Concerns are growing in the public-safety sector, particularly in the fire service, over the amount of gear that’s finding its way into first-responder vehicles. Some believe that, paradoxically, the very devices that are designed to keep first responders safer and make them more effective are creating safety hazards and operational challenges that put them at risk.
One such person is Chris Baker, a captain with the Roseville (Calif.) Fire Department. “This is a problem, and it’s getting worse,” he said.
Over the years, cab space in fire apparatus has shrunk considerably, caused by several intertwined factors. One is that many fire departments, particularly those in urban areas, prefer short wheelbases so that apparatus can more nimbly navigate narrow city streets and cul-de-sacs. Another is that today’s firefighters are required to perform a plethora of duties their predecessors didn’t have to worry about, such as serving as paramedics and responding to hazmat incidents. This has created a need for increased storage space on apparatus for all of the new equipment they now must carry.
Given the aforementioned desire for the shortest possible wheelbase, plus the fact that many urban fire stations were built decades ago — meaning care must be taken to ensure that the vehicles will fit inside the structure — lengthening the apparatus to accommodate the larger storage compartments isn’t a viable option. Instead, the cabs typically have been whittled down.
At the same time, the engine block has been moved forward to enable firefighters to sit in the “bucket” behind the driver and officer who are seated in the cab; this, in turn, has forced the engine doghouse forward as well, so it is now positioned between the cab’s occupants, further diminishing interior space.
Now, add to these factors a big one: a lot of gear is being crammed into those cabs, more than ever before. According to Alan Caldwell — a senior advisor to the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) whose 33-year career as a firefighter included stints as chief of a volunteer department and as a battalion chief for a combination department — a typical fire apparatus has the following equipment in the cab:
- A mobile data terminal or laptop computer;
- A mobile radio with a corresponding radio control head; some will carry multiple mobile radios to communicate with other agencies — for instance, the police department and public works — that are operating on different frequencies;
- Portable radios;
- Controls for electronic and switch-operated sirens — “We like both types of sirens, so we can make a lot of noise,” Caldwell said — and the emergency lights;
- A self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for the officer;
- Flashlights and a high-intensity light — with a brightness factor of 1 million lumens — that are used to search for addresses and for spotting things in areas that are set back from the road;
- A global positioning system (GPS) terminal;
- A thermal-imaging camera;
- An EMS bag;
- Chemical and gas analyzers, which are used to determine whether the incident requires a hazmat response;
- Mapbooks — to identify hydrant positions, among other things — and preplan books that typically are housed in multiple, large 3-ring binders.
“It’s definitely getting cramped in there,” Caldwell said.
Just how cramped depends on whether the apparatus sports a commercial or custom cab, according to Paul Maplethorpe, chief of the Greater Round Lake (Ill.) Fire Protection District, who has performed custom installations of communications equipment in first-responder vehicles for the past three decades. Custom cabs are roomier, but most departments opt for commercial cabs, for a very good reason, Maplethorpe said.
“A commercial chassis saves $50,000 per apparatus, which makes a big difference when you’re buying 20 trucks a year,” he said. “But you definitely lose cab space.”
And even custom cabs have their issues, Maplethorpe added. “There’s still not a lot of surface space,” for the mounting of gear, he said.
While there isn’t as much gear crammed into the front seat of a police cruiser — the mobile radio(s) and video recorder typically are mounted in the vehicle’s trunk — law enforcement is encountering the same challenges in this regard as its fire-department brethren. There’s still the mobile data terminal or laptop, dash-mounted pump shotgun, and radio, lights and siren controllers taking up space in the vehicle’s front seat, which is far more limited as compared with the cab of a fire apparatus. And nothing can be placed in the back seat, as that is where suspects go.
Things are so cramped inside emergency vehicles that some are worried that conditions are unsafe and are hindering response preparation.
On the fire side, there are many important tasks officers must perform in the five minutes or less it takes a fire apparatus to travel from the station to the incident. Turnout gear must be donned, the SCBA must be readied, the mobile-data device’s screen must be turned on, communication with dispatch must be established, the mobile radio(s) must be monitored, and thought must be given to how the response will be executed.
“There’s quite a bit of complex work that has to be done in a very short amount of time,” Baker said.
Because of the cramped quarters, maneuverability inside the cab often is diminished, which can have a negative effect on how quickly gear can be donned and readied. However, Doug Mummert, a division chief with the city of Phoenix Fire Department, said firefighters shouldn’t be putting on their turnout gear inside the apparatus.
“We drill it into their heads that before the rig hits the road, they should already be turned out and buckled in,” Mummert said. “If you get that task out of the way, you’ll have a much better time dealing with all of the tools you need to use, and you won’t be fumbling around.”
Speaking of those tools, equipment mounted near the dashboard is another concern, as it can limit the visibility of the driver and the officer. This is a significant problem, because one of the most important tasks for both is to locate the incident and keep a watchful eye on traffic to avoid collisions with other vehicles.
“The expectation is that all of this technology will make myriad information available to first responders as they pull up to a building, but the problem is that they still have to get to the scene safely,” said Steve Wisely, director of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials’ Communications Center and 911 Services Department. “The safety aspects are undeniable.”
The fact that a large device such as a mobile data terminal or laptop is in close proximity to the cab’s denizens makes such collisions especially problematic, Baker said. “The apparatus is bouncy and can be traveling at speeds up to 55 miles per hour,” he said. “You have to get real close to the screen to be able to read the data. Imagine if you’re in a head-on or rear-end accident.”
This is no small consideration, according to Maplethorpe. “There are hundreds of apparatus crashes each year,” he said.
Fortunately for first responders, vendors are well aware of the dilemma and have been working on solutions. In August, Motorola introduced an ergonomically designed, integrated control head that lets users command the mobile radio, siren and light functions via a single button, saving space and simplifying operations. Meanwhile, Tait has developed color-coded, handheld radio controllers for the same purposes. Other radio vendors, such as Icom and Kenwood, have designed mobile radios that can be installed under or behind passenger seats.
Also, apparatus vendor Pierce Manufacturing has engineered recessed areas into its cabs, which helps get mobile radios and laptops out of harm’s way. One tactic is the elimitaion of the glove box in favor of a flat surface area in front of the officer’s seat on which a laptop can be placed. Additionally, Pierce has engineered its apparatus in such a way that the fire-pump housing has been reduced in size and moved forward, which shortens wheelbase length without sacrificing pump performance or storage space. This eliminates the need to trim cab space to achieve shorter wheelbases.
Some wonder whether an industry standard should be developed to address cab size and the amount of gear that should be contained within. The National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 1901 standard defines how gear should be secured within the cab, but it doesn’t consider what that gear should constitute. Bob Barraclough, who has served 22 years on the NFPA’s apparatus committee, doesn’t think such an effort would be feasible.
“Where do you start and where do you stop?” he said. “Every department is different. It’s a local issue.”
Indeed, the needs and wants of individual departments in the fire service vary greatly because of the wide disparity in department type. Some are urban, rural or wildland; some are career, combination or volunteer. Nevertheless, while he acknowledged that fire departments require much more specialized equipment than police departments because of these vagaries, Mummert opined that they sometimes go overboard in this regard.
“Personalities are a factor,” he said. “Everyone is always trying to reinvent the wheel.”