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NIOSH recommends tank truck safety measures for firefighting

After reviewing two firefighter fatalities stemming from tank truck rollovers, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recommended several precautions to improve safety. Both incidents involved volunteer fire departments using tank trucks to transport water to areas beyond a water supply system, or where the water supply is inadequate.

Tanker drivers may not be fully aware that tanker trucks are more difficult to control than passenger vehicles, according to NIOSH. A tank truck requires a much greater distance to stop. They weigh substantially more, and their air brake systems take more time to activate than the hydraulic/mechanical brake systems on smaller passenger cars. The effect is influenced by the amount of water being hauled and whether the tank is baffled.

Incidents involving motor vehicles account for about 20% of firefighter deaths each year, and cases involving tank trucks are the most prevalent of the motor vehicle incidents, according to NIOSH. During 1977 through 1999, 73 deaths occurred in 63 crashes involving tankers. Of those deaths, 54 occurred in 49 crashes in which tankers rolled over, and eight occurred in six crashes in which the tankers left the road. The other cases involved collision with another vehicle (10 deaths in seven crashes) and collision with stationary object (one death).

NIOSH safety recommendations include developing, implementing, and enforcing standard operating procedures for emergency vehicles, particularly regarding use of seat belts. The seat belts should adhere to requirements of NFPA 1901 for an approved mobile water supply vehicle, and should be installed in all vehicles. Fire departments should ensure that drivers have necessary driving skills and experience, and that they be provided with periodic refresher training.

Terrain, weather, bridge, and road conditions should be considered when purchasing a mobile water supply vehicle. The departments should adhere to NFPA 1915 requirements for keeping a vehicle on a maintenance schedule and documenting performance of the maintenance. NIOSH recommends that vehicles be inspected at least once per year to comply with federal and state motor vehicle regulations.

Fire departments should ensure that water tank capacity is adequate and has proper tank mounting and sufficient front and rear weight distribution; that the weight of the fully loaded vehicle does not exceed the gross axle weight rating of any axle and the gross vehicle weight rating of the chassis; and that the center of gravity of the vehicle does not exceed the chassis manufacturer's specified center of gravity. Proper baffles should be provided to control water movement for all vehicles equipped with water tanks. Vehicles should have the proper design with adequate suspension, steering, and braking ability.

Drivers should recognize that they are responsible for the safe and prudent operation of the vehicle under all conditions, which calls for wearing a seat belt when operating a vehicle, taking training to meet the job performance required in NFPA 1002, and participating in refresher driver training at least twice per year. Drivers are advised to understand the vehicle characteristics, capabilities, and limitations. They are also to be aware of the potential for unpredictable driving by the public, such as excessive speed, failure to yield to emergency vehicles, and inattentiveness. Drivers should adjust speed when driving on wet or icy roads, in darkness or fog, or under any other conditions that make emergency vehicle operation hazardous.

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