Are We Producing Safer Apparatus?

By William C. Peters

NFPA: “29 Firefighters Killed in
Motor Vehicle Crashes in 2008”

USFA: “24 Firefighter Deaths
While Responding/Returning”

Year after year, 100-plus firefighters die in the line of duty. The statistics are fairly consistent, reporting that about 25 percent of these deaths are in the broad category of “motor vehicle crashes responding to and returning from alarms.” The question becomes, if the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Apparatus Committee continues to improve NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, at every revision, why are one-quarter of the annual fatalities related to motor vehicle accidents?

To answer this question, I carefully reviewed the NFPA report “Fire Fighter Fatalities in the United States, 2008” and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) Report “2008 Report on Fire Fighter Fatalities in the United States.” The NFPA report uses the term “Vehicle Related Incidents” and the USFA report has a category “Responding/Returning.” The NFPA report reveals the following: Of the 29 killed in vehicle-related crashes,

  • 14 firefighters were killed in four aicraft crashes,
  • six firefighters were killed in their privately owned vehicles (POVs), and
  • one firefighter was killed while sitting in his POV at the scene of an accident when it was struck from behind.

 

So 21 out of the 29 deaths reported had absolutely nothing to do with actual automotive fire apparatus covered by NFPA 1901.

The remaining eight fatalities that did involve fire apparatus were as follows:

  • Two firefighters died in a single accident involving a wildland apparatus.
  • Four firefighters died in pumper or pumper/tanker (tender) accidents.
  • One firefighter died in a tanker (tender) accident.
  • One firefighter was killed in a fire department ambulance.

 

In all of the accidents, the driver was the fatality; in the wildland apparatus accident, the passenger also perished.

 

ACCIDENT SCENARIOS

 

I used both reports on each accident to better understand exactly what contributed to the cause of each crash. I offer the following summaries.

Wildland apparatus accident. Two firefighters died in a commercial wildland apparatus while traveling at excessive speed for road conditions. They drove off a wooden bridge that had burned away and collapsed; the apparatus struck an embankment on the far side. Conditions in the area included blowing dust, smoke, and wind. Neither firefighter was wearing a seat belt, and one was partially ejected.

Pumper/tanker responding to an EMS call. The driver of a pumper/tanker lost control of the vehicle when he went off the left side of the road, overcorrected to the right, then rolled off the right side of the road; the vehicle landed on its roof. The driver was not wearing his seat belt and was ejected. Driver distraction involving the use of the radio was cited as a contributing factor. It was noted that the firefighter needed to disconnect his seat belt to reach the radio controls on the right side of the cab.

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(1) Photo by Tim Gerhart.

Tanker (tender) responding. A tanker (tender) responding to a structural fire encountered a 90° curve with a posted speed limit of 10 miles per hour (mph). The apparatus failed to negotiate the turn and rolled on the driver’s side, striking a large tree. The roof of the commercial chassis was crushed. The driver was wearing his seat belt and needed extrication after the accident. Excessive speed was cited as the cause.

Pumper responding. A commercial chassis pumper responding to a garage fire encountered a farm tractor approaching from the opposite direction on a straight stretch of road. The tractor pulled to the side of the road and stopped. While attempting to pass, the firefighter drove the pumper off the right side of the roadway, corrected to the left in an attempt to get back on the pavement, and rolled the apparatus several times. Both the driver and his passenger were not wearing seat belts. The driver was ejected and suffered fatal traumatic injuries. The NFPA report indicated also that he was intoxicated.

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(2, 3) The roofs of commercial chassis apparatus involved in two of the reported incidents were crushed in the rollover. (Photos courtesy of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.)
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Pumper/tanker responding to a call. A pumper/tanker responding to an emergency call was making a left turn when the driver lost control and struck a telephone pole; the apparatus overturned. The driver was wearing his seat belt but was fatally injured when the roof of the commercial chassis was crushed. Two other firefighters in the cab were injured.

Pumper returning from a call. A pumper returning from a fire response encountered a steep, downhill winding road. The driver went off the left side of the road, overcorrected to the right, then lost control and rolled the apparatus off the right side of the road and overturned. The driver was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected and fatally injured. This was the young firefighter’s first response as a driver. Inexperience and excessive speed were cited as contributing factors. In addition, the commercial chassis involved was more than 30 years old and lacked many modern safety features.

