By Drew Smith
Many fire departments offer to transport children on fire apparatus for special occasions. The Prospect Heights (Ill.) Fire District offers a “free ride to school in a fire truck” certificate to local groups such as the PTA, which use these certificates in fundraising activities. But the department did not have a policy, procedure and guideline for conducting this activity in a safe manner.
Fire departments are not exempt from the laws, regulations or standards that apply to the transport of children in vehicles necessarily. Even if exempted by law, best practices and industry standards should be used in the management of this risk — both the physical risk to the passenger and the liability risk to the fire department and its governing body.
When I began to research this topic, I had to ask if current fire apparatus is capable of safely transporting children. About 200 respondents to my survey conducted similar programs leading me to believe this is not an uncommon practice. Only 12.2% of those conducting these programs had a formal, written PPG. Some department use apparatus that contain seating positions in configurations that are not conducive to a safe program. Some fire departments use the recommendations of the National Child Passenger Safety Certification Training Program (NCPSCTP) and have their own carseat technicians measure and install child seats in their fire apparatus for these trips. However, the NCPSCTP also addresses the difficulties that are encountered when transporting children in ambulances even when the child is not a patient. That many fire apparatus seats incorporate SCBA, which results in a less than desirable positioning of the child’s head unless booster seats are used. Even then the seat belt configuration used to accommodate adult firefighters in bulky protective clothing may not be desirable. The testing of child passenger restraint seats and booster seats is conducted using forward-facing passenger seats and not the typical rear facing fire apparatus seats. Certain seating positions, such as side-facing seats, never should be used based on the recommendations of the NCPSCTP. I also found that some fire departments used retired or antique apparatus for these trips and that some have been modified to do so. Some other these modifications are aimed at improving safety but actually may not. For example, the installation of side facing seats in a hose bed area. I also tried to learn how other organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America or local parks and recreation departments/district transport children in other than passenger autos but typically most rely on a simple policy that prohibits use of vehicles other than cars, vans, SUVs or buses although many do not require the use of a booster or child seats even if required by law.
This leaves the typical fire department with a decision: Do we discontinue this type of activity regardless of the socio-political impact or do we manage the risk? Here at the Prospect Heights chose to manage the risk. We created a policy that ensure we comply with Illinois law on child passengers and both NFPA 1451 and 1500 which required the use of seat belts. We then incorporated the recommendations of the NCPSCTP and the best practices of other fire departments. We are fortunate to have carseat technicians to manage these events and apparatus with seating positions that are more conducive than others for child passengers that can be designated for this purpose.
Ultimately there needs to be further discussion on how to better improve safety during these events. That discussion should result in national consensus standards such as NFPA 1451 and 1500 incorporating provisions for these programs. To simply hope nothing bad happens is not an option that any fire department can afford to take.