Fire apparatus are designed to get equipment and firefighters safely to a blaze so that firefighters can help put out a fire and deal with other life-saving situations. While, according to National Fire protection Association (NFPA) statistics, fire apparatus crashed peaked in 2006, the fire service is still experiencing more than 12,000 vehicle crashes every year and this problem continues to cause many types of injuries, fatalities, and other problems.
Fire apparatus crashes also injure and kill passengers of other vehicles as well as pedestrians. They tap limited resources which need to be spent on emergencies. Worse, a fire apparatus that has been in an accident is slowed down, so that the persons waiting for a fire department response may suffer fatalities or serious injuries because a vehicle did not arrive in time. Each year, fire apparatus crashes also take many fire vehicles off the roads, stretching limited resources thin and making it harder for firefighters to respond to emergencies in a timely manner.
Both volunteer and career fire departments in the United States have been experiencing fire apparatus crashes like these for many years. The NFPA has data that indicates that, between 1977 and 2013, 244 firefighters were killed in apparatus crashes (engine/pump, ladder, tanker, and ambulance/rescue) and between 1990 and 2013, 23,290 firefighters were injured.
The majority of fatal fire apparatus crashes, particularly in the last 15 years, were single-fatality incidents. The leading causes for these crashes are shown to consistently be:
- Excessive speed,
- Failure to stop at traffic control devices,
- Lack of caution at intersections.
Fire department vehicle operations that exhibit any of the above causes will, sooner or later, predictably result in a fire apparatus crash and potential injuries and fatalities to firefighters and/or the public.
As recently as 2003, it has been shown that firefighters are more likely to die travelling to and from an emergency than actually fighting a fire. In addition to these firefighter fatalities, countless other firefighters and civilians are seriously injured in motor vehicle crashes involving fire apparatus, ambulances and personal vehicles. While many fire departments participate in some type of driver training program, these programs often fail to properly address the issues of vehicle dynamics and large truck behavior.
Firefighter fatalities from apparatus crashes have consistently been the second highest area of risk for firefighters and as much as 32% of fatalities experienced in a given year. Generally, the fatality numbers have consistently fallen between 15 and 25% of fatalities experienced in any given year. The fire service has been aware of these dreadful statistics for many years.
Over the past 20 or more years, the fire service and fire apparatus manufacturers, working together, have made changes and additions to NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, to incorporate the latest safety features and state-of-the-art design criteria in order to ensure the provision of safe fire apparatus, designed to meet the critical needs of fire departments, all over the country.
Yet after the implementation of new and improved safety features in fire apparatus designed to meet the requirements of NFPA 1901, the following questions still remain:
- Why are firefighter fatalities continuing to occur during responding and returning activities?
- What are the factors that continue to result in a record of unnecessary numbers of fatalities from apparatus crashes? and,
- Is there a pattern in fire apparatus crashes over the last 10 years that would seem to indicate that specific types of vehicles or types of chassis (e.g. custom or commercial) are more prone to crashes that will result in firefighter fatalities?
In an attempt to answer these, and other, pertinent questions relating to nature and factors of firefighter fatalities resulting from fire apparatus crashes, data obtained from the NFPA for fire apparatus crashes that have occurred in the last 10 years was examined. The data included incidents involving apparatus (engine/pumpers, ladders, and brush trucks, as well as certain special purpose fire department vehicles. The data included a total of 51 fatal incidents, resulting in 55 deaths. Thirty-three of these incidents were subsequently investigated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
A crash analysis was performed from the 33 NIOSH reports included in the data from the 51 incidents in the NFPA crash data. This method of analysis is not as exact as an on-site investigation, but due to the nature and content of the NIOSH Investigation reports, this approach fulfilled the needs to examine factors that were determined to be the primary cause(s) of the fire apparatus crashes identified in the NFPA data.
Fire apparatus Crashes are extremely confusing events. How they occur, who or what caused them, and why they occurred are facts that crash investigators must determine. Each of the NIOSH reports clearly showed that NIOSH investigation team know the fundamentals of traffic accident investigation and know how to prepare thorough fire apparatus crash reports.
