Apparatus Air Bags: A Life-Saving Option

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Side curtain airbags protect against fatal and paralyzing 
injuries to the neck, head, and face during a rollover.  
(Fire Apparatus Photo By Robert Tutterow)

A review of line-of-duty deaths for 2008 reveals some things that every fire department and every firefighter should give due diligence.

Both the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) produce reports on firefighter fatalities, and the NFPA’s numbers are usually lower primarily because the two organizations use different criteria for determining whether deaths from heart attack or stroke should be counted as on-duty.

The USFA reported 114 line-of-duty deaths in 2008, while NFPA put the total at 103. We will use NFPA’s analysis, which breaks down line-of-duty deaths by “type of duty.” Unbelievably, 38 percent occurred while responding to or returning from alarms. This compares to 28 percent on the fire ground, followed by 17 percent “other-on-duty;” 11 percent non-fire emergencies; and 7 percent training.

A couple of caveats: Some of the responding/returning LODDs are cardiac-related, and crashes can occur during any type of duty. Regardless, the numbers are totally unacceptable.

Vehicle crashes have been a focus of fire service safety advocates for years. An examination of the photos and articles on the popular Web site is but a sampling of the national problem (click on apparatus/vehicle/highway).

Granted, much has been written about the lack of seat belt use, lack of driver training, driving too fast, poorly maintained vehicles and other contributing factors in many apparatus accidents. 

But even if we are to be so fortunate to eliminate the contributing factors, there will always be vehicle accidents.

Many of you may remember the small sedan that T-boned an engine in California a few years ago. The sedan was traveling so fast that the impact knocked the engine over on its side. 

Because fire apparatus are among the largest and heaviest vehicles, there is a sense of invincibility among us as we compete for road space.

This all raises the question: how can firefighters be protected in significant collisions when other drivers are at fault or when other stuff happens? Current technology suggests the answer is airbags. The automotive industry started experimenting with airbags in the 1950s. But it was not until 1973, that the airbag-equipped automobile was made available to the public – if they bought an Oldsmobile Toronado. In 1998, airbags became standard on all automobiles.

More recently, the trucking industry has started to specify airbags in their big rigs, though they are not required. The trucking industry reports that almost 30,000 occupants of heavy trucks are injured annually with an average of 800 of them being fatal. It is significant to note that 60 percent of heavy truck fatalities and 45 percent of permanently disabling injuries involve rollovers.   

There are no requirements for airbags on fire apparatus. And, to date, there has been no proposal submitted to the NFPA Apparatus Technical Committee to consider them. However, eight of the nine major fire service custom cab and chassis manufacturers now offer airbags as an option for their cabs. 

The most important occupant protection is the use of seat belts. No one will deny that fact. However, fatal and disabling injuries can occur even if cab integrity is maintained and the occupants are belted. The hazard exists primarily with head movement during a crash. The head is tethered only by the neck and is susceptible to strike hardened parts of the cab interior or be jolted hard enough to cause spinal injury. This is where airbags serve their purpose.

The fire service has benefited from the research, testing and product development of Indiana Mills and Manufacturing, Inc. (IMMI), located just outside of Indianapolis. 

Crash Testing

The company’s motto is “Bringing Safety to People.” One of its divisions is LifeGuard Technologies, which is in the business of “Advanced Occupant Protection.”  LifeGuard is the primary manufacturer of airbags for custom fire apparatus, and its rollover airbag system is called “RollTek.” 

IMMI’s facility contains a crash testing lab where dummies are used for both rollover and frontal crashes. 

Observations of these crashes are very revealing. For example, it is shown that as suspension seats rise to their highest position, the occupants rise out of their seats, their heads strike the interior of the cab structure, and there is traumatic impact to the head and upper torso. 

RollTek integrates the airbag with the seatbelt system. Without the use of seatbelts, the system is not effective. When the monitoring system detects an imminent rollover, seatbelt pretensioners pull the seatbelts snug against the firefighter, suspension seats are brought to their lowest position (providing more survivable cab space for the firefighter) and the side airbags are deployed. The airbags protect the firefighter’s head and neck.

Another revelation of their testing clearly indicates that an unbelted firefighter becomes the worst enemy of the firefighter who is properly seated and belted. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video might be worth 10,000 words.  Every firefighter should view the videos available at When I teach safety to my department’s recruits, the highest of my priorities is that they view the videos. It should be a required training for every firefighter before being allowed to ride a fire apparatus. 

LifeGuard Technologies also makes a frontal impact airbag system called the 4Front. Frontal impact crashes are among the most common. Though typically minor in nature, the consequences can be fatal or disabling if the object being struck is a similar size or larger vehicle, or a fixed object such as a bridge support. 

Frontal Impact

The 4Front system detects a frontal impact, similar to car airbags, and tightens the seatbelts, lowers suspension seats and inflates two airbags. One airbag is in the steering wheel, and the other is a knee bolster bag located in the front of the officer’s seat. It should be stressed that the steering wheel in a heavy truck is mounted in a more horizontal than vertical position. In a frontal impact, the driver’s forward movement, even when belted, is greater than in a smaller vehicle with a vertically-mounted steering wheel. The steering wheel airbag adds new meaning to the saying “saving face.” 


LifeGuard Technologies has gone beyond airbags to meet the occupant safety challenges of firefighters with the introduction of its SmartDock Gen 2 SCBA seat holder. The inertia-based holder keeps the self-contained breathing apparatus properly secured (meeting the restraint requirements of NFPA 1901) and is released without the use of hands, i.e., no straps or levers. The SCBA can be inserted into the SmartDock Gen 2 with a single motion. It fits a variety of seats available to the fire service.

LifeGuard Technologies will soon be announcing a new vehicle data recorder (VDR). 

Reminder: Watch the videos.

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department health and safety officer. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee and is on two other NFPA committees, the Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Ensemble Technical Committee and the Technical Correlating Committee for Fire and Emergency Services PPE.

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