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Engineering fail-safe solutions for enhanced firefighter safety

Fail-safe engineering is standard in aviation and other high-risk fields – why not in the fire service?

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Firefighters Battling a Roaring Fire

Other live-saving fields have failure protection. Why not the fire service?

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By Matt Knollman for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

“Command from Engine 3, emergency traffic. We have lost water at the nozzle. Working to exit from division two.”

There are few radio transmissions more concerning to a firefighter or incident commander than this one. In the critical world of fighting fire, the reliability of equipment can be a matter of life and death. Despite the technological advancements in various industries, the fire service often lags in implementing crucial fail-safe measures in its machinery.

Other industries have embraced the idea of engineering safety and fail-safes into their equipment. From airplanes to motor vehicles to simple lawn mowers, we have measures like information clusters, driver presence sensors, autopilot, autobraking and lane assist, just to name a few. It is time for the fire service to take a hard look at implementing solutions like these for our responders, not to tie their hands, but as a force multiplier that can increase situational awareness.

Imagine driving a car with no fuel gauge or speedometer, with no method other than “feel” to estimate speed or range. Early motor vehicles required operators to do exactly that, but progress has led to more information available in real time, increasing drivers’ safety and the utility of motor vehicles. In our world of rapid technological advancements, is it unreasonable to think a nozzle operator should have real-time information on what they are flowing or even the ability to charge their own line remotely in those invaluable first five minutes on a scene?

Fire apparatus, vital for saving lives, commonly lack essential safeguards against over- and underpumping, failure to charge a line and inconsistent intake or discharge pressure. Often the only way to remedy or even express these issues is manually, via an already-burdened fireground radio channel, and that is only after the issue is recognized by a well-trained human operating in a high-stress environment.

The importance of failure protection in fire trucks and the necessity for innovative solutions that mitigate risks for both equipment and firefighters cannot be overstated. During an emergency response, the reliability of equipment can be a matter of life and death.


To understand the significance of failure protection in firefighting, it helps to examine other industries that have successfully implemented such measures. The aviation industry, for example, incorporates redundant systems and automated checks to ensure passenger and crew safety. Fail-safe technologies are also prevalent in railroads, preventing accidents and maintaining the smooth operation of trains. The adoption of fail-safe technologies in these industries reflects a commitment to safety and operational efficiency – principles equally crucial in firefighting.

The U.S. Fire Administration has embraced the idea of the “five Es” of community risk reduction: education, engineering, enforcement, economic incentives and emergency response. Historically, the fire service has focused on emergency response and education. More recently, engineering has been embraced as a viable solution leading to products that reduce risk without additional human intervention, including things like heat-regulating stove elements and improved alarm and sprinkler systems.

Looping back from that into emergency response, we too should embrace engineering to better insulate our people from risk. There are many areas where this approach could prove beneficial, but water supply and suppression activities are undoubtedly among the low-hanging fruit.

Traditional fire equipment can expose responders to risks such as over- and underpumping, failure to charge a line and inconsistent pressure levels. These issues not only jeopardize the success of firefighting operations but also contribute to increased wear and tear on the trucks and, more critically, on the firefighters.

Imagine your crew responding to a massive blaze where a reliable water supply is critical. Without fail-safe measures, this team is vulnerable to potential errors such as overpumping, causing excessive pressure that could damage equipment, or underpumping, resulting in inadequate water for firefighting efforts.

Now picture the same scenario with fail-safe measures in place. A system actively monitors and adjusts water flow, preventing over- and underpumping, ensuring consistent pressure and eliminating the risk of failure to charge a line. The firefighters can focus on their mission, confident their equipment has fail-safes designed to handle unexpected challenges. Additionally, they are armed with information at the nozzle about the water they are flowing.

Risk can never be eliminated on the ever-changing and dynamic fireground, but some risk can certainly be reduced while empowering our responders to place their focus on the rescue, knockdown or overhaul at hand.


A fundamental aspect behind the development of fail-safe solutions for firefighting equipment is acknowledging the human element. Firefighters, regardless of their skill and experience, are human and prone to making mistakes, especially in high-stress situations. These engineering solutions are not about replacing human expertise but providing an additional layer of protection and enabling a fireground where mistakes do not compromise the actions of firefighters in the line of duty.

To gain insights into the importance of fail-safe measures in firefighting, we interviewed an expert in the field. Jason Cerrano, a firefighter with a background in engineering, explained that when he was a firefighter, he witnessed firsthand the difficulties caused by unreliable water supply. He noted that fail-safe measures are not just about technological advancement; they are a commitment to the safety and efficiency of firefighters on the front lines. He acknowledged that human error is implicit in humans responding in high-stress situations. “We owe it to them not to let their humanity risk their heroism,” Cerrano said.

In the demanding realm of firefighting, where success is imperative, fail-safe measures are not just desirable – they are essential. Engineering solutions that protect against failure set a new standard. As firefighters confront increasingly complex challenges, these innovations become crucial in supporting our mission. The firefighting community owes it to its heroes to equip them with the best tools available, ensuring they can perform their duties with confidence, knowing their equipment is engineered for success.

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