By Mark Cotter
Like most fire departments, mine has a range of fire apparatus vintages in service. Our station’s current first response engine is a model that was manufactured just as it was becoming accepted practice to protect firefighters by completely surrounding them with metal. As such an early attempt at enclosed cabs, it is basically a standard mid-engine mount pumper with a steel and glass box encasing the jump seats, two on each side. All of this engineering is designed to add a measure of protection to our life and heath as we are ferried at emergency speed through less than cooperative traffic.
Our engine’s jumpseat areas are about the size of a bathroom in a low-end RV, placing each firefighter in a vice-like arrangement between the outer wall/door and the motor enclosure. You sit while wearing full turnout gear, and you share this space with another, similarly attired firefighter, and a great big diesel engine thoughtfully, but worthlessly, insulated by a quilted blanket. With a full crew of an officer, driver, and four firefighters, just climbing on and settling into the seats is an exercise in teamwork. And then, everyone needs to find and attach their seatbelt.
Over the years, I have become somewhat of a jumpseat aficionado. Having spent so much of my career riding in them, and having been in a position to design – and redesign – a few, I’ve developed an appreciation of the importance of what I argue is the key determinant of fire apparatus functionality. Forget the pump panel, cab, and exterior storage cabinets. When I explore any new apparatus, the design of the jumpseats, and how they help firefighters perform several key functions, form my criteria for assessing its capabilities.
First, they must provide protection for firefighters. This is done with the use of seatbelts, tool fasteners, and adequate climate control capability. Responding to, or returning from, emergency incidents is the second leading cause of firefighter deaths, with about half of those caused by vehicle crashes. Enclosed cabs – even the uncomfortable version I currently squeeze into – go a long way toward protecting occupants. Still, without a seatbelt, firefighters are no better than unrestrained passengers in any other vehicle if a collision occurs.
Unsecured equipment adds even more danger. SCBA restraint straps are an NFPA mandate, and have been available since even my early days with the service. The mechanism on the apparatus of my youth consisted of a lever adjacent to the bottle that secured or released the SCBA, swinging forward in a wide arc just next to the bottle. I remember when the designated aerial tiller driver on a particular shift was detailed to the jumpseat of the engine as his truck was in the shop. Dutifully donning his SCBA en route to a call, he was left trapped in his seat on arrival because he neglected to release the lever before strapping his bottle on. Now, sturdy, but quick-release, straps and holders are available to secure every manner of fire tool.
Most any vehicle will keep firefighters dry, but the better ones can quickly and efficiently cool firefighters when it’s hot outside, or warm them when it’s cold, speeding crew recovery. An adequately-sized and air conditioned crew cab can eliminate the need for a separate rehab area for crews operating in the extremes of weather. The days of crew cabs that actually stress their occupants with high temperatures and deafening noise while riding should soon go the way of riding on tailboards.
The next most important thing is the ability to keep the crew informed while traveling to an emergency call using dedicated intercom headsets or adequate radio speakers that provide real-time information. With the right system, officers can relay specific assignments to the crew, especially if a situation requires other than the standard actions that firefighters might be expecting to perform. And, as communication is a two-way process, firefighters can often provide information valuable to the officer and driver based upon their previous experiences at a particular address.
Position cards – general instructions describing the standard roles and responsibilities of each member in the crew cab – offer a quick review of expected actions. These can be as simple as laminated note cards at each jumpseat listing the steps and required tools for that position when first due at a structure fire, or a virtual deck of cards listing the possible roles for second or third-in companies, and covering motor vehicle collisions, automatic alarms, or other incident types common to a particular jurisdiction. These are particularly helpful for volunteer departments where the individuals staffing an apparatus respond in an unpredictable order, as opposed to the career company where each member has a pre-assigned position for an entire tour. Still, even in the latter example, having a brief “cheat sheet” covering unusual types of incidents (multiple casualty incidents, high rise fires, hazardous material releases, etc) goes a long way toward preparing the crew before arrival on the scene. Just writing the cards up is a valuable exercise.
Finally, an adequate assortment of hand tools should be readily available, preferably allowing firefighters to disembark the apparatus with their equipment in hand. These must be safely stored, but also easily accessible, balancing the needs to carry a sufficient variety of equipment while preventing a clutter, keeping them handy, but not loose, and storing them, without hiding them one beneath another. The limited amount of storage space on a piece of fire apparatus, combined with the wide variety of fire and rescue tools on the market, and the infinite types of emergency situations that can be encountered, often results in the storage of equipment anywhere, and everywhere, it might fit. Sometimes, this leaves vital, but rarely used, equipment in hard to find (or remember) places.
Ideally, the process of developing the position cards will result in a list of tools and equipment that is expected to be utilized at typical incidents. These are the items that should have priority for mounting closest to the jumpseats. Things that are not used often, even if easily stored, should have a lower priority, and can logically and safely be placed in a more distant compartment or location. In general, you need to have ready what you need ready
Of all the features and fixtures available for jumpseats, though, the most important is the seatbelt. While we all know that their function is to protect the most precious of cargo (us), my experience is that they are worn with woeful rarity. Personally, I am more than willing to risk my life to save another (and I’ve done it more than I should just to save property), and I have all the faith in the world in our apparatus drivers, but I’m not going to trust my fate to the legions of clueless and careless drivers with whom we share the road.
Our newer apparatus have crew cabs bigger than any RV bathroom – a veritable executive washroom full of jumpseats. In addition to seating four firefighters, they carry an array of tools securely mounted. By the time this column is published, we will have replaced the engine I described above with a state of the art version, complete with spacious firefighter accommodations and all. The old engine will be delegated as a reserve, waiting to trap unsuspecting firefighters who try to exit while carrying a tool. As for me and my bruised elbows, I can hardly wait.
Mark Cotter joined the fire service more than 30 years ago, and is currently a volunteer firefighter/EMT-B with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. Previously, he served with departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an EMT-paramedic, emergency services consultant, and fire chief. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.