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NIOSH: Wash. fire chief's death shows need for retrofitted vehicle safety

The chief was killed when the vintage 1960's off-road vehicle he was driving rolled down a steep slope, pinning him


By Ken Robinson
FireRescue1 Associate Editor

TRI-CITIES, Wash. — Investigators are recommending fire departments take special care with retrofits and specialized vehicles after a Washington Fire Chief was killed when his vehicle overturned and pinned him.

North Franklin Fire District 4 Chief Chet Bauermeister was driving a retrofitted, rubber-tracked vehicle built in the 1960s when it overturned during fire suppression operations at a brush fire on June 23 last year.

Photo NIOSHThe 1960's vintage vehicle is seen after the incident.
Photo NIOSHThe 1960's vintage vehicle is seen after the incident.

Rocky terrain on a sharp slope caused the vehicle to lose traction on loose rocks, also ejecting another firefighter from the vehicle as it tumbled down the hill, according to a NIOSH report released Monday.

Several hours were needed to stabilize and upright the vehicle and the chief died on scene.

The vintage off-road vehicle was designed for operation in snow, mud and rough-terrain environments, and acquired by the department in 2008 through the state's surplus vehicle exchange program.

Chief Bauermeister had reportedly retrofitted the vehicle himself for use as a wildland fire vehicle for mobile attack with the ability to pump water while moving.

At some point, the doors and windows were also removed from the vehicle.

As a result of the modifications to the vehicle, NIOSH recommends fire departments only retrofit vehicles using a qualified source with retrofits designed and installed within the original manufacturer's specifications.

"The addition of extra equipment such as water tanks, pumps, hoses and tools add extra weight which can raise the vehicle's center of gravity higher than when originally manufactured," investigators said.

A higher center of gravity would make a vehicle less stable on a sharp slope.

Since the vehicle was not designed for use as a mobile attack fire apparatus, NIOSH recommends fire departments ensure vehicles are safe and suitable for their intended use.

"National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards exclude off-road vehicles because they do not meet these same federal motor vehicle safety standards" as regular highway vehicles, the report said.

"Fire departments should use NFPA standards such as NFPA 1500, 1901, 1906, and 1912 as guides when selecting and refurbishing vehicles before those vehicles are put into service."

However, investigators did acknowledge the utility and commercial availability of off-road vehicles such as ATVs, and recommend standard-setting organizations like NFPA develop design, test and training requirements to address the vehicles.

NIOSH "has investigated a number of firefighter line-of-duty deaths involving vehicles obtained through surplus property programs," the report said.

"In many cases, budgetary concerns dictate that the modifications are done as cost effectively as possible and with little or no oversight."

To help purchase or replace fire apparatus and equipment, NIOSH recommends fire departments seek funding assistance from programs like AFG and resources like FireGrantsHelp.com.

Neither the chief nor the other firefighter were wearing seat belts in the vehicle, also prompting NIOSH to recommend departments ensure personnel wear seat belts at all times.

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