Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

FDSOA member Gordon Routley has been working on a project to study the existing standard for seat size in fire apparatus. Below is his report on this work. If any member of the NFPA or its technical committee would like to add to the discussion we will be happy to publish their response. The FDSOA works for firefighter safety and encourages debate and discussion on issues that benefit firefighters.

 

What happened to the Safe Seating Initiative?

 

I was recently involved in a conversation with a fire chief who was describing the two new pieces of custom fire apparatus that his department had recently placed in service. His only serious disappointment with the vehicles was that the seating space inside the cabs was so tight that the driver and officer had to wedge themselves into their seats. The officers had to ride side-saddle when wearing their protective clothing and twist their bodies to attempt to fasten their seatbelts.

“When” he asked “is someone going to do something about this problem?” When indeed!

He did not know that I had been working on this specific problem, along with several other individuals and organizations. I had to tell him about what had been going on below the radar screen and about my level of frustration, particularly with the NFPA standards-making process and some of the apparatus manufacturers.

 

This saga began when my good friend Mike Wilbur was working with me to examine the reasons why so many firefighters do not fasten their seatbelts when riding in apparatus. We were aware of all of the widely accepted excuses related to behavioral traits, but one new factor was revealed to Mike when he questioned his own crew members at FDNY Ladder 27 and Engine 46. They politely informed him that the seating areas in their apparatus were so tightly constrained that they could not manipulate the belts once they had squeezed themselves into their seats. This reality was quickly confirmed by demonstration, measurement and photography.

 

A few weeks later we organized a discussion at FDIC to bring this issue to the attention of groups and individuals that should be interested. The participants included the Safety, Heath and Survival Section of IAFC, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers Association and several individuals from the apparatus manufacturing and safety communities. This was the start of our efforts to try to find a solution.

 

The critical factor that we identified was NFPA 1901, the standard for fire apparatus. Within this document there is a requirement for seating dimensions inside fire apparatus cabs, which states that the seat cushion must be at least 18 inches wide and there must be a minimum width of 22 inches for each seating position at the shoulder level. These figures have been unchanged in the standard for decades and, as far as we could determine, were derived from a standard for military vehicles that dates back to the 1950s. No one had given any further thought to the actual dimensions of firefighters, much less when wearing protective clothing.

 

Our initial research introduced us to the field of anthropometrics, which is the scientific study of body dimensions. We consulted with experts in the field and It didn’t take long to figure out some key factors:

  1. Each generation of the general population is taller, larger and heavier than the previous generation
  2. Firefighters tend to be larger and heavier than the general population
  3. Protective clothing adds significant bulk to the body dimensions of firefighters.

 

Our next phase led to Jen Whitestone, a bio-medical engineer, who developed a protocol for measuring the actual body dimensions of firefighters, with and without protective clothing, using 3-dimensional laser scanners to produce digital images. This allowed us to confirm that the seating dimensions that are provided in NFPA 1901 are inadequate and unsafe for firefighters. We also realized that this type of data could have implications on a wide range of additional standards and design factors for fire apparatus and equipment.

The next stop was at NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which has the mission of conducting research to support occupational safety and health concerns. Within NIOSH there is a section that specializes in anthropometrics and this group had already conducted similar studies related to commercial trucks and farm tractors as well as several different types of safety harnesses. Dr. Hongwei Hsiao, the head of this group and one of the leading international experts in the field was intrigued by our problem and developed a project proposal that was approved by NIOSH with a budget of more than $2 million.

The project involved obtaining full body dimensional data for almost 1000 firefighters across the United States. The candidates selected to statistically reflect the US firefighter population in terms of age, race, ethnicity, gender and geography. This required the establishment of data collection centres in four different locations where a team was deployed to set-up the sophisticated laser scanning equipment, capture all of the measurements and perform the data analysis. This work was completed in 2014 and produced the first complete and scientifically validated data set that represents the actual dimensions of American firefighters. All of this data was made available free of charge to anyone who could use it, including apparatus and equipment manufacturers, NFPA technical committees and other standards making organizations.

This brought us to the point of providing recommendations to the NFPA 1901 technical committee on changes to the fire apparatus seating dimensions. For more than 5 years we had been publicizing the research efforts, writing articles and speaking at conferences, inviting apparatus manufacturers to observe and offer suggestion and providing data at different stages to interested parties. This culminated in writing a series of proposed amendments for NFPA 1901 that would incorporate the seating dimensions that had been derived from the research. Following the NFPA rules these proposals were submitted on schedule for consideration in the revision process for the 2015 edition of the standard.

The proposal would require a minimum seat spacing of 28 inches in place of the current requirement for 22 inches. The data indicated that this width would accommodate close to 95% of firefighters, allowing them to sit safely and fasten their seatbelts.

