Fire Department Tanker Safety - Part I

Without question, the fire service has seen more emphasis and effort towards the cause of firefighter safety in the past 20 years than in any other similar time frame.Without question, the fire service has seen more emphasis and effort towards the cause...

Photo By Mike Wieder

An even more interesting, and alarming, statistic becomes evident when you review the fatalities of the remaining firefighters killed while responding to or returning from an incident. Next to volunteers in POVs, the second highest number of response deaths occur in fire department tankers. During the period from 1990 through 2002, 22% of firefighter response fatalities occurred in tankers. During that 12-year span there were 38 tanker crashes that resulted in the deaths of 42 firefighters. In fact, during this period more firefighters were killed in tankers than in pumpers and aerial apparatus combined! The USFA estimates that approximately 3% of the fire apparatus in the United States are tankers. It does seem that 3% of the vehicles being responsible for 22% of the response deaths is a very disproportionate number, thus the basis for this series of articles.

In this series articles, the term tanker is used to describe ground vehicles that are used to supply fire fighting water to rural and suburban locations not equipped with a fixed water supply system. In jurisdictions that utilize the Incident Command System, these types of vehicles are referred to as tenders or water tenders. The generic term applied to these vehicles by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is "mobile water supply apparatus."

To meet the definition of a mobile water supply apparatus according to the NFPA Standard 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, a vehicle must carry a minimum of 1,000 gallons of water. The most common water capacities of tankers in the United States range from 1,500 to 3,000 gallons. However, capacities of up to 5,000 gallons on a straight chassis and 10,000 gallons on a tractor-trailer apparatus are not unheard of.

The alarming rate at which fire department tankers are involved in serious crashes led the USFA to commission this report. Since its inception, the USFA has been committed to enhancing the health and safety of emergency response personnel. Fire service personnel across the United States rely on the USFA for current information and state-of-the-art guidance on critical fire service operational issues. In May 2003 the USFA released a report entitled Safe Operation of Fire Tankers that contains a detailed study of the issues surrounding the high crash and deaths rates involving tankers and information on how these incidents can be avoided in the future. Any fire department that operates tankers should obtain a copy of this free report. Printed copies of the report can be ordered and an electronic version can be downloaded at

The May 2003 tanker rollover in Wyoming that resulted in the death of a female fire Explorer has drawn a significant amount of attention to the problems associated with operating fire tankers. In that incident the driver of the tanker is accused of being alcohol-impaired while driving the apparatus. However, as we will see in Part II of this series, the manner in which that collision occurred was consistent with a very high percentage of other fatal tanker collisions in the past 13 years. This is not a new problem or even an emerging trend. This is a problem that has existed for some time and there is no better time than the present to identify the issues and find some solutions. Much credit must be given to the UFSA for recognizing the problem and working to address it.

In Part II of this series we will examine the statistics and causes surrounding the fire tanker collision issue. Parts III and IV will provide recommendations on how tanker collisions and/or their resultant fatalities can be avoided. If your department operates a tanker please check this site again next month for the next part of this series. The information provided in this series will lead to the safer operation of your tanker. In fact, much of the information can be applied to any type of fire apparatus.