A 19-year-old volunteer firefighter driving a tanker died and his 19-year-old passenger was injured when their vehicle overturned while responding to a clothes dryer fire in a manufactured home in Washington State. The tanker consisted of a 1982 three-axle chassis to which a 3,000-gallon water tank had been added when it was converted to a fire department tanker .U

The posted speed limit was 35 miles per hour U the tanker was reportedly traveling 50 to 60 miles per hour U. The right front wheel of the tanker went off the pavement onto the gravel shoulder of the curve, causing the tanker to overturn onto its right side. It continued to roll while skidding forward, crushing the cab, before it came to rest on its left side.1

In the 10-year period from 1987 to 1996, 31 firefighters were killed in 27 fire department tanker crashes. Twenty-two tankers overturned, killing 24 firefighters. Two tankers went off the road without overturning, resulting in three deaths. Four firefighters were killed in three collisions involving fire department tankers.2 Since rural communities served by volunteer fire departments are less likely to have municipal water systems than the urban areas served by paid departments, the tanker accident is largely a volunteer phenomenon.


Water shuttle and tanker operations are dangerous for several reasons:

Economic. Many volunteer departments cannot afford to purchase commercially built fire department tankers. Many of the tankers were built to be something else. Old gasoline and fuel oil tank trucks often find a second life with a fire department as a tanker. Fuel oil tankers weren`t designed to carry water. Fuel oil weighs only 7.3 pounds per gallon compared with water`s 8.3 pounds. In a 2,000-gallon tanker, the difference can add 2,400 pounds to a load when water is on board instead of fuel oil.3 Gasoline weighs only six and a half pounds per gallon.

Commercial petroleum tank trucks converted for fire service use could be dangerous if not properly modified. The demands of the fire service differ considerably from those for which a commercial vehicle was designed. An oil truck might lack the power and performance for a swift response as well as the braking capabilities of a fire apparatus.4

Fatal rollovers involving tankers occur almost every year and are by far the most frequent cause of firefighter deaths involving tanker accidents. A high center of gravity is a major contributing factor in rollover accidents.

Utility and safety clash in water tank selection. A round tank is structurally the strongest design and least likely to leak. It also creates a tanker with the highest center of gravity. An elliptical tank is structurally weaker than a round tank and is more likely to leak. The elliptical tank has a lower center of gravity than a round tank but has a higher center of gravity than a rectangular or T-shaped tank. It is stronger and less likely to leak than a rectangular or T-shaped tank. A rectangular or T-shaped tank has the lowest center of gravity and is therefore least likely to roll over. However, it is weakest structurally and most likely to leak.5 If the tanker is to be dumped with a gravity dump, the lowest water in the tanker must be above the level of the top of the dump tank. This restricts the ability to lower the tanker`s center of gravity.

Lack of funding has forced many volunteer fire departments to build their own tankers from military surplus vehicles or other types of trucks. Frequently, the departments do not have adequate engineering skills to build these trucks without overloading them, incorrectly distributing weight on the axles or placing the center of gravity so high as to make it unsafe to operate the truck. Weight distribution is all-important in the handling of a heavy piece of fire apparatus and should be properly designed into the unit and verified by the actual weighing of each axle.6

Driving inexperience. Tanker drivers tend to be inexperienced. Half of the drivers involved in fatal tanker accidents between 1983 and 1992 were between the ages of 20 and 29. More than a fourth had less than one year of firefighting experience, and almost two-thirds had less than five years of experience. One of the deceased drivers had one week of firefighting experience.7

The volunteer fire service needs enthusiastic young people. However, enthusiasm without training and the judgment that comes with experience and maturity can be fatal. On the fireground, enthusiasm can be restrained with close supervision. Since tanker drivers are not generally closely supervised, restraint must come in the form of clearly understood written policies and training.

Age or general driving experience does not make an individual experienced in driving water tanker trucks. There is a considerable difference in the handling characteristics of a family car or pickup truck and a fire department tanker. Even commercial truck drivers may lack experience in driving a shifting load of water under emergency conditions. Firefighters used to driving commercially built fire trucks will often find that driving a department-built or converted tanker is a whole different beast.

Perceived need for speed. A perceived need for speed is often fatal. There is something about driving a red truck (or even a green one) with red lights flashing and siren screaming that makes even the most experienced driver go a little (or a lot) faster. Many firefighters cannot stand to have a mere civilian`s car pass their fire truck as it responds to an emergency. This perceived need for speed is compounded even more if someone at the fire scene is calling on the radio asking for an estimated time of arrival for the next tanker with comments about running out of water with firefighters committed to an interior attack.


