Fire Department Tanker Safety - Part II

Sept. 12, 2003
We will examine in closer detail some of the statistics and causes associated with the fatal tanker collisions that occurred in the U.S. during the period of 1990 through 2001.In Part I of this series we brought to light the problem of fire department tankers being involved in a disproportionate number of collisions fatal to firefighters when compared to other types of fire apparatus.

We will examine in closer detail some of the statistics and causes associated with the fatal tanker collisions that occurred in the U.S. during the period of 1990 through 2001.In Part I of this series we brought to light the problem of fire department tankers being involved in a disproportionate number of collisions fatal to firefighters when compared to other types of fire apparatus. While the United States Fire Administration (USFA) estimates that tankers account for only 3% of all fire apparatus in the U.S., they are responsible for 22% of the deaths of firefighters who are killed in vehicle collisions. More firefighters are killed in tankers than in pumpers and aerial apparatus combined. Using this information the USFA undertook a study of the problems associated with operating fire department tankers. The results of this study were published in May 2003 in a report entitled Safe Operation of Fire Tankers (available at This report provides details information on the causes and prevention of injuries and deaths as a result of tanker collisions.

In Part II of this series we will examine in closer detail some of the statistics and causes associated with the fatal tanker collisions that occurred in the U.S. during the period of 1990 through 2001. It is important to note that the research used to developed the USFA's report and that forms the basis for this series of articles was limited to collisions that involved the death of one or more firefighters. Because of the weakness of data collection throughout the U.S. fire service it is impossible to get complete, accurate, and/or reliable information on tanker collisions that did not involve fatalities. Thus, the information contained in the report and in these articles provides insight into the factors associated with the types of collisions that possess the greatest potential for harm to firefighters.

Hypothetically, there is some suspicion that if it were possible to collect data on tanker collisions that were not fatal to a firefighter that some of the results would slightly different than those reported here. For example, through history we know that the most dangerous place during an emergency response and the location most likely to be involved in a collision is in an intersection. However, as you will see later in this article not a single fatal tanker accident in this study showed an intersection collision as being the primary contributing factor to the collision. That should not be interpreted as though tankers pose less of a danger going through an intersection than other fire apparatus. Tankers just as likely to be involved in intersection collisions as any other emergency vehicle. However, using the Gordon Graham "Rule of Lug Nuts" (he who has the greater number of lug nuts wins) it is likely that the vehicle a tanker collides with in an intersection is considerably smaller than the tanker, resulting in less danger to the tanker and its occupant(s) than the other vehicle.

With these things understood, let's review some of the statistics and causes associated with fatal tanker collisions.

Who Is Involved In Tanker Crashes?

During the period from 1990 through 2001 there were 38 fatal tanker collisions in the United States resulting in 42 firefighter fatalities. Thirty-four of the collisions involved the death of one firefighter and four of the collisions were fatal to two firefighters each. All 42 of the individuals killed in these crashes were volunteer firefighters. The fact that volunteer firefighters account for all of these crashes and fatalities should not be a surprise because volunteers generally protect rural areas where tankers are needed. Road conditions in the areas protected by volunteers also tend to be more challenging (more hills, sharp turns, poor road conditions) than those in areas protected by career firefighters. Therefore, it is only natural that volunteers would account for most crashes involving tankers.

Under 20
70 and over

The statistic indicate that age and driver/operator experience may play a factor in the likelihood of a serious tanker crash. In the cases that were reviewed, the age group of 20 to 29 year-olds accounted for the largest number of fatal tanker crashes. This would tend to show that inexperience might be a significant causal factor in tanker crashes. This is also reflective of standard insurance industry actuary rates for correlating age and crash frequency.

It is also interesting to note where the victims who were fatally injured were riding on the apparatus at the time of the crash. Thirty-one of the 42 victims were the drivers of the apparatus. This is probably due to the fact that it is quite common for a tanker to respond with only the driver on board. Four of the documented crashes involved the death of both the driver and the right front seat passenger. There were only seven crashes in which the passenger was killed but the driver survived.

Time Of Day

Midnight to 2:59am
3am to 5:59am
6am to 8:59am
9am to 11:59am
Noon to 2:59pm
3pm to 5:59pm
6pm to 8:59pm
9pm to 11:59pm
Not Reported

A review of the reported times of day that the crashes occurred shows that most tanker accidents occur during daylight hours. The frame of noon through 6:00 pm accounted for 55% of the fatal tanker crashes. This statistic is consistent with other studies of fire apparatus and other emergency vehicle crashes.

Historically USFA and NFPA annual fire loss reports show that the greatest percentage of working fires and responses occur at night. The fact that most tanker and other emergency vehicle crashes occur during daylight hours seem at odds with these fire statistics and have been the subject on much speculation. One possibility is that drivers are more confident when driving in daylight than in dark. This confidence may translate into greater speed or overconfidence in one's driving ability. Both of those factors have been shown to be significant causes of emergency vehicle crashes. The reduced visibility that occurs during nighttime driving may actually save lives, as it forces the driver to slow down. Other causal factors that may be responsible for more daytime collisions include more civilian vehicles on the road that this time of the day and the greater use of mutual and automatic aid in many jurisdictions on daytime responses because of decreased numbers on volunteers available in individual departments.

