How to be safer in fire rigs

There's key areas you can focus on to improve your safety in fire apparatus while responding to incidents

Now that I am back on track writing in my continuation of the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, I want to take us down the roadway of line-of-duty deaths as it relates to Initiative 16: Make safety a primary consideration in the design of apparatus & equipment. While this Initiative also involves equipment, which I will continue to focus on in the next column, I want to specifically look here at apparatus design and vehicle collisions.

I think back to some of the craziness as a young firefighter that I engaged in. Our first-out apparatus was a 1980 FMC with rear facing jumpseats in an exposed rear cab.

Never, ever, did I wear a seat belt in that rig; in fact they were in the way most of the time and were usually found draped inside the removable seat storage compartment where we kept most of the hand tools. I can remember standing up riding down the road and often could be found hanging on the side step just before we came to a stop so I could deploy quicker into the action.

If I were riding the jumpseat, I can remember how I often preferred it when the FMC was out of service so we could drop to the back-up unit — a 1967 Ford if I recall correctly — which meant I was riding tailboard, baby!! Yes sir, even in 1990 I was riding tailboard. Sounds crazy but it's all true.

And then we began upgrading the fleet with Pierce enclosed cabs with air conditioning, head sets, neat emergency lights, etc. All the luxuries, and the rigs kept getting nicer and nicer. But in those early days, the safety design of apparatus wasn't that important to me.

Acted the way I was taught
I was taught by some of the best firefighters and I acted the way they did, which was probably the way they in turn had been taught: Stand up when you're riding jumpseat on 318, use one hand to look cool when riding the tailboard on 316, be sure to wear your headsets and don't worry about the seat belt when you ride Engine 1.

As I've always stated in my columns, I'm lucky to be here and I never criticize, only try to convince that there are safer and smarter ways of doing things from the way we used to.

As we look back at 2010 and the 85 line-of-duty deaths that we experienced, let's break down those involving vehicles. We lost two on alternative vehicles (Snowcat and a CCV), we lost five in crashes involving their personal vehicles, and we lost two in an apparatus crash where they were both ejected and no seat belts were used.

So I ask the question: Is this an area where we see some improved trending at least when it comes to emergency vehicles?

We see more and more stories about firefighters who are involved in apparatus crashes but escape with their lives intact because they were wearing seat belts, and/or the design of the apparatus protected them.

In fact, I just had a close friend involved in a single vehicle apparatus crash, but the fact they had their seat belt on not only protected them but kept them in the driver's seat so they could remain in command of the apparatus until it came to a stop.

Escaped injury free
I had a report from one of our Advocates about a rollover crash in Maine where the occupants were able to escape injury free simply because of wearing their seat belt. And I know there are dozens of stories that we haven't heard about or led the headlines of the assorted websites and magazines simply because nothing significant happened.

I truly believe that the National Seat Belt Pledge that we have heard about from Dr. Burton Clark, our Advocates from the Everyone Goes Home Program, and the work carried out by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation is finally paying off.

But there is still resistance and that we must overcome. I was told of a story one time that a department in the northeast was so determined not to wear seat belts that they had blue T-shirts with a red stripe printed on it (same color of their seat belts) so it would appear they were in compliance with the new policy, at least from a distance.

However, the seat belt crosses the chest in different directions depending on which seat you are in, but the T-shirts didn't …OOOPS! They were caught.

For me, the issue of why firefighters are so scared of seat belts comes down to one main thing: "I can't put my air pack on when I wear my seat belt." For most departments, the percentage that are wearing an SCBA in the apparatus is less than 1 percent.

What about the medical runs, general service calls, or just returning to the station? Even with the most state-of-the-art air bags and apparatus design, if the vehicle rolls, and you aren't wearing your seat belt, you are going to hit something hard!

Air bag scare stories
Remember back when air bags first came out? "Air bags are killing people!" In the older days, there were three letters imprinted on the steering wheel and dashboard — SSD:Supplemental Safety Device (depending on the vehicle).

People were getting killed because they weren't wearing their seat belt and they were meeting a deploying airbag at 250 mph. Air bags didn't kill them. Not wearing their seat belt did! Same thing in a new apparatus. The construction of the cab, the air bags, the chevron striping, the emergency lighting, or the comfort fit seats aren't going to save your butt if you're not wearing your seat belt!

OK, I think you have the point and I have beat that up enough for now. Let's talk about some of the other stuff. The cab designs we see today have reinforced roll protection, air bags, more storage to keep flying debris from striking the occupants, and oh yeah, seat belt alarms and kill switches.

Something that was new for me before I departed my first department in 1998 was back-up cameras, which aimed to help prevent backing up over members, which has been a problem in the past. These cameras, along with greater awareness of the issue and SOPs, mean we have seen less apparatus being involved in backing incidents.

Another dangerous aspect is operating at a scene. Today's industry requirements of reflective chevron striping on the back of the apparatus, the most advantageous emergency and scene lighting, and other equipment are designed with you in mind. Again, between public awareness, visibility design, and policies, we have seen less incidents connected with working on roadways.

Five things you can do
We could spend lots of time talking about all of the designs in today's apparatus, but to finish up this edition, I would ask you to do a few things:

1. If there are safety concerns with the apparatus you are assigned to, speak up!

2. Become involved and/or support your departmental apparatus committee, if one exists. Your input is critical and you can learn a great deal about the apparatus your department may consider purchasing.

3. Become familiar with NFPA 1901 Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. This document will provide you with the most up-to-date safety designs required in our industry.

4. Next time you go to a conference, by all means kick the tires, play with the lights, jump in the cab and check out the size and compartments, take pictures of the neat design, paint scheme, and all the chrome. But also take the time to speak to the sales representative and ask about what the safety features of the apparatus are.

5. And finally … follow policies, don't forget to look up if you're on the ladder, stop at intersections, slow down, and wear your seat belt. It may just be the ride of your life — or the one that ends i.

Next column, we will finish Initiative 16 and discuss the design of the equipment we are using and how it is affecting our safety. See ya' soon!

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