Apparatus Cabs Need Improvement (A Challenge to the Industry) Part 2

Robert TutterowBy Robert Tutterow

In last month’s column, a challenge was made to apparatus manufacturers, component manufacturers and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Technical Committee on Apparatus to improve cab entrance and egress.

That challenge dovetailed with another from Montreal Division Chief Gordon Routley to improve the cab seating space for firefighters so that seatbelts can be more easily buckled.

Last month’s column referenced a review of injuries in my department to firefighters while they were getting in and out of fire trucks. During a 22-month period from January 2009 through October 2010, we averaged one injury per month. This resulted in 92 days of lost time, 315 days of restricted duty, an incurred cost of $107,739.77 and an actual cost of $44,259.80. (Incurred cost is the amount is set aside for treatment of the injury once a diagnosis is made.) The actual cost figures continue to rise as treatment is still being provided to some of the injured firefighters. Reducing these types of injuries is a goal of my department.

This is not a new problem, and there have been efforts to improve the situation. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Safety Task Group of the NFPA Technical Committee on Apparatus had a “cab ergonomics” sub-task group. At that time, ergonomics was a popular buzzword in human workplace studies. The group had a difficult time trying to apply ergonomics to fire cabs, but the discussions helped create industry awareness.

As a result, we have definitely seen an improvement in cab designs, especially with dashboards. One outcome of the sub-task group was establishing minimum standards for steps, standing surfaces and grab handles. These requirements apply to the body of the truck, not just the cab.

Step, standing surface and grab rail requirements today include:

  • Maximum stepping height from ground to the first step of no more than 24 inches.
  • Maximum step height for all other steps of no more than 18 inches.
  • A minimum of 25 square inches for a step surface.
  • Minimum slip resistance criteria.
  • Lighted steps and standing surfaces.
  • Minimum and maximum handrail diameters.
  • A distance of at least 2 inches from a handrail to the mounting surface.
  • A design layout providing three points of contact while climbing or descending (one foot/two hands or two feet/one hand).

These requirements illustrate that standards do make a difference. Using my department again as an example, in 1990 we experienced injuries related to getting on and off fire trucks or accessing equipment or servicing the apparatus an average of once a week (52). This data was provided to the NFPA Safety Task Group as part of the substantiation for new requirements on steps and standing surfaces.

A review of the same type of injuries for our department in 2009 revealed only 23 such injuries. And 13 of those 23 were some of those referenced earlier related to getting in and out of the cab. This is particularly noteworthy in that during the intervening 19 years – with the 1990 fleet retired and newer apparatus manufactured to the revised standard – the number of firefighters increased by 41 percent (784 to 1,102) and the number of incidents increased 132 percent (39,260 to 91,309). Yet, injuries were reduced by more than 50 percent.

With all of this as background, what can be done to improve cab ergonomics? Chief Routley mentioned in his July 2010 column regarding cramped cab interiors that “we have to figure out a better cab configuration that fits today’s firefighters.” He later stated, “We have to look alternatives for positioning the engine, lowering the frame rails…”

Without a doubt, the demand for space in cabs is centered on frame rails, the engine and the wheel wells. Could we not place the firefighters and build the truck around them? It seems that firefighters have been an afterthought since the days of motorized fire apparatus. For years, the tailboard was the “crew compartment.” Finally firefighters got a roof over their heads and a bit of heat from the engine with canopy cabs. And in the late 1980s, it was determined that firefighters should have an enclosed cab (usually with climate control).

Is it possible to fit the frame rails, engine, and wheel wells around the firefighters rather than vice-versa? Maybe not, but the discussion needs to occur.

Let’s start with the frame rails. At the 1994 Interschutz show, British manufacturer Dennis Fire displayed a chassis designed with a truss frame rather than frame rails. The design lowered the entire truck and the center of gravity by several inches. The story going around the show was the design was very effective in the popular British “roundabouts” (traffic circles). Perhaps a viable alternative is there. With frame rails, do they have to extend to the front of the apparatus? Could they stop at the rear of the cab? This would add new meaning to term “cab forward”.

What about the wheel wells? Could we safely maneuver an apparatus if the front wheel wells were behind the cab?

What about the engine? Rear engine and mid-engine fire trucks have been built. There are cooling problems, service access problems and weight distribution problems in these configurations. But can they be overcome? We’ve experienced good success with rear-mounted pumps. Is it time to take another look at front-mounted pumps?

What about a concept to build upon? For example, how about adding this requirement to the NFPA 1901 standard: “Entrance and exit from the ground to the highest point of the cab floor shall not be more than one step, and that maximum ground to step height shall be no more than 12 inches.” We have kneeling buses and kneeling ambulances. Why not build kneeling fire trucks?

The NFPA Technical Committee has always struggled with the fact that fire apparatus is not a “player” in the overall truck market because of the very low number of units built. This leads to problems of developing standards for both commercial and custom chassis. In recent years, there has been valid discussion that the standard should be written based on need and not around existing products. The purpose of standards is not to protect existing product lines. Just maybe, there is a design that fits the fire industry perfectly, but also has crossover into other types of trucking.

As Chief Routley concluded in his column, “Let’s get the smart guys working on it now!”

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow is safety coordinator for the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active with 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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