A review of firefighter vehicle response-related fatalities over the past 25 years shows that fire department tankers/tenders are responsible for more firefighter response-related deaths than any other type of fire apparatus. In spite of the fact that the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) estimates that tankers account for only 3% of the fire apparatus in the United States, they have accounted for more than 20% of the vehicle response-related fatalities over the past two decades. This is more than pumpers and aerials combined. Only personal vehicles operated by volunteer firefighters account for more response-related deaths than tankers.
Concern for the alarming number of tanker-involved crashes and deaths led the USFA to authorize a research project and report studying the problem and searching for solutions. They released their report, entitled Safe Operation of Fire Tankersytdrrurudbqb, in 2003. Although this report is 10 years old, a review of a number fatal tanker crashes in the 10 years since the report was released shows that this information remains extremely relevant. In short, the causes of these crashes have not changed.
The USFA report examines the various causal factors that are problematic for tankers and their drivers. Through statistical analysis, the report identifies the most common causes of crashes and uses case studies of fatal tanker crashes to identify lessons learned. Using this information, agencies can develop an extensive overview of the training, technological and programmatic means for preventing future tanker crashes.
How & Why Tankers Crash
There are a number of reasons that fire department tankers are involved in a disproportionate number of serious crashes. In many cases, these are the largest, heaviest vehicles that a fire department has in its fleet. Members not properly trained on driving this type of vehicle and/or who only drive it on sporadic occasions may be more susceptible to losing control of the vehicle.
The most common causal factor in fire department tanker crashes is the vehicle’s right-side wheels leaving the paved road surface during driving. This single factor has been identified 66% of fatal tanker collisions since the initial study of tanker collisions. The right-side wheels generally leave the road surface for one or both of two reasons: excessive vehicle speed and/or driver inattention. These incidents have occurred on both curves and straight portions of roadways. It’s common for tankers to be occupied by only the driver/operator. The right-side wheels may drift off the road surface when the driver is trying to talk on the radio, operate the siren, read a map or perform other tasks that distract their attention.
In three-quarters (76%) of the cases, once the right-side wheels were off the roadway, the crash occurred as a result of the driver attempting to bring the vehicle back onto the roadway at a high rate of speed and then losing control. Tip: If the right-side wheels get off the edge of the road, do not try to bring the apparatus back onto the road surface at a high speed. Slow the apparatus to 20 mph or less before trying to bring the wheels back onto the road surface.
SOPs/SOGs for Tanker Operations
Agencies that operate tankers must have specific, documented standard operating procedures (SOPs), sometimes referred to as standard operating guidelines (SOGs), pertinent to the operation of these vehicles. The document should cover topics such as:
- Required driver/operator qualifications and training
- Response mode protocols
- Maximum speed limits
- On-scene operational procedures
The majority of serious tanker crashes occur during the response to an incident. The adrenaline and sense of urgency many driver/operators experience when making a response often lead to the vehicle being operated at an excessive speed and beyond the skill level of the driver/operator. The faster you drive the vehicle, the more likely you are to have the vehicle’s wheels leave the road surface (usually on the right/passenger side), especially when entering a curve.
Agencies that develop SOPs for operating tankers should do so with a mind independent from the cultural traditions associated with emergency response. Those traditions tend to suggest that every call is an urgent matter that requires all units to respond in an emergency (lights-and-siren) mode. Most fire departments follow a risk management model to guide their emergency scene operations. There are various versions of these models but they all end up being similar to the following:
- We will take significant, calculated risks to save savable lives.
- We will take only inherent risks to save salvageable property.
- We will take no risks in attempt to save lives or property that have already been clearly lost.
This risk model should be applied to fire department tanker response procedures. As stated earlier in this article, tankers are the most dangerous vehicles that the fire service operates. Driving or riding on tankers under emergency response, light-and-sirens conditions is one of the most dangerous positions in which a firefighter is placed. Tanker/pumpers used as first-in, fire attack apparatus justifiably should respond to potentially significant incidents in an emergency mode. This qualifies as taking a significant, calculated risk to save savable lives. However, one must question whether any saved lives, in the history of the fire service, are attributable to the availability of the water on a tanker that was the second- or later-arriving apparatus at a fire, especially if there is only a driver on the apparatus.
Following the risk model suggests that we should we not take the significant risk associated with operating a tanker in an emergency mode if it is not saving lives. Clearly, most incidents at which tankers are needed involve situations where property is being protected or a structure is already a total loss. This suggests that tankers should be operated in a non-emergency mode, because driving them at a non-emergency rate qualifies as an inherent risk in the risk management model.
Increasingly, fire agencies are realizing that there’s little or no tactical advantage to driving tankers under emergency response conditions and procedures. In fact, many of them have reinforced that decision by not equipping their tankers with traditional red or blue warning lights and sirens. Fire departments in areas such as Phoenix; Orange County, Calif.; Skiatook, Okla.; and Camp Pendleton, Calif., have switched to equipping their water tankers (tenders) with all-amber warning lights and no sirens (Figure 1). The amber lights are only activated if they’re needed for scene protection when the vehicles are parked. None of these agencies report higher losses of life or fire losses in the jurisdictions they serve since taking this approach.
Regardless of the procedures that an agency chooses to impose, it’s crucial to provide driver/operator training to all personnel expected to drive and operate tankers. Experience with driving other types of fire apparatus, in and of itself, is not sufficient to prepare someone for the unique handling characteristics of a tanker. Tankers tend to be heavier and taller than other types of apparatus. Even when properly designed, there will be some shifting of the load, particularly if the water tank is partially full. Combined, these factors can influence the distance needed to stop the vehicle and the vehicle’s tendency to roll over in critical situations.
It’s important to train personnel expected to drive tankers according to the requirements of NFPA 1002: Standard for Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, Section 4.3 (Driving/Operating) and Chapter 10, Mobile Water Supply Apparatus. The training should also be conducted using the tanker apparatus that they will operate during the performance of their duties. Section 4.3 provides specific details on understanding the various characteristics of tankers. It also specifies closed-course and over-the-road driving evolutions for the driver to complete prior to being allowed or certified to drive the apparatus (Figure 2). Chapter 10 provides requirements specific to personnel who will be operating tankers.
A Final Word
There’s no question that tankers/tenders serve a vital role in protecting areas where there are no water supply systems or static water supply sources close to an incident scene. However, agencies must ensure that these apparatus are safely designed and maintained, personnel are appropriately trained to drive and operate them, and safe and effective policies are in place for the operation of these vehicles.