What is in this article?:
- How cab safety equipment has evolved for fire apparatus
- When the Inevitable Occurred
Cab-safety equipment has improved dramatically over the years — but at a price.
(Appeared in print as "All the belts and whistles")
Most people travel to work either in the trusty family car or via local mass transit. Firefighters essentially work from their house and take a cab to get there — a large, often red cab.
Fire truck cabs used to be considered just a place in which to sit and ride to the fire. Older vehicles didn’t even have tops on the cabs, let alone windows, seatbelts and air conditioning. Common wisdom held that firefighters could see the fire better without a roof. (As someone who drove an open-cab Pirsch pumper with Armstrong power steering, I would much rather have been dry and looked at the fire through the windshield or side window.)
But these days, safety is the buzzword, and when nobody gets hurt, it is considered a win. To that end, fire departments and apparatus manufacturers are installing safety devices to help ensure that everyone goes home.
Thankfully, roofs soon arrived, making them the first cab safety feature. They kept firefighters dry and allowed manufacturers to begin developing new warning lights to mount on top.
Early designs included Federal Signal’s twin sonic lightbar, which had rotating bulbs on chains that flashed a then-remarkable120 times per minute. Today’s rigs feature lightheads on practically every square inch of the cab, and each will flash 300 times per minute.
Along with roofs came proper doors and windows, which helped keep firefighters safe and trap heat. Yesterday’s heaters could blow out a match 2inches away from the vent and had a whopping 30-BTU output. They weren’t very warm, but they kept firefighters from freezing in the winter and could defrost an area about the size of a coffee-can lid.
Someone then came up with the idea of dual-blade windshield wipers, which gave firefighters a little better view during challenging runs in the rain. But rain presented other in-cab problems, namely poor lighting conditions that made it difficult to see the road or the instruments with just the little yellow light connected to a Skid Trol. That device was designed to keep drivers from over braking. But the yellow light stayed on constantly if there was a problem with the device, so people just removed the bulbs.
As cabs grew, so did doors. They were heavy and quite good at catching the wind and bending or snapping the small nylon stop straps. Riders then would lengthen the straps to open the door further. Firefighters in the back still were riding in jump seats with only a seatbelt and a death grip — which they perfected during their days of riding on the tailboard.
Firefighters frequently fell from tailboards, and learned every bump in their districts while riding sideways. They were in pure survival mode, holding on tight with knees bent and grunting like sumo wrestlers in bunker gear.