Size Does Matter

The debate over why firefighters often fail to fasten their seatbelts has raged on for at least six years. Most apparatus manufacturers cannot understand why so many firefighters routinely neglect to fasten the seatbelts that are provided for them, and they place the blame squarely on reckless attitudes and a lack of discipline to enforce basic safety rules. Firefighters often point to the lack of user-friendliness in the design of fire apparatus that makes it impossible or impractical to fasten their belts. Both sides of the discussion have merit, and the ultimate solution will have to look at the problem from a global perspective.

As a senior member of the fire service, I am prepared to accept the responsibility to educate firefighters on the importance of using seatbelts and taking responsibility for their own safety. I am also prepared to enforce the full range of rules and regulations that define appropriate firefighter behaviour. At the same time, I have a responsibility to provide our firefighters with all the resources that will allow them to perform their duties safely and effectively, including fire apparatus that meets their realistic needs.

Frustrated Company Officer

Within the past month I was confronted by a very concerned and frustrated company officer who wanted to know why we can’t purchase fire apparatus with enough room in the cab to properly accommodate a firefighter wearing a standard protective clothing ensemble. This came from an extremely conscientious officer (one who absolutely requires every member of his crew to be seated and buckled-up before the driver is permitted to put the truck in gear). He was obviously unhappy that the cab of his ladder truck was so cramped that he had to fasten his seatbelt before closing the door and then ride sitting in a semi-side-saddle position with his legs wedged into a narrow space between the seat and the front of the cab. It seemed like a very reasonable question, considering that the apparatus was brand new and had been purchased for close to a million dollars. I had to admit to him that it was an unacceptable situation from a safety perspective as well as a comfort and functionality issue.

We have been talking about the problem of providing sufficient space for firefighters to ride safely and comfortably in modern fire apparatus for several years. While some progress has been made, particularly in the crew seating areas of custom cab apparatus, the restricted up-front space for drivers and officers is still a serious safety problem. Since we don’t have the option of restricting those seats to occupants who fit into the space, we need to focus more engineering effort on making the space fit the range of potential users.
The National Fire Protection Association’s 1901 apparatus standard includes a requirement for seating areas to provide a seat and an approved seat belt for each riding position to accommodate an individual “with and without heavy clothing.” The only specific dimensions are a minimum seat cushion width of 18 inches and at least 22 inches of shoulder width for each seating position. These figures are based on human body dimension data that is more than 50 years old, while the average adult has grown in height, weight and all related body dimensions.

The 2010 edition of NFPA 1901 includes a much-needed formula to ensure that seat belts are long enough to reach around a fully-dressed firefighter, and an appendix notation was added to the 2010 edition that cautions against trying to fit four seats across the width of a crew compartment. Neither of these changes addresses the problem that is frequently encountered in the front of the cab, where the driver and officer seats have to be squeezed into the spaces that are left in between the engine enclosure and the cab doors. In a typical custom cab configuration this space tends to be very close to the 18 inch minimum allowance for a seat cushion.

Awkwardly Crammed

When this issue was first identified it didn’t take long to figure out that a very significant percentage of today’s firefighters are challenged to fit their posteriors into an 18-inch-wide space, even before donning their protective clothing. When we add the clothing bulk, plus typical accessories and attachments, there simply isn’t enough width for many individuals to squeeze into that space and then pull out and properly fasten a seat belt. The predictable results are individuals awkwardly crammed into inadequate spaces and far too many unfastened seatbelts. We will never solve the seatbelt problem until we solve the space problem.

The space constraints are not limited to seating width. Many of today’s cabs are so tight that drivers are barely able to move their feet from the accelerator to the brake or to turn the steering wheel without bumping an elbow. Officers complain that that their knees are pressed against the glove compartment and they can’t move their arms freely to manipulate the radio, siren controls, map books, reference materials or computer terminals. At the other end of the scale, some apparatus drivers are so vertically challenged that they cannot reach the pedals without perching themselves on the leading edge of the driver’s seat.

Challenging Problems

All of this adds up to a series of challenging human factors engineering problems, compounded by the fact that environmental standards are continually creating greater demands for engine compartment space and encroaching on seating space. We cannot simply ignore the problem and refer to an NFPA standard that is obviously outdated. We have to figure out a better cab configuration that fits today’s firefighters.

The definitive data that will be needed to redefine the seating space requirements is in the process of being collected through a study of firefighter anthropometrics funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The results should be available within the next year. We already have a reasonable data set from the preliminary study that was conducted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation with support from The National Institute of Standards and Technology over the past two years. The NIOSH project is expanding the size of the data sample and the sophistication of the measurements and analysis. All of this data is or will be readily available to the apparatus industry and to anyone who needs realistic data on current firefighters.

In the meantime we need to get the cab and chassis manufacturers to start looking for ways to provide realistic space to accommodate the firefighters who have to ride in their vehicles. The solution will have to involve some serious reconfiguration of cab designs, because sanding a fraction of an inch from the door panels and engine compartments will simply not get the job done. We have to look at alternatives for positioning the engine, lowering the frame rails or configuring the seating areas to provide several inches of additional space for the occupants and more leeway for adjustment of seats, pedals and other components to meet individual needs. Let’s get the smart guys working on it now!

Editor’s Note: J. Gordon Routley is a division chief and technical advisor to the fire chief in Montreal, Canada. He previously served as assistant to the fire chief in Phoenix, Ariz.; as fire chief in Shreveport, La.; and as safety officer in Prince George’s County, Md. He is a professional engineer and provides consulting services to fire departments and fire service-related organizations in the United States and Canada with an emphasis on firefighter health and safety.

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