Fire Department Tanker Safety - Part III

March 15, 2004
Although the USFA estimates that tankers account for only 3% of the total fire apparatus in the U.S., they account for more than 20% of response-related firefighter fatalities.The first two installments of this series outlined the critical nature of the frequency and severity of fire department tanker (also called tender) crashes. Although the United States Fire Administration (USFA) estimates that tankers account for only 3% of the total fire apparatus in the U.S., they account for more than 20% of response-related firefighter fatalities.

Although the USFA estimates that tankers account for only 3% of the total fire apparatus in the U.S., they account for more than 20% of response-related firefighter fatalities.The first two installments of this series outlined the critical nature of the frequency and severity of fire department tanker (also called tender) crashes. Although the United States Fire Administration (USFA) estimates that tankers account for only 3% of the total fire apparatus in the U.S., they account for more than 20% of response-related firefighter fatalities. Tankers account for more firefighter deaths than pumpers and aerial apparatus combined.

Article II highlighted important statistics regarding factors that influence the cause and severity of these crashes. The most common causal factor noted was that in approximately 2/3 of the crashes the right side wheels of the tanker left the roadway immediately prior to the crash. This caused the vehicle to veer further off the road and hit a stationary object or for the driver to over-correct when attempting to bring the wheels back onto the road surface. This over-correction often results in the vehicle going into a skid or rollover situation (Figure 1).

(Figure I) Courtesy Michael A. Wieder

The most significant figure in terms of determining the severity of these crashes was that nearly ? of the firefighters who were killed in tanker crashes during the 11 years of the study were not wearing safety belts. A firefighter's chance of being ejected from the vehicle is 22 times greater when not wearing a safety belt. Three out of four people who are completely ejected from a vehicle are fatally injured.

Statistics and anecdotal information often fail to make a strong impact on readers and students who are studying a topic. Thus, it becomes important to relate this information to real-life situations with which the student can identify. In this article we will review a number of case studies of fatal tanker crashes the highlight many of the issues pointed in the previous articles that identified the problem and provided statistical backing of this identification. These case histories are highlighted to show the reader that these causal factors have previously resulted in a tragic outcome. Providing these case histories is in no way meant to demean or be critical of the individuals and departments involved in these incidents. It is hoped that these departments would want to share this information with the fire service so that other personnel and jurisdictions could avoid suffering the same tragedy.

The case histories featured in this article were culled from a study of fatal fire department tanker crashes that occurred between the years 1990 and 2001. Through a variety of sources, including insurance company records, U.S. Fire Administration records, U.S. Department of Justice Public Safety Officers' Benefit (PSOB) data, and a variety of other private and governmental sources, 38 fatal crashes involving fire department tankers were identified during that time period. These crashes resulted in the deaths of 42 firefighters. There were 34 crashes that involved a single fatality and four that each involved two-firefighter fatalities.

Case Study #1 - Right-Side Wheels Leaving the Road Surface

This crash occurred in North Carolina at 17:20 hours on January 14, 1995. In this incident a 49-year-old male firefighter was the driver of a tanker responding to a report of a smoke odor in a manufactured home. A second firefighter rode as the front-seat passenger in the vehicle.

Members of the first fire apparatus unit to arrive at the manufactured home were told by other firefighters - who had responded directly to the scene in their personal vehicles - that there was no emergency. The operator of the first unit informed other responding units by radio to reduce their response mode to non-emergency. Firefighters standing near the truck heard the sound of the tanker's crash at approximately the same time as this transmission was being made.

It was later determined that the right wheels of the tanker left the roadway. Without sufficiently slowing the vehicle, the driver steered the truck back onto the pavement. This caused the rear end of the tanker to come around and the apparatus began to slide. The tanker exited the left side of the road, rolled, and collided with a natural gas distribution substation.

A second tanker - that was following the one that crashed - alerted other firefighters to the crash. When firefighters arrived on the scene, they found the tanker entangled in the natural gas substation with large amounts of natural gas being released. A hazardous materials response team from a nearby city was called to the scene. Once the team arrived, the two firefighters were removed from the tanker and transported to the hospital. The driver was pronounced dead at the hospital, the firefighter who had been a passenger in the tanker received serious but non-fire threatening injuries. Neither firefighter was wearing a seat belt.

The cause of death for driver was listed as multiple blunt force injuries to the head, chest, and abdomen. The law enforcement report on this incident cited excessive speed as a contributing circumstance to the crash.

