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Fire Department Tanker Safety - Part IV

The need to develop an effective driver training program and to enforce fire department standard operating procedures and policies cannot be overstated.This is the fourth and final installment in our series on the safe operation of fire department tankers (tenders). Fire department tankers are responsible for more firefighter response-related deaths than any other type of fire apparatus. Only volunteer firefighters operating personal vehicles are responsible for more response-related deaths than tankers. Concern for the alarming number of tanker-involved crashes and deaths led the United States Fire Administration (USFA) to authorize a research project and report studying the problem and searching for solutions. Their report, entitled Safe Operation of Fire Tankers, was released in 2003 and is available on line.

Photo By Michael A. Wieder

The USFA report examines the various causal factors that have been identified as problematic for tankers and their drivers. Through statistical analysis the report identifies the most common of these causes. Case studies of fatal tanker crashes were reviewed for the purpose of learning from the mistakes that were made. Finally, an extensive overview of the training, technological, and programmatic means for preventing future tanker crashes is included.

In order to ensure the validity of the information contained in this report, the USFA convened an esteemed group of subject matter experts who served as peer reviewers for the report. This group included:

  • Gene P. Carlson, Volunteer Fireman's Insurance Services (VFIS)
  • Jeffrey M. Dickey, National Association of Emergency Vehicle Technicians
  • Stephen N. Foley, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
  • Paul S. Lukas, National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)
  • Glenn McCallister, Semo Tanks, Rep. Fire Apparatus Manufacturer's Association (FAMA)
  • Robert Murgallis, National Fire Academy
  • Eric D. Nagle, IOCAD Emergency Services
  • Kevin M. Roche, Phoenix Fire Department (Principle Project Researcher)
  • Bill Troup, United States Fire Administration (USFA)
  • Michael A. Wieder, Oklahoma State University, Fire Protection Publications (IFSTA) (Principle Project Writer)
  • Michael Wilbur, Emergency Vehicle Response/Firehouse Magazine
  • Fred C. Windisch, IAFC, Volunteer & Combination Chief Officers Section
  • Michael L. Young, Volunteer Fireman's Insurance Services (VFIS)

At the end of their review work, this panel developed a list of twenty crucial items that can be addressed to minimize the frequency and/or severity of fire tanker crashes. This list was then included at the end of the formal report.

Photo By Michael A. Wieder

1. Operate the tanker at a safe and reasonable speed. Never drive the tanker faster than a speed at which it can be fully controlled. Never exceed the posted speed limit when driving under nonemergency response conditions.

2. The cautionary speed signs that accompany road signs indicating curves in the road should be considered the maximum speed for a tanker driving on these curves in any condition. In many cases, the suggested speed may be too high for tankers as they are developed for passenger cars on dry roads. It most cases, it will be necessary for the tanker to take the curve at a speed slower than what is posted (Figure 1).

3. It is recommended that new tankers exceeding a GVWR of 32,000 pounds be equipped with antilock braking systems. NFPA 1901 requires antilock brakes for all vehicles exceeding 36,000 pounds.

4. Keep all of the wheels on the primary road surface at all times. Having the tanker's right-side wheels drift off the edge of the road is one of the most common causes of tanker crashes. If the right-side wheels do get off the edge of the road, do not try to bring the apparatus back onto the road surface at a high speed. Slow the apparatus to 20 mph or less before trying to bring the wheels back onto the road surface.

5. Travel with the water tank either completely empty or completely full. This minimizes the effects of liquid surge within the tank. This is a good idea even if the tank is properly baffled, and it is crucial if the tank is not properly baffled.

6. Avoid operating retrofit tankers if at all possible. Every attempt should be made to place in service tankers that were specifically engineered and designed for fire department operations. Serious accidents have been attributed to poorly designed, retrofitted, or homebuilt tankers.

7. Know the weight of your apparatus. All tankers should be weighed completely full and that weight should be posted (in units of pounds and tons) on a plaque on the vehicle's dashboard. This will help the driver to determine if it is safe to drive the vehicle on a road or bridge that has posted weight restrictions.

8. Require mandatory training for tanker drivers. This must include extensive training before being allowed to drive the tanker on public roadways and refresher training on a regular basis according the requirements of NFPA 1451 and NFPA 1500 (Figure 2).

