Tools & Technologies: Targeting Fire Department Tanker Stability and Safety

It’s no secret that fire tankers and tenders are at a higher risk of rollover than any other fire apparatus on the road today. Heavily loaded tankers with higher centers of gravity, short wheelbases and sometimes poorly converted gross vehicle weight...


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It’s no secret that fire tankers and tenders are at a higher risk of rollover than any other fire apparatus on the road today. Heavily loaded tankers with higher centers of gravity, short wheelbases and sometimes poorly converted gross vehicle weight ratings (GVWRs) have proven to be one of the leading causes of firefighter injuries and fatalities decade after decade.

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) has identified fire apparatus accidents as a leading cause of firefighter injuries and fatalities. Today, according to USFA’s statistics, 25% of on-duty fatalities occur while responding to or returning from an incident. As a cause of firefighter fatalities, it is second only to heart attacks.

While tanker and tenders represent only 3% of fire apparatus operating in the United States today, the USFA found that over a 12-year period, tankers and tenders were responsible for 22% of all fatalities among firefighters. Some of the exposure to risk and accidents is due to tanker and tender conversions, while other reasons for the high rate of tanker and tender accidents – many of which are rollover incidents – can be traced to inadequate driver training and poor vehicle maintenance. To better understand what can be done to improve safety, handling and stability of a high center of gravity, and heavily loaded tankers and tenders, HME has taken a closer look at all of the factors that contribute to these accidents.

Preventing rollovers

Preventing tanker rollovers begins with understanding how easily big rigs, like tankers and tenders, can roll over. Tankers and tenders account for a large percentage of all fire apparatus accidents and an even higher percentage of fatalities in accidents that look, on the surface, to be avoidable. So what are the causes behind these accidents and rollovers? And even a better question is what can be done to prevent them?

It’s just a fact of nature that high-center-of-gravity trucks, like tankers and tenders, roll over more easily than other types of vehicles. While such vehicles as passenger cars have a lower susceptibility to rollover because they can’t achieve the gravitational (g) force (approximately 1.3 g’s for a passenger car) to roll over while cornering, a half-empty tanker with a poorly maintained suspension could easily attain the speed to reach enough g’s (it may take only 0.04 g’s) to tip over. Contact with debris or a curb could also initiate a rollover, even at very low speeds. In fact, vehicles with high centers of gravity can roll over at speeds as low as 5 mph, even when backing up. Proper driver training and understanding of the dynamics of a rollover, as it relates to tankers, is probably one of the best ways to improve safety for firefighters.

Repurposed vehicles

“On June 21, 2005, a 52-year-old male volunteer chief died from injuries sustained during a tanker rollover.” That’s from a line-of-duty investigation report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Unfortunately, you don’t have to look hard to find stories like this one. The chief in this case was a highly experienced and trained firefighter. He was driving a military-surplus truck that had been converted into a tanker to a nearby town for a state inspection. While he was driving on a gravel road at approximately 40 mph, the left-front tire of the tanker ruptured, causing a loss of control. The tanker left the road and rolled over several times. The chief was ejected and died on the scene from his injuries.

As we can see from just this one incident, an accomplished and experienced chief, driving at a reasonable speed, found himself in a situation where loss of control and stability occurred before he could take any action to prevent the rollover. In some cases, the potential for a hazardous accident was part of the vehicle itself.

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