How to configure apparatus compartments

Taking the time to think through compartment design and features will improve firefighter efficiency


A fire scene is in some ways like a great big operating room. There are precise tools and skilled operators deployed to correct a bad situation. And how firefighters store those tools of the trade is just as important as how the surgery staff organizes its tools.

That being the case, there's a lot to think about when designing the compartment-space specifications for your next piece of fire apparatus.

When I started my research for this effort, I quickly came across the mother lode in the form of an applied research project (ARP) completed by then Battalion Chief Ed Senter of the Norfolk (Va.) Department of Fire and Paramedical Services.

When he was a student in the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program, Chief Senter developed quite the reputation for writing high-quality — and high-scoring — ARPs. What I found really interesting is that Chief Senter completed his ARP in 1997, yet many of his key points about fire apparatus compartment design are just as valid 15 years later.

One of the basic tenets of the late Stephen Covey (author of best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) is, "Begin with the end in mind." For the process of designing compartment space requirements, that phrase should prompt you to seek answers to some basic questions.

  • What services are we going to deliver from this apparatus? Many departments are now providing human services such as EMS, public safety education, home inspections, etc., on a far greater scale than strictly delivering fire suppression services.
  • What tactical operations do we expect assigned personnel to accomplish on the emergency scene? My personal rule of thumb is that the total amount of equipment carried on a piece of fire apparatus should encompass the equipment needed to manage 85 percent of the service calls to which it is deployed.
  • How do we expect personnel to access and remove equipment for use, especially under high-stress conditions?

Another good place to focus your initial efforts is to conduct a thorough review of applicable standards and regulations. Consensus standards promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association, which contain pertinent provisions for fire apparatus and its use, include:

  • NFPA 1201: Standard for Providing Fire and Emergency Services to the Public, 2010 Edition.
  • NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, 2007 Edition.
  • NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, 2009 Edition

Local government budgets across the country are being heavily stressed by a weak economy and decreased revenues. In response, fire departments and the communities they serve have been engaging in community-risk assessments to better define what services they should provide and how much to pay for that service delivery. 

If your department has done so — great — move to the front of the class. Put the fruits of your labor to work in helping you to determine what services and tactical operations you need to provide from the apparatus you're designing. 

Now that you have a good idea what you need to accomplish with equipment used from the apparatus, let's move to the how. How will personnel access the appropriate equipment for the types of service delivery you expect from the apparatus? Focus your initial layout of storage compartment space on:

  • Complying with applicable storage requirements such as biomedical equipment, consumable EMS supplies and lockable storage for pharmaceuticals.
  • Providing personnel safe and efficient access to the most frequently used equipment.
  • Providing easy access to personal decontamination equipment. This is more than disposable gloves — think supplies to safely, efficiently and effectively conduct gross decontamination operations for responders and civilians when minutes count.
  • Providing space for and access to equipment necessary for on-scene firefighter rehabilitation.
  • Providing for the realities of urban violence and terrorism with compartments that can be locked.

Fire apparatus manufacturers have made significant advances in compartment design features, such as moveable shelving and pull-out drawers and trays, that help maximize the use of available space. They've also creatively designed apparatus with more available compartment space, particularly through the use of overhead side compartments. 

These design features can be valuable elements in your efforts to have fire apparatus compartments with improved ergonomics. Take this opportunity to design compartments and equipment storage that minimizes the risk of sprain and strain injuries that personnel can suffer when required to lift, pull or lower equipment from awkward body positions.

Give careful thought to how you can effectively use all of the available space in combination with moveable shelving and pull-out drawers and trays. Use these features to keep heavier equipment below the level of the clavicles so that personnel are not forced to reach up to grasp and lower equipment nor reach deep into the compartment to retrieve equipment.

Skilled trauma surgeons can only be successful in saving a patient's life when they have the right equipment in the operating theater and their support staff can quickly access that equipment to put it into their hands.

We can better prepare our firefighters for success on the emergency scene by designing and constructing fire apparatus so that they have the same advantage.

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