9. Establish an effective maintenance program for the tanker and all other fire department vehicles. Many mechanical failures that lead to crashes can be prevented if the apparatus is inspected and maintained on a regular basis. Guidelines for establishing proper maintenance programs can be found in NFPA 1915. It is recommended that apparatus be inspected at least weekly.

Photo By Michael A. Wieder

10. Use spotters when backing the apparatus. Even though cameras and other devices for assisting with backing the apparatus do provide some measure of safety, there is no substitute for having at least one, preferably two, spotters to guide the driver while the apparatus is being operated in reverse. NFPA 1500 requires spotters for backing, regardless of whether the apparatus is equipped with cameras or other backing safety equipment. One spotter should be equipped with a portable radio in the event that they need to contact the driver during the backing operation.

11. Retrofit all tankers with back-up alarms. These devices warn other people in the area that a tanker is backing up. This will allow them to get out of the way before a crash occurs.

12. Come to a complete stop at all intersections containing a stop sign or red traffic light in your direction of travel. The most likely place to collide with another vehicle is in an intersection. Nearly all of these crashes can be prevented if the tanker comes to a complete stop when faced with the signal to do so. The tanker may proceed through the intersection after assuring that all other vehicles have granted them the right of way to proceed. If the tanker driver cannot be certain that all vehicles are stopping to allow the tanker passage, the apparatus should not proceed.

13. Wear your seatbelt whenever the apparatus is in motion. While wearing a seatbelt may not prevent a crash from occurring it certainly can minimize the risk to the driver (and the other occupants) in the event one does occur. A significant percentage of tanker accidents involve the vehicle rolling over and the driver and/or passenger(s) being thrown from the vehicle. The chance of serious injury or death is greatly multiplied when the occupant is thrown from the vehicle. Wearing of seatbelts will prevent near all ejections from the vehicle.

14. Keep the windows rolled up. This will add an extra measure of security in preventing the occupant(s) from being ejected from the apparatus in the event of a rollover crash.

15. Be familiar with your response district and the roads within it. By being familiar with the various routes within the response district, the driver will be able to anticipate when approaching hazardous sections of roads, dangerous curves, and other hazards to safe vehicle response.

16. Avoid poorly constructed or unpaved roads whenever possible. Again, familiarity with the response district will aid the driver in this objective. It may be safer (and faster) to take a paved route that is longer than the shorter unpaved route to an emergency scene (Figures 3 & 4).

17. Limit the number of apparatus responding to an emergency to a reasonable, prudent number. Dispatching three engines, two tankers, a heavy rescue squad, and three chief officers to a reported car fire is overkill. The more vehicles that are on the road, the greater the odds of one of them being involved in a crash.

Photo By Michael A. Wieder

18. Do not respond at an emergency rate (Code 3) when no emergency is known to exist. Apparatus have been involved in collisions while responding with lights and sirens to perform a cover up at a neighboring station. This is not an emergency. As well, fourth or fifth due apparatus have been involved in crashes well after the initial apparatus arrived on the scene and found no fire or emergency condition. As soon as it is determined that no emergency exists, or that the initial arriving apparatus can handle the emergency, all other responding apparatus should be directed to reduce their response to a nonemergency rate.

19. Always have at least one firefighter accompany the driver of the tanker. The passenger can assist by operating warning devices, handling radio transmissions, and being a second set of eyes. The passenger should not hesitate to warn the driver when they feel that the tanker is being operated at an unsafe speed.

20. Practice driving the tanker in adverse road conditions. It is not reasonable to expect that a driver who has only been trained in daylight hours, on clear dry roads will be qualified to operate the vehicle safely at night on in adverse weather.


Following the twenty points listed above will certainly lead to a reduction of the hazards associated with operating fire department tankers. The need to develop an effective driver training program and to enforce fire department standard operating procedures and policies cannot be overstated. These actions will have a profoundly positive effect on the safe operation of tankers, and for that matter all emergency vehicles.

The information contained in this and the previous three articles is only a small portion of the overall information contained in the USFA Safe Operation of Fire Tankers report. Fire departments that operate tankers are strongly encouraged to go to the website cited earlier in this article and download a free copy of this report. This will be the first step towards improving the safety of the operation of tankers in your department.


Michael Wieder, CFPS, MIFireE is the Assistant Director & Managing Editor for Fire Protection Publications(IFSTA) He can be contacted at to answer any questions or comments you may have.