On the first pass our proposals were summarily rejected by the technical committee with the justification that the changes were unnecessary, impractical and undesirable. It was evident that none of the voting members of the committee were prepared to support the larger seating dimensions, including both apparatus manufacturers and fire service representatives.

Undaunted, we resubmitted the proposals at the second stage of the NFPA process and travelled to the committee meeting where we received the same reaction in person. In spite of the documented scientific evidence that the existing seating dimensions are inadequate, the voting members of the committee voted unanimously to reject our proposals. I was expecting a cool reception, but in more than 40 years of involvement with the NFPA process I had never seen proposals accompanied by such compelling documented scientific evidence. I thought that the committee would recognize that this problem could not be ignored – but I was wrong.

The NFPA standards making system claims to be an open consensus driven process that provides an open door for anyone to participate. We decided that this was the time to go to the final step to promote our cause. Each technical committee has to present their final recommendations to the full membership of NFPA at the annual meeting and individuals who have followed the rules of the process are authorized to present a motion for a vote at that meeting. We prepared and submitted a motion to challenge the technical committee’s action in rejecting our proposals on seating dimensions and travelled to the NFPA Annual Meeting in Chicago to present our case.

The large gathering of NFPA members listened to our presentation and then heard from the committee chairman and other committee members who attempted to convince the audience that the proposals were impractical and unnecessary and interestingly, that the information had been delivered to them too late in the process to be properly considered. They were embarrassed when we explained all of the steps we had taken to share the information with the committee over the previous years. Several individuals and organizations spoke in support of our motion, most notably the International Association of Firefighters.

When the vote was taken the general assembly supported our motion rejecting the lack of action by the technical committee on our recommended changes to the seating dimensions. This appeared to be a significant victory, since relatively few similar motions are presented in the NFPA system and very few are successfully passed. In essence the overall membership voted to direct the technical committee to reconsider the issue.

Our sense of accomplishment was short-lived when we found out that the technical committee’s reconsideration consisted of simply polling the committee members and asking if any of them wanted to change their votes. The result of that process was predictable; with no additional discussion the committee voted to reaffirm their rejection of our proposals.

The final step in the adoption process for an NFPA standard is the approval of the document by the NFPA Standards Council. Based on my years of experience with the system I was confident that the Standards Council would not approve the committee’s action that effectively ignored the vote of the annual meeting. It was inconceivable to me that the Standards Council would allow the document to be issued without some action on our proposals or at least the presentation of some convincing evidence that our proposals were unjustified. I was sure that simply voting to reaffirm the previous vote would never be accepted. I expected that the Standards Council would put the revisions on hold for a year and tell the technical committee to go back and work on a better answer.

I was more than surprised when we found out that the Standards Council simply accepted the technical committee’s revote with no further discussion and no action on our proposals. I had thought that there was no way that the Standards Council would ever let that happen. Essentially we had wasted our time following the process, because it simply didn’t make any difference.

There are reasons why most of the apparatus manufacturers do not want to see wider seating spaces incorporated into the standard. They would have to do some serious engineering to reconfigure most of their current cabs. The most popular configurations place the motor between the driver and officer seats, leaving severely limited spaces on either side between the doghouse and the outer shell of the cab. There might not be an easy solution to this problem, but if we can send astronauts into space we should be able to engineer a cab that safely accommodates firefighters.

Of course engineering costs money and takes time. Developing and crash testing a new cab costs a lot of money and the apparatus manufacturers are not making huge profits these days. But does that justify continuing to produce vehicles that do not provide safe seating spaces for the firefighters who ride in them? I don’t think so!

I am particularly concerned about the fire service members who are voting members of the committee. I watched them go with the status quo instead of pushing for progress, finding reasons to justify ignoring a compelling body of evidence and a clearly evident problem. That says a lot about the NFPA process. While it is advertised as being open to anyone to participate, there is an undeniable tendency to act as if the voting committee members are the experts and that any proposal coming from outside the group is a challenge. This tendency is evident in the work of several of the committees that are charged with developing standards for the fire service. I am now absolutely convinced that the system does not work as advertised.

In five years we will have another opportunity to try again, however I am not optimistic that the inherent problems in the NFPA process will have been solved by then. In the meantime apparatus purchasers have the opportunity to include the larger seating dimensions in their specifications, recognizing that this will limit the selection to a few cab configurations that actually provide the necessary space to safely accommodate firefighters. I encourage everyone to give this serious consideration.

For additional information go to www.cdc.gov/niosh.

 

J Gordon Routley, FSFPE, FIFireE

Member FDSOA