only maximize their benefit when seat belts are worn. This may be a challenge in some organizations that still struggle to get firefighters to wear the belts. While it would be nice to think that firefighters will embrace the concept, you should know that you will need a policy and then have supervisors willing to enforce that policy.

As always, a good practice to get into when considering apparatus is to look to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, for guidance. The document has always been the leader for the industry regarding apparatus and will continue to do so. The people on the technical committee know their stuff. They will do their best to stay on top of things including safety components.

There is one caveat to consider: The process to update the standard takes time, and emerging safety considerations may take a couple of years to get into the standard. In these cases, it is always good to look at the manufacturers to see what items they offer above and beyond the published standard.

There are leaders in the industry, and their innovations should be considered. If safety items that make sense to you are available, they should be included. You can evaluate their value based on effectiveness in existing vehicles and the recommendations of others.

Statistically speaking, one of the more dangerous places to work is in the roadways. Much has been done to try and improve this situation. The marking and lighting of apparatus have undergone much study so that the best arrangements are suggested for the trucks.

Even still, there are departments that deviate from the best recommended practice so they can design their own vehicle and put their mark on it. You should learn as much about this as you can and research why certain markings and lighting patterns are in the standard. Do not deviate from a standard unless you have clear evidence of a better way of doing things.

Knowing what you have on your vehicle is critical. New apparatus have data recording systems. You might know them as being akin to the “black boxes” on airplanes. They will do what the name implies: record data. Should there be a crash or other incidents that generate inquiries, the device will provide information relevant to an investigation. You will know speed, braking, and other elements of how the vehicle was being driven. You and your members must know that this is taking place. It may not change everyone’s behavior but should be an influence in motivating better driving habits.

There are other products that do similar things. Departments who have used them are seeing better driving that not only reduces the risk for crashes but also can save on maintenance costs such as brake repair. There can be some pushback from members, as they may not like “big brother” watching them. Do your homework before jumping in, and consider all aspects.

There is no doubt that more emphasis is being placed on the safety of firefighters. Riding in apparatus, especially when using lights and sirens, remains one of the risks to firefighters. There are developments to add more safety devices to apparatus that will help minimize risks. This also extends to things being done regarding the clean cab concept. Departments must pursue all the options available to help promote firefighter safety related to apparatus. The established nationally recognized standards do a great job of adding in components. In addition, the manufacturers are always looking at items to make their vehicles safer. Doing whatever you can to protect firefighters with engineering is prudent and contributes to the ability of responders to focus on the service they will be providing.


RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief (ret.) of the White Lake Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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