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During the past few months, there has been a spirited national discussion about healthcare and the leading causes of obesity in adults across the country. No matter which side of the political aisle you may be on, there is little doubt that our nation’s healthcare system is in need of an overhaul. The fire service long ago recognized the importance of physical fitness through many programs, including the “16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives,” promulgated by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF).
Among the initiatives, the significance of being healthy and physically fit is summarized in the following statement: “Develop and implement national medical and physical fitness standards that are equally applicable to all firefighters, based on the duties they are expected to perform.” While many departments have adopted and implemented health and welfare programs for their personnel, the apparatus we use to deliver emergency services unfortunately has not received the same attention.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has several well-established standards for use to reduce opportunities for departments to purchase or operate overweight apparatus. NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus mentions in several areas the requirements placed on the manufacturer and the fire department with respect to weight and axle loading. Section 4.3 of the standard lists the responsibilities of the fire department to determine the hose load, tools and equipment that will be carried on the apparatus. Failing to provide this information results in the minimum equipment payload allowance listed in Table 12.1.2 to be used by the manufacturer when determining the required chassis gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) for the apparatus.
So what does all this mean? A department apparatus committee that is designing a rescue engine must develop a comprehensive tool and equipment inventory with weights, including both space and weight allowances for future expansion. This inventory is then given to prospective manufacturers to determine the appropriate axles, tires and suspension components that will safety carry the intended load on the vehicle, including personnel.
Unfortunately, it is not difficult to find overloaded pieces of apparatus, regardless of age or design characteristics. Over the past few years, we have reviewed hundreds of in-service units and identified the following:
• A less than five-year-old custom pumper equipped with a 750-gallon water tank and five-inch hose was overweight on the rear axle by more than 2,300 pounds
• An eight-year-old custom pumper tanker equipped with a 2,000-gallon water tank with seating for six personnel. When operating with a crew of six, the front axle would be overloaded by almost 1,200 pounds.
• A 17-year-old custom rescue engine was overloaded on the front axle with no personnel on board and the rear axle within 800 pounds of the axle rating.
• An aluminum body mini pumper with a chassis rated at 12,000 pounds was overloaded by 600 pounds on the rear axle.
Each of these departments was unaware of its apparatus weights and axle loading until it was brought to their attention that NFPA 1911: Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus requires that all units be annually weighed to confirm their in-service weight. Chapter 16 of NFPA 1911 describes in detail the procedure for weighing the apparatus. Most fire departments can access certified scales, which are available at transfer stations, sand-and-gravel companies and salvage yards. State and local police agencies can also provide this service for a fire department to obtain the necessary information to validate the axle weights on each apparatus.