Contributing Factors In Tanker Crashes

The case history information that was available for the 38 incidents that were studied did contain extensive information on the various causes and factors that led to the crashes. In virtually every case, there was more than one cause or factor listed as having played a significant role in the occurrence or the seriousness of the crash. The following table shows a compilation of the contributing causes for the 38 cases that were studied.

Failure To Wear Seat belts
Wheels left the right side of the road
Excessive speed
Fatally injured individuals ejected from the apparatus
Overcorrection when attempting to bring right wheels back onto the road surface
Failure to negotiate a curve
Loss of control while descending a grade
Failure to follow posted speed recommendations on a curve
Mechanical failure
Poor road condition
Poor apparatus design
Driver inattention
Impairment by prescription medication
Failure to stop at an intersection

The figures in this table show that in some cases firefighters are fairing no better than members of the general public. If you fail to wear your safety belt, there is a significantly greater chance you will be fatally injured in a collision. This is evidenced by the fact that failure to wear a seat belt was noted in 31 of the 42 fatalities (about 74%). While failure to wear a seat belt is rarely the cause of a crash, it often plays a significant role in the severity of injury to the victims.

While there is no conclusive manner to determine how many of these victims would have been saved had they been wearing their seat belts, it is a safe assumption that a large majority of them would. This assumption applies especially to the 20 victims who were partially or totally ejected from the apparatus. A 1999 DOT report (DOT HS 809 090; available at indicates that the proper use of seat belts by heavy truck occupants reduces the risk of fatal injury by 60 percent and moderate-to-critical injury by 65 percent. The 1999 DOT relayed the following endorsement for seatbelt use in large trucks, which fire apparatus definitely meet the definition of:

2. Eight out of ten fatalities in rollover accidents involve occupant ejection from the vehicle.

3. Occupants are 22 times more likely to be thrown from the vehicle in a rollover accident when they are not wearing your seat belt.

When one examines the true causes of tanker crashes, four major factors become apparent:

  • The apparatus wheels leaving the right side of the road (Figure 1)
  • Excessive speed
  • Overcorrection/oversteering by the driver when attempting to bring right wheels back onto the road surface
  • Failure to negotiate a curve
Photo courtesy Mike Wieder Figure 1

From those four major factors, two pairs of interrelated causes may be discerned. The first is the combination of allowing the apparatus wheels to drift off the right side of the road and overcorrection or oversteering when trying to bring the wheels back onto the road surface. In nearly two-thirds (65.8 percent) of the crashes that were studied, the apparatus drifted off the right side of the road. Once the right side wheels were off the roadway, in three-quarters (76 percent) of the cases, the crash then occurred as a result of the driver attempting to bring the vehicle back onto the roadway and then losing control. In the remaining cases, the vehicle either rolled over or struck an object (pole, guardrails, bridge rails, etc.) once the wheels were off the right side of the driving surface. Information on how to avoid these types of crashes and safely bring a vehicle back onto the driving surface are covered in Chapter 4 of this report.

The other pair that is typically interrelated is excessive speed and failure to safely negotiate a curve. In most cases, the reason that the curve was not safely negotiated was because the apparatus entered the curve at an unsafe speed. In several of the cases that were studied, it was noted that the apparatus was well above the posted recommended speed for the curve on which the crash occurred. However, excessive speed is not only a problem when trying to negotiate curves. It is often the reason that the right wheels drift off the road surface, that the apparatus is unable to come to a stop at intersections, or that the driver is unable to control the vehicle when a mechanical failure occurs. Simply slowing down and driving the apparatus at a reasonable speed will prevent a significant number of crashes from occurring.


Clearly, some of the information related to the statistics and causes of fire department tanker collisions would come as no surprise to anyone. On the other hand there are a few of these findings that seem to defy what many people might have thought prior to the USFA's study. For example, the lack of intersection crashes as noted earlier in the article may have come as a surprise to some fire service personnel.

Another finding, or lack thereof that has caught many by surprise is that only three of the collisions listed poor apparatus design or poor mechanical condition of the apparatus as causes for the collisions. Because many fire departments use retrofit vehicles (in many cases home-built) and surplus military vehicles as tanker apparatus, it was naturally assumed that this would be a significant factor in fatal collisions. However, this fact did not come to life in the study.

The information in this article clearly shows that if firefighters wear their seatbelts, operate the vehicle at a reasonable speed, and keep the wheels on the driving surface that they likely will not be involved in a fatal collision. It sounds simple, but if it were that simple we wouldn't have the problem to address. In the next two parts of this series we will examine 20 ways to decrease your chances on being killed in a fire department tanker.


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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