Safety 101 - Lesson 17

During the period of December 2005 and January 2006, VFIS conducted research into fatal fire apparatus accidents between 1999 and 2005. The findings led to support of our hypotheses that vehicle characteristics and driver/officer behavior played major roles in fatal fire apparatus accidents, while vehicle age in and of itself, was not a factor in the analyzed incidents.

In fact, substantially more vehicles in the "built since 1980" class have been involved in fatal crashes. We have since turned our attention to fire/EMS vehicle accidents without fatalities to see if the same "critical few" accident/injury causation factors are evident.

Study Findings

Thirty-six fatal vehicle incidents between 1999 and December 2005 were reviewed. Data from all but one (which occurred in 2005) came from NIOSH reports. Here are the results. Of the vehicles involved:

  • 17 of 36 (47%) were manufactured after 1990
  • 7 of 36 (19%) were manufactured between 1981-1989
  • 5 of 36 (14%) were manufactured prior to 1980
  • 6 of 36 (17%) were personally owned vehicles (POV's)
  • 1 of 36 (3%) was not defined

Putting this into perspective, 24 of 29 (83%) fire apparatus fatal accidents studied involved vehicles manufactured AFTER 1980.

Of the five vehicles involved in fatal accidents, manufactured prior to 1980

  • two were converted vehicles
  • one had a design recommendation by NIOSH
  • one had tires over 20 years old on the vehicle (maintenance)
  • one involved a fall out of the vehicle (behavior)

Therefore all of these would have been recommended to be either removed from service or modified/maintained, by any responsible agency.

There was no indication vehicle age alone was the factor for the crash/fatality.

Again, 36 fatal vehicle related incidents between 1999 and December 2005 were reviewed. Data from all but one (which occurred in 2005) came from NIOSH reports. Here are the results.

  • In 28 of 36 incidents (78%)the driver was the fatality
  • In 21 of 35 incidents (60 %) recommendations were made for seat belt use and related standard operating procedures
  • In 15 of 35 incidents (43%) recommendations were made for the development and implementation of standard operating procedures related to vehicle operations
  • In 13 of 35 incidents (37%) recommendations were made for the implementation of driver training programs
  • In all of 35 incidents (100%) recommendations were made relative to driver training responsibility standard operating procedures being developed and implemented
  • In 9 of 35 incidents (26%) vehicle maintenance program recommendations were proposed
  • In 5 of 35 incidents (14%) vehicle design-related recommendations were proposed

In no cases was the age of the vehicle an issue which related to a recommendation for safer operation, by NIOSH.

Let's take a quick look at some additional findings.

  • 25 of 34 (71%) reports found seat belts were not in use at the time of the crash
  • In only 5 of 36 incidents (14%) was weather considered of any factor
  • Of the fire apparatus involved in the crashes
    • 17 were commercial vehicles
    • 6 were custom vehicles
    • 5 were converted (commercial) vehicles

None of these issues would indicate the age of the vehicle to be the primary item of concern.

VFIS is currently doing a similar research project based on accidents without a fatality and will report those findings when complete.

In the interim we must ask several questions based on the findings of this research.

A. Obviously seat belt use is a critical component contributing to firefighter fatalities. Why can't a more efficient and mandatory used device/processes be built into apparatus?

B. With regard to design issues, should there not be some obligation with regard to new units, to assure that designs are within safety tolerances (whether or not the fire department specifies the same situation), that training occurs on the vehicle dynamics, and that speed limitations be designed into vehicles?

C. Newer commercial trucks with fire apparatus bodies have had more fatalities involved than the custom trucks. Is some enhancement in cab/crew area design necessary to enhance the safety of those riding in these type cabs?

In conclusion the initial research conducted in this study indicates a situation where more "newer" vehicles are involved in accidents than older vehicle. Older vehicles, in and of itself, is not reported as a factor in these fatal incidents reviewed. Is the fact that newer vehicles are heavier, more powerful engines, are higher and longer making a impact in more frequent accidents?

If less than 67% of the fire vehicles in use today are less than 20 years old, and more of these are involved in crashes it raises a question as to why more emphasis is not being placed on the next "old generation" of apparatus, by looking into more restrictions on

  • Refined design
  • Mandatory seat belt interlocks
  • Driver training
  • Standard operating procedures

These are the recommendations of NIOSH, based on fatal accidents involving fire apparatus.

Lesson #17

Based upon the contributing factors to fatal vehicle incidents, it is clear that human behavior issues play a major role in survivability in a crash involving fire apparatus.

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Dr. William F. Jenaway, CSP, CFO, CFPS is Executive Vice President of VFIS and has over 30 years experience in Safety and Risk Management, in the insurance industry. Bill is also an adjunct professor in Risk Analysis in the Graduate School at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He was named "Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year" as Chief of the King of Prussia, PA, Volunteer Fire Company, and is the author the text Emergency Service Risk Management.