A small volunteer fire department in the Southeast has a 17-year-old truck it would like to replace. The department holds fund-raisers every year, yet every year a new truck seems further away. And now due to price increases as a result of the NFPA 1901 revisions implemented at the beginning of the year, the department now plans to keep its old truck.
The latest requirements under NFPA 1901 include seatbelt alarms, vehicle data recorders and chevron striping, which add between $5,000 and $6,000 to the cost of a new fire truck. In 2010, new EPA emissions standards will add between $8,000 and $15,000 to the cost of an apparatus.
NFPA standards committees do an excellent job of prioritizing safety in apparatus and emergency response equipment. But how much more safety can be designed into vehicles, SCBA or turnout gear before the costs are so prohibitive that new gear becomes unaffordable to the very departments that need it the most?
In the last few months, I've asked a dozen manufacturers if NFPA 1901 has reached its limit. According to them, the end users drive the demand for the additional safety features. As one manufacturer commented, "What manufacturer is going to raise his or her hand and say ‘no way' to more safety features?" You're damned if you agree and it raises equipment prices and damned if you don't support safety.
NFPA technical committees are composed equally of manufacturers, fire service representatives and independent parties — insurance companies, ISO, legal experts and the like. In discussions on the newest NFPA 1901 updates, the fire service members supported storing helmets outside the cab and asked for the inclusion of vehicle data recorders, in spite of manufacturers' cautions of additional sensors and wiring.
Class A foam systems missed being included in the latest update by only three votes. I'm a strong proponent of Class A foam, but would every department use Class A foam if it came standard on vehicles? It would depend on the department's chief and officers.
Perhaps the problem lies with the need for more training and enforcement of SOPs. NFPA committees should review each of their assigned standards to see if, in fact, the information still is applicable and pertinent in light of new technology. Is there documentation to support the addition of specifics items to the standard?
One apparatus manufacturer suggested looking to the Federal Aviations Administration's procedures when adding safety requirements to its codes. Each proposal must include supporting documentation that shows its contributions to the mission of safety.
At FDIC, I saw several manufacturers display NFPA 1901-compliant apparatus in their booths, some with price points under $160,000. A safe fire apparatus is available in a broad range of prices — if departments are willing to be realistic about what they need versus what they want. Chiefs must review apparatus purchases carefully. One drawback to having apparatus specification committees is that everyone wants his thumbprint on the new truck.
There's no question that fire departments are being tasked with responsibilities that were unimaginable and covering hazards that were inconceivable 30 years ago. But what good is a super-safe fire truck if a fire department can't afford it? Even if a department can afford the safety features it needs, the human element is still the biggest factor.