Lesson to be Learned: This incident was a classic example of the need to keep all of the vehicle's wheels on the road surface at all times. If for some reason the right-side wheels drop off the road surface, the apparatus should be slowed to a speed of 20 mph before attempting to bring all the wheels back onto the road. Neither of the occupants of the tanker was wearing seatbelts, which contributed to the seriousness of their injuries.

Case Study #2 - Failure to Follow Posted Speed Suggestions on a Curve

This incident occurred in Washington state at 21:36 hours on April 8, 1996. The 19-year-old male firefighter who was fatally injured was the driver of a 3,000-gallon tanker responding to a structure fire. The right front seat was occupied by another firefighter. Neither firefighter was wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash.

A local bridge was out of service for repair so the response route taken to the fire was unfamiliar to both firefighters. The fire chief, who was following the tanker in his vehicle, was more familiar with the route. As the tanker approached a curve, the fire chief realized that the driver was accelerating and ordered the tanker, by radio, to slow down. The order came too late and the tanker entered the curve at a speed estimated to be 40-60 miles per hour. The recommended speed in the curve is 35 miles per hour.

The tanker skidded, rotated counter clockwise, and then left the right side of the roadway. The tanker rolled first onto its right side, then onto its roof. The cab was crushed as it slid for a distance. The tanker rolled again and came to rest on its left side.

The fire chief and another chief officer who was riding with him immediately requested assistance. They found the passenger attempting to self-extricate and helped him out of the vehicle. They had a great deal of difficulty removing the driver due to his position in the cab of the truck. He was eventually removed with the assistance of a passing motorist. CPR was begun immediately and continued while the driver was transported to the hospital. The driver was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival at the hospital. The cause of death for the driver was listed as a lacerated heart and major vessels.

Lesson to be Learned: Driving the tanker at a safe and reasonable speed is always important. However, it becomes even more critical when operating the vehicle on unfamiliar roads. In this incident the driver was not familiar with the route being traveled and entered a curve at a speed in which the tanker could not safely be operated. This resulted in a rollover crash. Once again, failure to wear safety belts likely contributed to the seriousness of the injuries.

Case Study #3 - Excessive Speed

This crash occurred in West Virginia during daylight hours on November 19, 2001. A 32 year-old former chief officer was driving the tanker and a 21 year-old firefighter was riding as a passenger in the front right seat of the cab. The 2,000 gallon tanker was following a pumper that left the same fire station and was en route to provide mutual aid at a brush fire.

(Figure II) Courtesy Michael A. Wieder

Prior to the crash, the tanker was descending down a fairly steep grade that contained a horseshoe curve at the bottom of the grade. The driver/operator reported that the vehicle's brakes failed while descending the grade. In an effort to slow the apparatus the driver steered it into the shallow ditch along side the road. When the tanker reached the horseshoe curve at the bottom, it left the roadway, overturned, and slid down an embankment, nearly striking the pumper traveling ahead of the tanker that had completed the turn and was heading back towards the tanker. The water tank detached from the apparatus and slid further down the embankment (Figure 2). Both occupants were trapped in the apparatus cab. The passenger was pronounced dead at the scene and the driver/operator was airlifted to a trauma center where he recovered.

The ensuing investigation determined that the tankers brakes were slightly out of adjustment. However, it was determined that the more important causal factors were that the driver/operator was driving under the influence of alcohol and he was operating the vehicle at an unsafe speed. The driver/operator was terminated from the fire department and convicted of criminal charges. A lawsuit by the victim's estate was settled out of court, prior to the start of a trial.

Lesson to be Learned: Operating the vehicle with a clear, unimpaired mind and at a safe and controllable speed will go a long way towards making it safely to the emergency scene. Failure to do so can result in a catastrophic incident, along with criminal and civil legal ramifications.


These three cases studies offer real-life proof of the information provided in the statistical review of fire department tanker crashes. The people who were injured and/or killed in these incidents, as well as the people they left behind, are real people who will struggle with the consequences of these crashes for the rest of their lifetimes. It is crucial that we do everything on our power to avoid these crashes in the future. In the fourth and final installment of this series, we will look at easily identifiable ways to prevent becoming one of these "statistics." More information on fire department tanker crashes can be obtained from the USFA report titled Safe Vehicle Operation of Fire Tankers which can be downloaded from


Michael Wieder, CFPS, MIFireE is the Assistant Director & Managing Editor for Fire Protection Publications(IFSTA) He can be contacted at [email protected] to answer any questions or comments you may have.

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