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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 of firefighter safety in the past 20 years than in any other similar time frame within the history of organized fire protection. Standards to improve safety have been developed and the apparatus and equipment available to firefighters are better than ever. We now have rehab operations and rapid intervention teams to ensure our firefighters safety. Safety in emphasized in our training and in our daily operations. We have safety officers to make sure we follow the safety procedures.

Yet despite all of this talk and awareness of the importance of safety, the fire service still manages to kill roughly the same number of firefighters every year as they did 20 years ago. This statistic is made sadder by that fact that nearly all jurisdictions report significantly lower numbers of structure fires than 20 years ago. If you were to develop a ratio of working fires in the U.S. to number of firefighter fatalities, you would actually see an increase in firefighter death per "x" number of fires today over 20 years ago.

What is more remarkable is the fact that the manner in which firefighters are predominantly being killed in the line of duty has not changed significantly over the past 20 years either. Every year statistics compiled by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the United States Fire Administration (USFA) consistently indicate that roughly one-half of the firefighter deaths are the result of cardiovascular emergencies. The next biggest cause of deaths is injuries received as a result of collisions while responding to or returning from emergencies. Vehicle collisions account for roughly 25% of all firefighter fatalities each year.

In my personal experience I have found that we have a better chance of getting firefighters (including myself!) to drive safely than to lose weight and get in better shape. So this series of articles will address one particular facet of the issue surrounding safety in responding to or returning from emergency incidents: the safe operation of fire department tankers.

Before getting into the discussion on tankers, it is important to note that the annual statistics kept by the NFPA and USFA indicate that nearly one-half of the fatalities that occur while responding to or returning from incidents are volunteer firefighters operating their personal vehicles (POV). Clearly, the loss of one of these volunteer's lives is too many and we should make every effort to reduce these deaths. However, one should not lose sight of the true scope of the issue related to volunteers crashing their POVs. When you compare the volunteer response to a typical fire compared to the career response, one will see that the odds are stacked against the volunteers.

For example, let's look at the typical car fire. If a car fire occurs at 5th and Market Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 9 pm this evening, 4 or 5 firefighters get on an engine, respond to the fire, put it out, and go home. This car fire resulted in the movement of one fire department vehicle (Engine 8 if my memory serves me correctly).

If the same car fire occurs at 9 pm this evening in the suburban community of Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, Montgomery County fire dispatch activates Pennsburg's pagers and, on average, 20 "fire department vehicles" begin their movement. Fifteen of these are firefighters heading to the station and five are fire police officers heading to the scene. Once at the station, the firefighters will respond 2-3 fire apparatus to the scene. Thus, the same car fire resulted in the movement of 22-23 vehicles. Simple mathematical odds tell you that the car fire response in Pennsburg is 22-23 times more likely to result in a collision. When you look at it in this context, the fact that 50% of the firefighters killed in collisions are volunteers in POVs does not seem so disproportionate. Of course that also does not mean that they cannot be reduced as well, but that is another series of articles.

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.


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.