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Why Doesn’t the NFPA Require Airbags on Fire Apparatus

Issue 5 and Volume 3.

Dear Nozzlehead: We know safety is paramount when it comes to our public and our personnel.

We also know from statistics that firefighters are injured—sometimes fatally—in vehicle accidents while responding to or returning from calls. We’ve seen the tailboard-riding go away, replaced by mandatory seated positions with lap-belt restraints. We then started enclosing all our cabs to prevent firefighters from being ejected, falling out or being burned over. Now we’re adopting the standard, “Everything in the cab must be restrained”—in other words, no loose/flying objects, like a breathing apparatus.

Around 1996, the automobile industry increased its standards for driver and passenger air bags. Why? To save lives. The current standard requires all vehicles to contain a driver- and passenger-side front air bag. However, the fire apparatus industry merely “offers” air bags as an option on certain models. If we’re always trying to prevent firefighter fatalities through research, education and training, then why hasn’t the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standardized fire apparatus with air bags when they are proven protection devices?

—Respectful & Concerned

Dear Respectful & Concerned,

Although I fully support the issue of old bags in the apparatus, I’m just not sure they’d be able to pass today’s physical standards for the rigors of fire and rescue work. Clearly the modern fire service has come a long way when it comes to diversity, and although we still have a long way to go ,I’m just not sure old bags riding the rigs is the smartest move we can make.

Although I do understand that some departments will do anything to increase staffing, this may be just a bit of a push. Plus I don’t know how effective they’d be hooking up hydrants, stretching hoselines, forcing entry, venting or performing search, rescue and removal.

On the other hand, there very well may be a role for old bags in pump operations, driving (with appropriate booster seats), safety and command roles. We could even consider them for help with customer service or rehab at the scene. One minute we’re drinking Gatorade and eating granola bars during rehab and the next minute we’re enjoying some hot delicious chicken soup. Chicken soup is known to cure more than the common cold and would be perfect for the fireground.

Seriously, can you imagine doing something dumb and having a voice come over the radio yelling at you in the same manner that your MOTHER yells at you?

Command: PUT YOUR SCBA ON JUNIOR! Firefighter: Yes mother. Or if you’re not getting enough water on your hoseline:

Firefighter: Crew 1 to Engine 1 we need more water on our line.

Engine 1: Do you think you can do better?! Do you? Do you want to come and try to do this yourself? Your father was the same way—always demanding and never respecting! Have you ever given birth? You have tortured me from the day you were born! Why I oughta …!

Firefighter: Crew 1 to Engine 1 yes mother the water supply is fine.

I’m pretty sure any such dumb actions would be immediately corrected.

I’m also concerned that you feel the need to “standardize” old bags in the apparatus. Although that seems a bit unfair overall, the idea of recruiting, training and utilizing old bags as part of a “community-based” fire department might be a pretty good idea.

OK relax. I’ll get to your question.

As far as air bags in fire apparatus, there was no formal proposal made for them during the most recent revision meetings for NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. Word is that air bags will be on the agenda for the next revision. By then all the commercial chassis makers will offer this option (most of the custom manufacturers already offer air bags). After all why wouldn’t a committee commissioner or chief specify it?

For those who do not know, the NFPA is an international, non-profit codes and standards organization. The NFPA has more than 80,000 members from all over the world. Fewer than a quarter of these members are actually affiliated with fire departments, which may not always be a good thing, but it is what it is. The majority of the members are representatives of the private and public sectors and come from a wide variety of fields. But when it comes to the standards that affect the fire service, there is plenty of fire service involvement.

NFPA standards are developed through a consensus standards development process approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The NFPA develops standards that are routinely adopted by state and local lawmakers for building, life safety, electrical standards and, of course, firefighting and firefighting-related support functions.

Some folks in our business aren’t crazy about the NFPA, usually because it’s not understood—just like me. Once you come to understand how the process works you can understand how valuable, effective and important the NFPA is—just like me.

I liken the NFPA to democracy. The NFPA is a bit crazy, but it’s the absolute best anyone has been able to come up with to date—kind of like me. The NFPA process is whatever we—as members of the NFPA—want it to be. And in so many cases, the fire service has been able to speak in one loud voice to get standards passed or defeated. That’s democracy at its best.

Now there are some things about the way the NFPA works that can make us shake our heads. For example, the way it calculates firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) is different than the way the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) calculates them. Of course the NFPA has been around much longer than most organizations and it feels that its way of determining what is or isn’t an LODD works fine. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the organizations that evaluate LODDs could join forces and come up with one standard? Of course it would, and it would make a lot of sense. Perhaps someday soon.

As to your specific question, the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Apparatus is expected to take a look at the standard every 5 years to ensure that, through their democratic process, the standard reflects the latest in safety and technology. The 2008 version will be available in August and the new standard will apply to all apparatus orders placed after Jan. 1 2009.

You’ll soon be reading about some pretty significant upgrades to the standard. Some of these upgrades involve apparatus/vehicle data recorders; better apparatus design to prevent rollovers; governed apparatus speed; AEDs on the apparatus; extended-length red/orange seatbelts that fit almost all firefighters; the removal of helmets (off your head) and storage of helmets (in the cab or compartment) while riding in the apparatus; traffic cones on each rig; high-visibility vests for all seats; remote mirror controls; red/yellow rear chevron stripes on the rear; and quite a bit more.

Interested in reading more? Go to www.nfpa.org and check out the “Report on Proposals” and the “Report on Comments,” which cover the changes made by the NFPA 1901 committee.

Although the “NFPA process” takes a hit from time to time, it has generally led to a much more effective and safer fire service. Additionally if you want to see change at the NFPA, especially in the process of fire service standard development, get involved and let your opinion be known—or call your mother and have her speak up.

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Changes Ahead …
Following the Technical Committee’s meeting in June, look for more information about the revisions to NFPA 1901 in the FireRescue eNews. To sign up for eNews go to www.fire-rescue.com.