The Apparatus Architect-Part 50 Designing Safety into Your Apparatus

The Apparatus Architect series first appeared in the August, 2000 edition of Firehouse Magazine with the ambition that the material presented would “enhance a fire department’s ability to obtain properly designed and functional apparatus”.  Some ten years later we still find ourselves engaged with providing practical information and examples of well designed apparatus that can be shared with all departments regardless of the size of their apparatus fleets.  In this installment of The Apparatus Architect we are going to discuss some practical aspects of apparatus safety that should be considered on all new units.


            Most all types of apparatus whether engine or ladder company units will at some point require members to climb up onto the vehicle, either to perform fire fighting duties, rack hose or when conducting maintenance work on the apparatus or equipment.  Data collected and analyzed by the United States Fire Administration reveals that some thirty four percent of all accidents on the fire ground involve sprains and strains to operating personnel.  While the majority of these types of injuries occur while operating at the scene of a structural fire a surprising thirty eight percent took place outside of the structure.  Age in itself was not a strong determinant factor as a higher number of volunteer personnel who were injured were between the ages of 20 to 24, where the highest incidence of injuries to career members were between 35 and 39 years of age. 


            When operating with our apparatus we should make every effort to train our personnel to adhere to safety procedures to insure that “Everyone Goes Home”. This includes some of the some basic tasks including use of riding assignments, use of seat belts and how to climb on and off the apparatus at various points.  At one time or another we  have probably all witnessed unsafe acts on the fire ground which would cause us to think about our own personnel safety.  Some of the most basic safety procedures are often disregarded which results in needless lost time injuries. Remember you are in charge of your own personnel safety.  With this in mind in this article we will focus on several areas where properly engineered components can improve the level of safety on your apparatus. 


            Climbing on and off apparatus can be challenging especially when wearing all of our PPE and carrying other tools and gear.  The NFPA 1901 standard has done a good job in addressing stepping and standing surfaces including the required slip resistance for these areas.  Areas such as cab entrance steps, pump panel access and rear step areas must also be illuminated and provided with non-slip handrails to provide three points of contact that can be maintained at all times.  Despite these safety standards we still have personnel injuries when operating on our apparatus.


            In section 15.7 in the 1901 Standard specifically addresses fixed or folding stepping surfaces as follows: “All steps shall have a minimum area of 35 square inches, shall be of such a shape that a 5 inch diameter disc does not overlap any side when placed on the step, and shall be arranged to provide at least 8 inches of clearance between the leading edge of the step and any obstruction”.  These requirements provide an excellent guideline for the design of the stepping surface.  It’s where we install them on our apparatus that can lead up into trouble. 

            Engine company apparatus traditionally incorporated the use of folding steps where they would be installed at the forward end of the body next to the pump panel.  In the days when hard suction hose was carried above the compartments on the driver’s side with ground ladders carried on the right side the installation of these steps made sense.  A single step located on each side of the body could provide rapid access to this equipment or to reach booster reel equipment mounted over the fire pump.  Today’s engine apparatus typically are equipped with high side body compartments with rescue pumper style bodies becoming more common with full height and full depth compartments on each side of the apparatus.  These bodies typically are 60 to 72 inches in height and when factoring in the height from the ground to the first step on the apparatus the top of the body can up over eight feet from the ground.  Even with lighted non-slip step surfaces and handrails the safe use of these folding steps when climbing straight up the front of the apparatus can be problematic at best.


            Apparatus bodies which have locker or coffin style compartments located at the top of the body will at some point require members to access the equipment stored in these compartments.  Safe access to these areas is best accomplished by designing a safe step arrangement at the rear of the apparatus using a series of fixed steps that can provide a larger surface area or an access ladder that incorporates handrails on each side of the ladder. 


            The height of the rear hose bed on many engine units has increased as well due to the need to carry an increased amount of equipment for any type of incident.  Full depth body compartments typically require a rectangular water tank and with everything else being equal a combination rescue-engine apparatus with a 750 gallon water tank will have a higher hose body than a unit with a T-shaped water tank.  Flat back style bodies while they offer additional enclosed compartment space can limit the available options for stepping arrangements for access to the hose bed area.  Using fixed or swing out pool style ladders can provide safer access to this area and are not dramatically more expensive than the cost of a series of folding steps installed around the body.

