Fire Department Tanker Safety - Part III

Although the USFA estimates that tankers account for only 3% of the total fire apparatus in the U.S., they account for more than 20% of response-related firefighter fatalities.The first two installments of this series outlined the critical nature of the...


Although the USFA estimates that tankers account for only 3% of the total fire apparatus in the U.S., they account for more than 20% of response-related firefighter fatalities.The first two installments of this series outlined the critical nature of the frequency and severity of fire department tanker (also called tender) crashes. Although the United States Fire Administration (USFA) estimates that tankers account for only 3% of the total fire apparatus in the U.S., they account for more than 20% of response-related firefighter fatalities. Tankers account for more firefighter deaths than pumpers and aerial apparatus combined.

Article II highlighted important statistics regarding factors that influence the cause and severity of these crashes. The most common causal factor noted was that in approximately 2/3 of the crashes the right side wheels of the tanker left the roadway immediately prior to the crash. This caused the vehicle to veer further off the road and hit a stationary object or for the driver to over-correct when attempting to bring the wheels back onto the road surface. This over-correction often results in the vehicle going into a skid or rollover situation (Figure 1).


(Figure I) Courtesy Michael A. Wieder

The most significant figure in terms of determining the severity of these crashes was that nearly ? of the firefighters who were killed in tanker crashes during the 11 years of the study were not wearing safety belts. A firefighter's chance of being ejected from the vehicle is 22 times greater when not wearing a safety belt. Three out of four people who are completely ejected from a vehicle are fatally injured.

Statistics and anecdotal information often fail to make a strong impact on readers and students who are studying a topic. Thus, it becomes important to relate this information to real-life situations with which the student can identify. In this article we will review a number of case studies of fatal tanker crashes the highlight many of the issues pointed in the previous articles that identified the problem and provided statistical backing of this identification. These case histories are highlighted to show the reader that these causal factors have previously resulted in a tragic outcome. Providing these case histories is in no way meant to demean or be critical of the individuals and departments involved in these incidents. It is hoped that these departments would want to share this information with the fire service so that other personnel and jurisdictions could avoid suffering the same tragedy.

The case histories featured in this article were culled from a study of fatal fire department tanker crashes that occurred between the years 1990 and 2001. Through a variety of sources, including insurance company records, U.S. Fire Administration records, U.S. Department of Justice Public Safety Officers' Benefit (PSOB) data, and a variety of other private and governmental sources, 38 fatal crashes involving fire department tankers were identified during that time period. These crashes resulted in the deaths of 42 firefighters. There were 34 crashes that involved a single fatality and four that each involved two-firefighter fatalities.

Case Study #1 - Right-Side Wheels Leaving the Road Surface

This crash occurred in North Carolina at 17:20 hours on January 14, 1995. In this incident a 49-year-old male firefighter was the driver of a tanker responding to a report of a smoke odor in a manufactured home. A second firefighter rode as the front-seat passenger in the vehicle.

Members of the first fire apparatus unit to arrive at the manufactured home were told by other firefighters - who had responded directly to the scene in their personal vehicles - that there was no emergency. The operator of the first unit informed other responding units by radio to reduce their response mode to non-emergency. Firefighters standing near the truck heard the sound of the tanker's crash at approximately the same time as this transmission was being made.

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