The Apparatus Architect

The Apparatus Architect series first appeared in the August 2000 edition of Firehouse® Magazine with the ambition that the material presented would “enhance a fire department’s ability to obtain properly designed and functional apparatus.” Some 10 years later, we still find ourselves...


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The Apparatus Architect series first appeared in the August 2000 edition of Firehouse® Magazine with the ambition that the material presented would “enhance a fire department’s ability to obtain properly designed and functional apparatus.” Some 10 years later, we still find ourselves engaged with providing practical information and examples of well-designed apparatus that can be shared with all departments, regardless of the size of their apparatus fleets. In this installment of The Apparatus Architect, we discuss some practical aspects of apparatus safety that should be considered on all new units.

Most types of apparatus, whether engine or ladder company units, will at some point require members to climb up onto the vehicle to perform firefighting duties, rack hose or conduct maintenance work on the apparatus or equipment. Data collected and analyzed by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reveals that 34% of all accidents on the fireground involve sprains and strains to operating personnel. While the majority of these types of injuries occur while operating at structural fires, a surprising 38% took place outside of the structure. Age in itself was not a strong determinant factor, as a higher number of volunteer personnel who were injured were ages 20 to 24, whereas the highest incidence of injuries to career members was from 35 to 39 years of age.

When operating with our apparatus, we should make every effort to train our personnel to adhere to safety procedures to ensure that “Everyone Goes Home.” This includes some basic tasks, including use of riding assignments, use of seatbelts, and how to climb on and off the apparatus at various points. At one time or another, we have probably all witnessed unsafe acts on the fireground that would cause us to think about our own personal safety. Some of the most basic safety procedures are often disregarded, which results in needless lost-time injuries. With this in mind, this article will focus on several areas where properly engineered components can improve the level of safety on your apparatus.

Climbing on and off apparatus can be challenging, especially when wearing all of our personal protective equipment (PPE) and carrying other tools and gear. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, has done a good job of addressing stepping and standing surfaces, including the required slip resistance for these areas. Areas such as cab entrance steps, pump-panel access and rear step areas must also be illuminated and provided with non-slip handrails to provide three points of contact that can be maintained at all times. Despite these safety standards, we still have personnel injuries when operating on apparatus.

Section 15.7 of NFPA 1901 specifically addresses fixed or folding stepping surfaces as follows: “All steps shall have a minimum area of 35 square inches, shall be of such a shape that a five-inch diameter disc does not overlap any side when placed on the step, and shall be arranged to provide at least eight inches of clearance between the leading edge of the step and any obstruction.” These requirements provide an excellent guideline for the design of the stepping surface. It’s where we install them on our apparatus that can lead to trouble.

Engine company apparatus traditionally incorporated the use of folding steps where they would be installed at the forward end of the body next to the pump panel. In the days when hard suction hose was carried above the compartments on the driver’s side with ground ladders carried on the right side, the installation of these steps made sense. A single step located on each side of the body could provide rapid access to this equipment or to reach booster reel equipment mounted over the fire pump.

Today’s engine apparatus typically are equipped with high side body compartments with rescue pumper-style bodies becoming more common with full-height and full-depth compartments on each side of the apparatus. These bodies typically are 60 to 72 inches in height and, when factoring in the height from the ground to the first step on the apparatus, the top of the body can be over eight feet from the ground. Even with lighted non-slip step surfaces and handrails, the safe use of these folding steps when climbing straight up the front of the apparatus can be problematic at best.

Apparatus bodies that have locker- or coffin-style compartments at the top of the body will at some point require members to access the equipment stored in these compartments. Safe access to these areas is best accomplished by designing a safe step arrangement at the rear of the apparatus using a series of fixed steps that can provide a larger surface area or an access ladder that incorporates handrails on each side of the ladder.

The height of the rear hosebed on many engines has increased as well due to the need to carry an increased amount of equipment for any type of incident. Full-depth body compartments typically require a rectangular water tank and, with everything else being equal, a combination rescue-engine apparatus with a 750-gallon water tank will have a higher hose body than a unit with a T-shaped water tank. Flat-back-style bodies offer additional enclosed compartment space, but can limit the available options for stepping arrangements for access to the hosebed. Using fixed or swing-out, pool-style ladders can provide safer access to this area and are not dramatically more expensive than the cost of a series of folding steps installed around the body.

The next time you are viewing apparatus at a fire service show, climb on the apparatus at the various points where fixed or folding steps are provided. You will be surprised at how difficult this simple task may seem at first and then consider that you are doing this in your street clothes. Now imagine that you have donned your PPE and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and are attempting to access a hoseline or piece of equipment from the apparatus. A few minutes spent in thoughtfully locating fixed steps with large non-slip surfaces or access ladders on your apparatus can greatly improve the level of safety for your personnel.

A manufacturer’s standard location for fixed and folding steps may or may not meet your needs. The details for step locations and points of access are typically determined at the engineering conference after the contract with the manufacturer has been signed. Your apparatus committee will need to detail the type and material construction for access steps on the apparatus in the bidding specifications. Gaining assistance from an experienced apparatus salesperson or an apparatus architect can provide technical information on different arrangements for stepping and climbing components.

Master-stream devices that are manually controlled from the top of the pump area also require members to climb on the apparatus. With the increased use of generators, foam systems and hydraulic rescue tools, many of these fixed components are located above the fire pump for ease of installation and maintenance. Care must be given when positioning these components to provide several non-slip surfaces for personnel to operate from when using these master-stream devices. An alternative would be to provide for a remote-control deck gun where the engineer can operate the deck gun while safely on the ground. Another option is to outfit your apparatus with a blitz line attached to a portable monitor that can discharge up to 500 gpm several hundred feet from the apparatus with minimal staffing.

A review of fire apparatus history will show that over the years, engine, ladder and rescue apparatus have become larger, heavier and carry more equipment than their predecessors. As a result, some simple tasks such as equipment retrieval and racking hose have become much more difficult on many apparatus. A “back-to-basics” approach to the overall design of the apparatus can provide a fresh look to many of the drawbacks we face when setting out to specify a new piece of apparatus.

Apparatus committees should concentrate on defining the mission of the vehicle, knowing that a manufacturer may attempt to build a pumper, ladder, tanker, rescue, foam, air and light unit that will have a little bit of everything and when you get it to the fireground will not be very good at anything. As the demand for multi-functional apparatus increases, we must resist the temptation to ignore or compromise the core mission of the vehicle and you must always keep safe operating procedures in mind during the specification process.

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