Have a Seat, Part 1

Robert Tutterow   Robert Tutterow


Buckle up … if you can. But, what if it is extremely difficult to buckle up in the narrow seating configurations of most custom fire apparatus?


The seating is so cramped that buckling a seat belt is often difficult for average-size firefighters wearing street clothes. When wearing turnout gear, the problem worsens. If a firefighter is above average in size and wearing turnout gear, the task of buckling a seat belt can be most frustrating. To illustrate the cramped conditions, I recently had a discussion with a firefighter who was approximately six feet, three inches tall and 265 pounds with the build of a defensive end. He told me that when he drives his department’s apparatus, without turnout gear, he has to keep the window down to allow room to maneuver his left elbow to safely turn the steering wheel.

Historical Perspective

Why has the fire service accepted such a bad seating arrangement for so long? It is certainly not a new problem. A small group of fire service personnel started addressing this problem more than eight years ago. This is evidenced by my September 2006 column in this publication. Several excerpts from that column are pertinent to the background of this issue:

“Seat belt usage, or the lack thereof, is definitely a ‘front and center’ topic in the industry. Fortunately, a few fire service organizations and key fire service leaders have decided to take action. This past April [2006], an ad-hoc group of interested persons representing the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Health & Safety Section, the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA), and the Safety Task Group [now defunct] of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Technical Committee on Fire Apparatus met in Indianapolis, Indiana, to explore opportunities. It was not a pleasant meeting. The manufacturing sector could not understand why the fire service, with its paramilitary organizational structure, could not mandate seat belt usage. Granted, it is hard to argue with their position. However, fire service representatives pointed out the extreme difficulty in many fire apparatus cabs to buckle up. The seats are ‘shoe-horned’ around the engine compartment of custom cabs, the straps are hard to reach and get tangled with the self-contained breathing apparatus straps; the straps are too short. This was getting emotional.

“Luckily, a nonemotional thought process rose to the top, and a plan of action was formed. Foremost, a firefighter anthropometric study [human body measurements] was proposed. In the following weeks, representatives from FAMA quickly developed a comprehensive study [protocol]. The study includes almost 40 measurements (including weights) of a firefighter. The weights are recorded in street clothes and with full PPE. Lap belt and shoulder strap length requirements are measured. The Los Angeles (CA) and Charlotte (NC) Fire Departments were selected to do the pilot study. These two departments reacted immediately to measure 60 firefighters for validation and finetuning of the study. The data was presented at a second meeting of the ad-hoc multiorganizational group in [July].

“Three things were apparent from the initial analysis:

  1. The study is very useful.
  2. More firefighters need to be measured to represent a valid sampling.
  3. There is an opportunity to improve seating and seat belt/shoulder strap accessibility.

“Though the initial measurements are preliminary, it appears firefighters are larger and heavier when wearing full PPE than originally believed by industry experts. At the time of this writing, a strong action plan is moving forward. At least a thousand firefighters will be measured.”


Since that time, that “strong action plan” has evolved into a recently completed National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath (NIOSH) report titled, “Safe Seating and Seat Belts in Fire Apparatus: Anthropometric Aspect.” It reports on results from measuring 863 male firefighters and 88 female firefighters from four locations across the country-Rockville, Maryland; Phoenix, Arizona; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Fort Worth, Texas. Measurements included 16 dimensions that relate to seat and seat belt design.

The report explains the history of the seating issue and provides detailed explanation of the methodology of measuring the firefighters-with and without turnout gear-and how that relates to determining the needed seat dimensions for fire apparatus. The study references two surveys that show the extent of the problem.

One survey found that 25 percent of fire departments say their firefighters experience difficulty buckling seat belts. However in another survey of individual firefighters, 48 percent of males and 38 percent of female firefighters experienced difficulty. When reviewing these numbers, keep in mind that this is not an issue with commercial cabs unless the manufacturer or fire department has modified the chassis or added items.

The bottom line of the report is that seat width should be a minimum of 28 inches to accommodate 95 percent of firefighters wearing turnout gear. NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus (2009 ed.), calls for a minimum of only 22 inches. Most custom fire apparatus in service and being built today barely meet the current standard.

A Sampling of Measurements

Upon learning of this report, I had an opportunity to measure several apparatus cab seating arrangements at the South Atlantic Fire Rescue Expo in Raleigh, North Carolina. I measured the seating in 15 small commercial cabs (heavy-duty pickup type), 13 large commercial cabs, and 36 custom cabs. All of the small and large commercial cabs met the proposed 28-inch minimum width seating configuration as long as there was no attempt to seat three across. There were a couple of very wide consoles that had been added to some of the commercial cabs that prohibited a 28-inch width. Of the 36 custom cabs, three met the proposed 28-inch minimum standard and two more were very close, depending on the seat adjustment. Note that three of the apparatus cabs did not even meet the current minimum 22-inch seat width.

A 28-inch minimum seat width can be done. It has been done.

In next month’s column, I will further discuss the recent action of the NFPA Fire Apparatus Technical Committee on this issue. If you are in the process of writing specifications for a new custom cab apparatus, please make seat width a priority and ask for a minimum of 28-inch-wide seats. The reaction from the manufacturers submitting bids should be interesting.

As you consider this issue, keep in mind the 16 Life Safety Initiatives developed more than 10 years ago. Number 16 states: “Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.”

ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is 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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