Minimizing Over-the-Road Accidents

April 18, 2022
Michael Wilbur explains why apparatus committees should consider numerous technological advancements that make traveling to fires safer for firefighters.

If you were alive in 1968, you might remember the phrase “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” It was an advertising slogan for a brand of cigarettes. Having personally ridden the back step of fire apparatus in the 1970s and in the early 80s and having seen how far that the U.S. fire service has come since the NFPA required four-door enclosed cabs in 1991, that slogan surely fits today’s fire apparatus as it relates to vehicle and firefighter safety.

FDNY was an early leader in this safety effort, requiring four-door enclosed cabs after the riots in the late 60s, to prevent members from being struck by objects that were thrown by rioters, not to mention protection from gunfire. Some two decades later, the NFPA made it a requirement in NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus.

Custom enclosed cabs today have roll cages as an integral part of their design to protect firefighters during rollover.

FDNY further strengthened its apparatus specifications by requiring a steel reinforced front bumper to prevent intrusion into the cab during apparatus accidents to protect personnel in the front of the cab.


Apparatus have gotten faster (higher horsepower engines) and heavier (increased axle capacity). Along with that came a need for enhanced braking. The 1991 revision of NFPA 1901 required that every apparatus that weighs more than 33,000 lbs. must be equipped with an auxiliary braking system.

FDNY, using technology in conjunction with Seagrave, Telma (drive shaft, gearbox and drive axle retarders) and anti-lock braking systems, sought to have skid-free braking, including via an auxiliary braking system. FDNY specified in the apparatus an electric driveline retarder that interfaces with the computer that controls the anti-lock braking system. Initially, when the apparatus operator let off of the accelerator pedal, four electromagnets grabbed hold of the drive shaft at the same time to bring the apparatus to an abrupt stop. Realizing that wasn’t going to work, engineers who worked with FDNY set up the auxiliary braking system so that two electromagnets engage when the operator lets off of the accelerator pedal and the other two electromagnets engage once the operator depresses the top of the brake pedal before actuating the service brakes. There are no on/off switches for the auxiliary brake system; it always is on. The only way that the system shuts off is when the anti-lock brake computer senses wheel lockup, at which point the anti-lock brake computer shuts off the auxiliary braking system in milliseconds. Once the computer senses that the wheels again are spinning freely, the auxiliary braking system is restored in milliseconds.

As the operator, you know that the auxiliary braking system is working based on a series of four amber lights that are on the dash that illuminate when each of the four electromagnetics activate as well as a self-diagnostic check at vehicle startup.

Seat belts

Early in 2003, the first of many safety enhancements in the fire apparatus industry that were to emerge in a relatively short amount of time was unveiled. It used air bags, pyrotechnic buckles and electronic sensing technology. The RollTek system was a joint venture between seat belt manufacturer IMMI and Pierce Manufacturing.

When an imminent rollover of the apparatus is sensed, advanced safety systems activate. This safety system activation includes buckle pretensioners and side air bags. When deployed, the system protects firefighters’ head and neck.

In 2007, IMMI introduced frontal air bags, marketed as 4Front. Although similar to what you might find in an automobile, the system is more complex because of the heavy-duty construction and different variations of fire apparatus cabs. The 4Front system comprises a steering wheel air bag and an officer knee airbag. (A driver knee air bag is optional.) When a sensor determines a frontal crash, the frontal air bags deploy.

When purchasing an apparatus, RollTek, 4Front or both systems can be specified.

In 2009, NFPA 1901 was revised to require the installation in fire apparatus of vehicle data recorders (VDRs), which also are known as the black box. High-end VDRs can capture vehicle speed, braking and auxiliary braking. Some have lateral G-force indicators to alert the driver via a series of lights on the dash of an impending rollover event. The VDR also can record time and date as to when a seat was occupied and whether and when a seat belt was engaged and buckled. Because weight sensors within the seats interface with the seat belt system, the seat belt must be buckled around the firefighter: no circumventing the operation of seat belt sensors by buckling the seat belt behind the firefighter, as is possible with other seat belt systems.

Unfortunately, under the revision to NFPA 1901 that’s underway, the VDR requirement is dropped. A reference to VDR will be contained in the annex as a recommendation. The reason that was given was to reduce the cost of apparatus—and that “nobody used it anyway.” Perhaps nobody used it because there never was an explanation as to all that the VDR could do and that, in most cases, no training was offered or given. This prompts the question: How many expensive components are installed on apparatus today with little or no explanation or training?

To continue its leadership in cab safety, starting in 2010, FDNY conducted research on seat belts and their lack of use in FDNY apparatus. It was determined that firefighters weren’t wearing seat belts—not because they didn’t want to but because the seat belts that were installed in apparatus didn’t work very well or, in some cases, not at all.

In 2010, IMMI and FDNY developed seat belts that account for the mass of bunker gear, to provide more retraction of the seat belt, so the belt won’t get caught in the Nadar pin and fray.

In 2007, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) authorized a series of anthropometric studies.

Anthropometrics is the science that defines physical measures of a person’s size, form and functional capacities. Applied to occupational injury prevention, anthropometric measurements are used to study the interaction of workers with tasks, tools, machines, vehicles and PPE. This is done in particular to determine the degree of protection against dangerous exposures, whether they are chronic or acute.

NIOSH’s series of studies were historical in nature: Firefighters never had occupational anthropometric studies conducted in their workplace. More than 1,000 firefighters from all over the United States were studied. Most of those individuals got full body scans. Some of the findings of the studies were applied to the seat belt project that was undertaken by FDNY and IMMI. For example, when firefighters are dressed in bunker gear, their body mass is increased by 30 percent.

Over an 18-month period, IMMI produced eight different prototype seat belts. Each of the prototypes were tried in a variety of FDNY apparatus. The result: the ReadyReach seat belt, which was named for the ease with which it’s donned and doffed. An extender arm that’s located adjacent to the top of the seat pushes the male end of the seat belt beyond the seat and the firefighter; the increased length of the seat belt stalk helps to accommodate the increased size of a firefighter who is in bunker gear. The seat belt can be donned in four seconds. Seat belt usage in FDNY increased dramatically.

Over the course of 18 months, more than 500 FDNY apparatus underwent retrofitting to have the new seat belt installed.

Improvements to Come

Over the course of my fire service career, the improvements in firefighter safety, in general, and fire apparatus, in particular, have been dramatic and have prevented firefighter injuries and deaths. What does the future hold for fire apparatus safety?

It would seem that the application of onboard electronics that’s used to warn fire apparatus of the approach of other fire apparatus or other emergency vehicles at intersections is in the offing. Technology already exists to warn civilian vehicles via dashboard display of the approach of fire apparatus and other vehicles, to prevent intersection collisions.

With the continued dedication of fire apparatus manufacturers, with the development of new technology, and with the commitment of fire service leaders in the United States and Canada, safety improvements are evolving continually. This evolution will offer significant improvements to apparatus and firefighter safety for years to come. 

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