Analysis of the 33 NIOSH reports which were available on the 51 incidents reported by the NFPA, clearly showed that the NIOSH reports contained the essential investigative elements who, what, when, where, why, and how the accident happened. As such, it is fairly easy to determine the cause(s) of the crash and whether any consistent trends can be identified, across the complete data set, to arrive at logical and objective conclusions.
The NIOSH reports were reviewed and analyzed to identify common elements that were identified in the 33 NIOSH reports that were examined. The results of the review and analysis of these investigations identified seven operational issues that were repeatedly identified as major contributing factors in the crashes. In most fatal fire apparatus crashes, more than one operational issue was present.
From the information contained in the 33 reviewed reports completed by NIOSH, it has been determined that the four leading causes of firefighter crash fatalities were:
- “Failure to Control” was a factor in 27 (81.8%) of the incidents examined,
- “Rollover” was a factor in 17 (51.5%) of the incidents examined,
- “Firefighters not wearing seatbelts” was a factor in 20 (57.1%) of the incidents,
- “Occupant ejection” was a factor in 15 (42.8%) of the incidents, and in 75% of incidents where occupants were not restrained by seat belts,
- The “Total number of firefighter fatalities” in the 33 incidents was 36.
From the information contained in the 33 NIOSH reports, it has also been determined that:
- “Custom” apparatus were involved in 11 (33%) of the incidents,
- “Commercial” apparatus were involved in 10 (30.3%) of the incidents,
- “Non-compliant” apparatus were involved in 10 (30.3%) of the incidents,
- “No determination” could be made in 2 (6.1%) of the incidents.
Note: “non-compliant” refers to fire apparatus that were re-purposed (old oil tankers, military surplus, etc.) and used as fire apparatus, or vehicles that were “home built” that do not meet any standards, including NFPA 1901.
Information contained in the 33 NIOSH reports, it has also been determined that:
- 54% of Apparatus were 1990 and older models (23+ years old)
- 87% of Apparatus were 2000 and older models (13+ years old)
Conclusions and Recommendations
From an examination of the subject NIOSH reports we conclude that:
- There have been quantum improvements in fire apparatus crash performance starting in 2000, and the performance requirements implemented in NFPA 1901 since 2000 have had significant positive influence on Fire Apparatus Safety and performance when fire apparatus are involved in a major crash incident. These efforts should be continued.
- Crash data examined in this study appears to show that fire apparatus designed to be compliant with NFPA 1901 editions after 2000 may be less likely to be involved in a crash that would result in a firefighter fatality.
- The current edition of NFPA 1901, contains “state of the art” design concepts to achieve the highest possible level of safety to the occupants of the fire apparatus that are currently available in the industry.
- Human factors continue to be a major cause of firefighter and public fatalities when fire apparatus are involved in a crash incident. The leading causes for these crashes are shown to consistently be:
– Excessive speed,
– Failure to stop at traffic control devices, and
– Lack of caution at intersections.
Since the year 2000, or before, the US Fire Service has understood, very clearly, that if a fire apparatus crash is predictable, it is also preventable. Any problem with operational safety that might exist can be easily and effectively dealt with by appropriate procedures which should be in place within the fire department. It clearly should be the responsibility of the employer to have in place a comprehensive Fire Department Occupational Safety Program which contains the following elements:
- a risk management plan,
- a safety and health policy,
- an accident prevention and review process,
- departmental standard operating procedures for the safe operation of apparatus and vehicles, and
- an ongoing training program for all firefighters on the risks and hazards likely to be encountered in emergency vehicle operations.
The US Fire Service, individually, departmentally, and collectively, needs to place as much emphasis on changing firefighter behavior as they did in improving apparatus safety. Until we are much more adept at improving and universally instilling a “safety culture” in the US fire departments, we are likely to continue to see needless and preventable fire apparatus crash fatalities take the lives of firefighters.
The responsibility for establishing and enforcing safety rules and regulations rests solely with the management of the fire department, including the company officers of apparatus crews. An effective fire apparatus crash prevention program requires compliance, commitment, and support from all ranks within the fire department. And while the responsibility for safe driving rests ultimately with the fire chief and all members of his or her management team. Daily accountability rests with the individual company officer. If it is determined that a clear violation of the emergency safe driving procedure has occurred, prompt and appropriate corrective action must be accomplished to reinforce the mandatory compliance with safe driving procedures.