Apparatus Safety & the Safety Officer

The safety officer’s role in speccing & purchasing apparatus

By Danny Kistner
Published Thursday, April 12, 2012 | From the June 2012 Issue of FireRescue

As the fire service matures and becomes more educated about today’s fireground and its hazards, corollaries can be made between the improvement of firefighter safety and a positive impact on injury and fatality prevention. (I challenge anyone to find a fire service journal, periodical, conference or symposium out there today that does not provide some instruction related to safety.)

Many fire departments have formalized the position of Health and Safety Officer, or have at least assigned the duty to some level of fire officer. Most firefighters associate the health and safety officer’s role with overseeing fireground safety or safety in the fire station. Indeed, recent trends in firefighter injuries include sprains and strains from physical fitness activities. Traditionally, it is the health and safety officer’s job to identify fireground hazards and evaluate the physical environment at the fire station. Both examples rely on identification and physical removal of hazards.

One significant area of improved safety involves apparatus. The fire service has made great strides in apparatus standards. Included in these are administrative controls, which include changes in policy and “black box” recorders, and engineering controls, which include speed governors, audible seatbelt indicators, rollover stability requirements and equipment restraints.

That said, Life Safety Initiatives (LSIs) 1, 11 and 16 are all linked to a recurring and problematic fire service activity, one that causes 25% of all firefighter line-of-duty deaths and scores of injuries each year: responding to or returning from alarms.

To briefly examine the three mentioned LSIs:

  • #1 advocates the need for a cultural change within the fire service. Consider that historically, the safety culture of the fire service was risk-inclined.
  • #11 advocates the need for national response standards for responding to or returning from alarms. Consider that apparatus and the roadway are significant causes of civilian and firefighter injury and death.
  • #16 specifically states, “Make safety a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.” Does it not make sense, then, that the fire service safety officer be included in the specification phase of apparatus purchase?

Speccing for Safety
Of course, a fire apparatus should not cause or contribute to injury. The apparatus is a firefighter’s office and place of refuge; therefore, when purchasing or writing specifications on fire apparatus, safety must be considered. But challenges regarding apparatus don’t end with responding to or returning from alarms with safe driving techniques. They also include visibility when stationary, ergonomics when working off of the apparatus, and equipment storage, including access and retrieval.

Driving Techniques/Visibility
Safe driving techniques and response policies are well documented in fire service literature. Most departments probably have adequate policies that simply need to be enforced. Lighting and visibility needs are also addressed to ensure that the apparatus is sufficiently marked to provide for safety on the roadway. The health and safety officer’s role with regard to these elements should be to become familiar with the standards and research each to ensure the appropriate level of illumination or reflection is achieved.

Ergonomics/Equipment Access
Consider the average height of firefighters in your department and ask yourself:

  • Where should ladders and equipment be placed for best access?
  • Are steps and/or automatic access devices provided with a provision for failure?
  • Are the seats and equipment restraints easy to access without impairing visibility?
  • Is auditory protection provided for without sacrificing communications?
  • Have future equipment purchases and storage plans been considered?

Where the Safety Officer Fits In
NFPA 1521: Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer clearly identifies an extension of the health and safety officer’s role to include apparatus and equipment. Specifically, it states “The health and safety officer shall review specifications for new apparatus, equipment … for compliance with the applicable safety standards in Chapter 6 of NFPA 1500” (NFPA 1521, 5.7.1; 2008 edition).

Chapter 6 then states, “The fire department shall consider safety and health as primary concerns in the specification, design, construction, acquisition, operation, maintenance, inspection, and repair of all fire department apparatus” (NFPA 1500, 6.1.1; 2007).

So, when organizing an apparatus specifications development committee, for example, the safety officer must participate, because while firefighters assigned to the committee may be concerned primarily with the response elements of an apparatus (a compressed air foam system, compartment and storage space, preconnect and hose compartments, riding positions, tank size, etc.) it will be the safety officer’s job to concentrate strictly on overall safety and ergonomics, and to ensure both are high priorities.

The process can be likened to how we would handle an emergency incident: The “emergency” or need is identified and overseen by the fire chief or incident command. Operations and planning mitigate the problem by providing input on functional needs and are represented largely by firefighters, apparatus operators, officers and other interested parties, such as fleet technicians or an emergency vehicle technician. Logistics and finance are usually represented by an officer assigned to administrative functions. The safety officer develops the safety plan for the entire event (in this case an apparatus) and considers elements that are typically missed.

Ensure Safety
These are exciting times to be involved in the modern fire service. Lessons learned are being applied in a variety of settings. Once a response-only tradition with limited thought to ancillary aspects of the profession, the fire service is evolving into a profession committed to improving quality of life for firefighters and the public we serve.
 
Think carefully when speccing and purchasing new apparatus, because you may be using it for the next 10 or 20 years. To ensure your rig will provide optimal safety for each of those years, always include a department health and safety officer on your design and specification committee.

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