            The next time you are viewing apparatus at a fire service show take a moment to climb on the apparatus at the various points where fixed or folding steps are provided.  You will be surprised at how difficult this simple task may seem at first and then consider that you are doing this in your street clothes.  Now image that you have donned your PPE and SCBA and now attempting to access a hose line or piece of equipment from the apparatus.  A few minutes spent in thoughtfully locating fixed steps with large non-slip surfaces or access ladders on your apparatus can greatly improve the level of safety for your personnel.  The manufacturer’s standard location for fixed and folding steps may or may not meet your needs.  The details for step locations and points of access are typically determined at the engineering conference after the contract with the manufacturer has been signed.  Your apparatus committee will need to detail the type and material construction for access steps on the apparatus in the bidding specifications.  Gaining assistance from an experienced apparatus sales person or an apparatus architect can provide technical information on different arrangements for stepping and climbing components.

            Master stream devices that are manually controlled from the top of the pump area would also require members to climb on the apparatus.  With the increased use of generators, foam systems and hydraulic rescue tool systems many of these fixed components are located above the fire pump for ease of installation and maintenance.  Care must be given when positioning these components to provide several non-slip surfaces for personnel to operate from when using these master stream devices.  An alternative would be to provide for a remote control deck gun where the engineer can operate the deck gun while safely on the ground.  Another option is to outfit your apparatus with a blitz line attached to a portable monitor that can discharge up to 500 gpm several hundred feet away from the apparatus with minimal staffing. 


            A review of fire apparatus history will show that over the years engine, ladder and rescue apparatus have become larger, heavier and carry more equipment than there predecessors.  As a result some simple tasks such as equipment retrieval and racking hose have become much more difficult on many apparatus.  A “Back to Basics” approach to the overall design of the apparatus can provide a fresh look to many of the drawbacks that we face when setting out to specify a new piece of apparatus.  Apparatus committees should concentrate on defining the mission of the vehicle, knowing that a manufacturer may attempt to build a pumper, ladder, tanker, recue, foam, air, light, unit that will have a little bit of everything and when you get it to the fire ground will not be very good at anything.  As the demand for multi-functional apparatus increases we must resist the temptation to ignore or compromise the core mission of the vehicle and you must always keep safe operating procedures in mind during the specification process.

Captions for AA Part 50:  All photos by Tom W. Shand

#1. AA Part 50 #1:

 AA PART 50 #1

The three folding steps at the front of the body of this unit meet the 1901 standard and yet you have to ask the question: Where are we going when we get to the top step?

#2. AA Part 50 #2

AA PART 50 #2

This engine apparatus from Bel Air, Maryland employs a series of fixed corner steps together with a full width intermediate step to gain access to the rear hose body.  Note the full height handrails on both sides of the rear body panels.

#3. AA Part 50 #3:

AA PART 50 #3

Hollywood, Maryland specified a short access ladder with a wide stepping surface at the rear of their new engine.  Safe access to the rear of the apparatus is provided by this arrangement with both vertical and horizontal handrails.

#4. AA Part 50 #4:

AA PART 50 #4

Where overall length of the apparatus is not a consideration the use a pull out style access ladder can provide easy access to the upper body area with a wrap around handrail installed at the top of the apparatus.  Note the portable ground monitor and preconnected line located at the right corner of the body on this pumper from Monroe Township, Pennsylvania.

#5. AA Part 50 #5:

 AA PART 50 #5

This rescue squad apparatus from Carlisle, Pennsylvania utilized a pull down style ladder with folding handrails to gain access to the upper body storage compartments.  This ladder arrangement provides increased safety for personnel particularly when carrying equipment.


Firehouse Magazine April 2011

Apparatus Architect Part 50

By Tom Shand and Michael Wilbur