The volunteer fire service can improve the statistics or eliminate this problem. However, before the problem can be solved, it must be recognized. The Fire Analysis and Research Division of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) identified the problem several years ago. Every year, in the July/August issue of the NFPA Journal, a report on the previous year`s firefighter fatalities is published. Almost every year, one or more fatal tanker accidents are profiled. These reports have featured several special analyses of tanker accidents and accidents that have occurred while responding to and returning from fires. Unfortunately, this publication is not widely read by volunteer firefighters. The NFPA will provide firefighters with copies of firefighter fatality reports free of charge.8

A literature search on tanker operations by the Learning Resource Center (LRC) staff at the National Emergency Training Center produced 74 references to water tankers.9 Most discussed how to move the greatest volume of water during shuttle operations and low-cost tanker conversion. There were a few references to tanker safety but none concerning the deadly consequences of accidents.

The importance of recognizing the problem is best shown by the dramatic reduction in firefighter injuries and deaths caused by falling off apparatus. Once that problem was recognized and positive steps were taken to correct it, the number of firefighters killed in this type of accident dropped to almost zero. The same results can be achieved for tanker accidents.


Reduce speed. One simple and cost-free step can go a long way. Slow down! A fire truck, even one that is overweight or has a high center of gravity, is much less likely to be involved in an accident at low speed. If there is an accident, the lower the speed, the less likely a serious injury or fatality will occur.

In most departments, large tankers are not the first fire department vehicle to respond. A slower response by the tanker should not delay the initial attack. In most fire districts, the difference between a 55-mile-per-hour response and a 35-mile-per-hour response will be only a couple of minutes.

When the Insurance Services Office (ISO) rates a fire department`s water shuttle operation, a tanker is given credit only for the time it can travel a distance at 35 miles per hour.10 With adequate preplanning, the number of tankers needed for a structure will be known before the fire. It is better to call more tankers, even at some distance, than to have a few tankers driving around at breakneck speed.

Several steps may be needed to reduce tanker speed. Drivers must understand the dangers of tanker operations. Sir Isaac Newton`s First Law of Motion, which states that an object moving in a straight line wants to keep going in a straight line at the same speed, applies to fire trucks. A fire truck, or any vehicle, going into a curve wants to go straight. When the driver wants to slow or stop, the truck and its load wants to keep going.11 Firefighters must understand that fire trucks are not exempted from Newton`s Law.

The fire service must recognize and drivers must understand that the fire department tanker is not really an emergency vehicle. It is an auxiliary vehicle delivering supplies, in this case water, in support of a fire engine. Most tankers do not meet current design standards for an emergency vehicle and should not be allowed to be driv-en as such. Fire departments might do well to turn off the emergency lights and sirens on tankers. Do these vehicles really need to be exercising the privileges of an emergency vehicle–exceeding the speed limit, passing through red signals and stop signs, weaving through traffic? Turning off the emergency lights and siren might reduce the psychological pressure on the driver to drive faster.

Fire departments must impose and enforce speed restrictions on tanker drivers. This restriction might be well below the posted speed limit. If necessary, a driver who can`t control his speed may have to be restricted in or prohibited from driving department vehicles. It is better to make a firefighter a little angry than to have to attend his funeral.

Training. Fire departments must require successful completion of ongoing driver training as a prerequisite to driving. State and local laws and department rules and regulations should be explained. The operation of trucks should be explained. All drivers should know how to perform a maintenance and safety check on any vehicle they may drive.

Drivers should have recent experience in driving every department vehicle they will drive under emergency conditions. There is only one way to get this experience. Go for a training drive. These drives should include experiencing a wide variety of driving conditions including negotiating hills and curves, driving in congested areas, making simulated emergency stops, backing up, and parking. The tanker is generally not the most exciting department vehicle to drive and therefore gets driven the least. Then again, its handling characteristics may make it so exciting to drive that no one may want to drive it. Last year`s driving experience is not good enough.

Establish procedures. Fire departments should adopt procedures to increase tanker safety. Incident commanders should never rush a tanker. If a fire is big or likely to get big, call a large force of tankers early on.

Ban driving while “under the influence.” Absolutely ban the driving of any department vehicle if any alcoholic beverage or mind-altering drug has been consumed. This ban should extend also to personal vehicles used for department calls.