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(4, 5) Apparatus accidents result in firefighter injuries and deaths, loss of apparatus, and possibly civilian loss of life at the call to which the apparatus is responding. (Photos by Ron Jeffers.)
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Ambulance returning from a call. The operator of a fire department ambulance was returning from a call when he observed an oncoming vehicle drift over the center line into his lane. He steered to the right in an attempt to avoid a collision but was struck head-on. The driver and his passenger were both wearing seat belts. The driver had to be extricated and died of his injuries. The passenger received only minor injuries.

 

ACCIDENT CAUSES

 

From the accident scenarios described, it is evident that excessive speed, driver distraction, and inexperience handling a heavy vehicle were the primary causes. In one case, intoxication was a contributing factor. In the case of the ambulance, even though evasive action was taken, the cause of the accident was the other driver and was unavoidable.

In all of the accidents reported here, commercial chassis apparatus were involved. Some of the reports indicated that the roof crushed as a result of the accident. Only in the accident involving the 30-year-old pumper on the downgrade was the vehicle cited as a possible contributing cause—it wasn’t equipped with several modern safety features.

Some of the accidents might have been survivable if the personnel involved had worn seat belts and had not been ejected.

 

NFPA STANDARDS AND SAFETY

 

The NFPA apparatus standard has improved firefighter safety greatly over the years. Quite often the reason for the addition of a certain requirement is the committee’s becoming aware of an ongoing safety issue.

One of the biggest safety upgrades was introduced in 1991, when fully enclosed riding compartments with seats and seat belts for all members riding on the apparatus took members off the rear step.

In 1996, new requirements for conspicuous warning light placement and output improved apparatus visibility. During the same revision, secondary braking devices (engine brakes and retarders) were required for apparatus with a more than 36,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).

In 1999, antilock braking was required on all apparatus, as were improved steps and handrails.

In response to several fatalities involving the public, hosebed restraints were required after the 2003 edition was published.

The 2009 (current) edition addresses many of the issues that contribute to accidents.

  • Seat belt warning device. A seat belt warning device is required. There is no doubt that more lives would be saved if personnel routinely wore seat belts.
  • Electronic roll stability control or tilt-table testing. Roll stability control uses a combination of reducing acceleration and application of certain brakes when an unstable condition is detected, to reduce the likelihood of a rollover. The tilt-table testing is to ensure that the apparatus’ loaded center of gravity is not so high as to cause it to turn over on a curve.
  • Speed restrictions on heavier apparatus. Apparatus with a GVWR of more than 26,000 pounds are limited to a maximum of 68 mph. Apparatus with a GVWR of more than 50,000 pounds or having in excess of 1,250 gallons of water or combined water/foam are limited to not more than 60 mph. There was a great deal of controversy over this requirement, but it is undeniable that drivers of heavy apparatus traveling at excessive speeds have greater difficulty stopping and remaining in control.
  • Cab strength requirements. Cab strength requirements have been added to better protect members in a collision or rollover.

 

 

SOLUTIONS

 

The following statistics were cited in an article about firefighter injuries in the NFPA Journal (November/December 2009): In 2008, fire departments in America responded to approximately 25.3 million incidents, and it is estimated that there were 14,950 collisions involving fire department emergency vehicles. The number of collisions represents approximately one-tenth of one percent of the total number of responses. The ratio might even be lower, as oftentimes a reported incident involves several pieces of apparatus responding.

Although the loss of even one firefighter in a vehicle accident is too many, I am convinced that the vehicle improvements over the years stemming from modern technology and increased NFPA apparatus standards have saved many lives.

I believe operator error involving speed and the inability to properly react when the apparatus has wandered off the road were the primary causes of most of the fatal accidents in 2008. Contributing to the fatalities were the lack of seat belt use and the commercial cabs that could not withstand a rollover. Seat belt warnings, roll stability, and cab integrity have all been addressed in the 2009 edition of NFPA 1901.

Now, if we can get our drivers to slow down and our members to religiously wear their seat belts (including when responding in their privately owned vehicles), we may get that fatality number closer to zero!

WILLIAM C. PETERS retired after 28 years with the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department, having served the past 17 years as battalion chief/supervisor of apparatus. He served as a voting member of the NFPA 1901 apparatus committee for several years and is the author of the Fire Apparatus Purchasing Handbook, the apparatus chapters in The Fire Chief’s Handbook, and numerous apparatus-related articles. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and of the FDIC executive advisory board.

 

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