Seat belts. A simple and inexpensive act will reduce the tragic consequences of tanker accidents: wear seat belts. In most states, seat belt use is mandated by law. Volunteer fire departments not only have a right to enforce seat belt policies, they have a duty to their members to do so.

Twenty-two of the 27 firefighters killed in tanker accidents between 1983 and 1992 were not wearing seat belts. Seventeen of the 22 were ejected or thrown from the vehicle.12 Wearing a seat belt gives you a 45 percent better chance of surviving a serious traffic crash and a 50 percent better change of surviving without severe injuries.13 National Transportation Safety Board statistics include several examples of accidents in which unrestrained firefighters died in accidents whereas restrained firefighters survived; all restrained firefighters survived serious apparatus accidents; and unrestrained firefighters were killed in accidents that resulted in their being thrown from the cabs of the apparatus, which remained structurally intact during the accident.14

Safety first. Make safety the primary consideration when buying or converting a tanker. Do everything possible to lower the center of gravity. Tanks should be rectangular or T-shaped when possible. Leave some margin between the actual weight of the vehicle and the rated Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW).

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) fought long and hard to have volunteer firefighters exempted from having to meet the federal requirements for a commercial driver`s license (CDL). The volunteer fire service must act to improve our safety record or risk having to meet the burden of getting each driver trained and tested to the standard of commercial drivers. While money to buy nice new tankers would be nice, it is not the real solution. Driver training and discipline, both relatively inexpensive, can prevent injuries and deaths.

* * *

An 18-year-old volunteer firefighter from the Virginia Eastern Shore was killed when his 2,000-gallon water tanker flipped on a back road curve. The tanker was responding to a false report of a fire at a chicken house. More than 850 people including about 500 firefighters and rescue workers from Tidewater, the Eastern Shore, Maryland, and Delaware attended the funeral. At the crowded, but quiet, cemetery, the young fireman`s parents clung to each other, weeping.15 n


1. Washburn, Arthur E., et. al, “1996 Firefighter Fatalities,” NFPA Journal, 91:4, July/Aug. 1997, 54.

2. Washburn, Arthur E., et al., “Special 10 Year Analysis of Firefighter Deaths While Responding to, or Returning from, Alarms,” NFPA Journal, 91:4, July-Aug. 1997, 54.

3. Cottet, Jack L., “How Much Water Can You Move?” Fire Engineering, Dec. 1987, 29-31.

4. Peters, William C. Fire Apparatus Purchasing Handbook (Saddle Brook, N. J.: Fire Engineering Books/Penn-well, 1994), 62.

5. Eckman, William F. The Fire Department Water Supply Handbook (Saddle Brook, N.J.: Fire Engineering Books/Pennwell, 1994), 352.

6. NFPA 1231, Standard on Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting: National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, Mass., 1989), 31.

7. Fatal Accidents Involving Tankers, 1983-1992, NFPA Fire Analysis and Research Division, 1993.

8. Forward your request to One Stop Data Shop, Fire Analysis and Research Division, National Fire Protection Association; One Batterymarch Park; Quincy, MA 02269-9101.

9. The Learning Resource Center (LRC) of the National Emergency Training Center, located in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is a valuable resource that is underutilized by the fire service. The LRC houses a collection of more than 50,000 books, reports, magazines, and audiovisual materials. The staff can perform a computer literature search. This can be an excellent starting point for any fire service research project. Arrangements for interlibrary loans can also be made. The LRC may be reached as follows: (800) 638-1821 (outside Maryland) and (301) 447-1030 (Maryland); fax (301) 447-3217; e-mail: netclrc@fema.gov; Internet: www.lrc.fema.gov.

10. Fire Suppression Rating Schedule, Insurance Services Office, New York, N.Y., 1980, 26.

11. Emergency Vehicle Driving Training Manual, 3rd Edition, Volunteer Firemen`s Insurance Services, Inc., York, Pa., 1990, 77.

12. Fatal Accidents Involving Tankers, NFPA, 1993.

13. Defensive Driving Course Guide, National Safety Council, 1992, 9.

14. Special Investigation Report, Emergency Fire Apparatus, National Transportation Safety Board, Washington, D.C., 1991, 17-20.

15. “18-Year Old Firefighter Dies, Responding to Call,” Pennsylvania Fireman, March 1995, 188.

DALE PERRY, a 27-year veteran of the volunteer fire service, is assistant chief of the Hull (GA) Volunteer Fire Department and president of the Madison County Volunteer Firefighters Association. He is an attorney by profession and is currently enrolled in the National Fire Academy`s Executive Fire Officer Program.

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