Firefighting questions

When did firefighters in the U.S. generally stop standing on the rear or sides of the engines when responding to emergencies? Were these guys strapped in, or did they just grab onto something and hold on?

Why were some older models of fire engines and trucks designed with open cabs? Wasn’t there any fear that all the water spraying around would ruin the inside of the cabs?


I’ll offer a WAG that it was when firefighters started getting killed by falling off ever-faster moving trucks. Back in the era of horse-drawn equipment and the early days of motorized trucks, they were going relatively slow, compared to today.

There’s a rosterof San Francisco firefighters killed in duty, and in the early years, there were quite a few listed as run over by apparatus and a handful of fell from or thrown from apparatus. They don’t give specifics, but there’s also some specified as fall from ladder, so it does appear that falling off trucks was a fairly common way to go.

Over here (SE Michigan)… When I went through the fire academy (1998) it was beaten into our heads that you don’t ever ride on the tailboards and you always buckle up… so I imagine it wasn’t <that> long before then.

As far as open cabs, a little water isn’t going to make all that difference. The insides are utilitarian and after a fire we just chuck all our dirty gear, hoses, and other equipment right into the cabs. Occasionally we hose 'em down to clean them, but that’s usually just before the open house or when a group of people is coming over to take a tour.

I’m told that riding the back of the engine prohibition was the result of an OSHA regulation sometime in the 80s, but that was before my time. We occasionally still do it at low speed when doing stuff like picking up hose.

I don’t know about the cabs at all. One of our engines ('82 build date) has 2 covered jump seats, but also an enclosed cab with room for 3. At 3 AM in 35F temperatures, those jump seats are durned cold. And loud.

Could it have been when safety thinking defeated machismo? :wink:

Try an interior attack with bunker gear and SCBA, then tell me machismo is gone from firefighting. :stuck_out_tongue:

Officially, the end of riding tailboards and having open cabs died in 1992.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an organization that writes standards for the fire service (and building trades), has amongst their documents a standard called NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. NFPA 1901 tells you, and the fire engine manufacturers, everything you must do to build a fire engine. It gets revised every four to five years, and gives you requirements for major components like the strength of the chassis and how the pump will be built (if so equipped), and down to small stuff like the color of the webbing on a seat belt and the coefficient of friction for horizontal walking surfaces.

The 1992 edition of NFPA 1901 called for fully enclosed cabs, no more new trucks could built with full-open cabs or open jump seats (the rear facing “back” seats in a fire engine). If you already had a truck with an open cab or open jump seats, you could continue to use them, but no new trucks would be built with open seating positions. The 1992 edition also called, if I remember right, for all riders to be seated and belted any time the vehicle was in motion. That got rid of tail board (the back step) and running board (side steps) riding positions. No standing in jump seats, either. The requirements have gotten more stringent in recent editions, including a requirement in the 2009 edition that helmets cannot be worn while seated and belted, as the head protection in a seat cannot take into account both helmeted and un-helmeted firefighters. There are also data recorders for recording significant events, ie, vehicle accidents. Lots of new technology, but it also increases the price of the truck.

When we stopped riding on the tailboards in 1992, we had straps hanging from the grab handle above the hose bed that you would put around your torso, just under your arms. In theory, it would stop you from falling off of the back of the truck. It was still a scary ride, I only got to do it once before we stopped the tailboard riding. The old-timers will talk about hitting some of the hills in our town at high speeds and having all three of the guys on the tailboard’s feet come off of the deck, and that was without the “safety” straps. It was also warmer and less windy on the tailboard than in the open jumpseats. The wind seemed to go around you on the tailboard, the cab roof over the jumpseats seemed to redirect the wind into your face. There were some pretty horrendous accidents involving tailboards throughout the industry - it really isn’t a good place to ride.

There were a couple of purposes of open cabs. One was to allow communication between the driver and officer with the rest of the crew - you just had to turn around and yell. The other big reason was with aerials - you could see the incident much better when you pulled up and position the truck much easier not having a roof over your head. Some departments had canvas roofs or tarps that they could throw over the cab if there was a risk of the inside getting flooded. Most of the time you just wiped the water off of the vinyl seat and drove back. There isn’t much fancy stuff in an old fire engine. Heck, most didn’t even have radios until the 1950’s or later.

I still wish we were using horses and steam power. The job was so much simpler back then.

Like digging for the wooden water main, then drilling it for access? :dubious:

I much prefer our vacuum tanker, which you can operate in a tux and not get it dirty. :wink:

Nah, use a cistern. If you can’t get it out with the first 20,000 gallons, you were behind the 8-ball from the start.

There’s something more, I don’t know, romantic about the fire service when the machine you use to move your water belches more embers and smoke than what you were called to fix, and your 80’ wooden aerial needs to be hand cranked into position.

Of course, they had 7-man engines and 9-man ladders back then, and you lived in the station (with the horses) for 14 out of 15 days, but hey, that’s the way it worked back then.

What about those who ride Rescue 1, Rescue 2, etc. in the FDNY? Watch any number of videos on YouTube and you will see guys standing in the back of the rig, with the rear doors open.

Or the first time you open up that line into a well involved room and not run screaming as the steam finds every gap and seam in your gear. :eek:

One thing that is stressed now is you look our for personal safety first. Basic logic is that if you get hurt you make the situation much worse plus you limit you helping out in the future. Being hit by fire trucks rated very high in firefiighter fatalities, so it makes sense that no riding on the tailboard became standard practice.

Been there, done that, and got the t-shirt for it.

Live Burn Simulator class; I got flamed directly, and with enough heat to warp my helmet visor. They gave us “I survived…” shirts when we passed. Pretty strong on the butt-pucker when you’ve been in the department less than 6 months…

The line always used around us was “Be part of the solution, not part of the problem”

The last apparatus our fire department had with a grab rail low enough to hold on to was a 1962 Ford cab-over with a 5 speed manual trany.
The young guys as a rule couldn’t shift that truck for beans and every once in a while you could hear the synchro’s winding up and if you didn’t understand the noise the grab rail would leave a mark on the chest when the clutch was dumped.
Double clutching helped when shifting that truck for timing purposes.

Great post.

If it’s not too much of a hijack, how is it decided who sits where? Does the first guy just yell “Shotgun!” and the rest are SOL? :slight_smile:

My department is volunteer, so I’m not answering for everyone.

Outside of the driver, it’s first come, first serve. If the weather is nice, and/or the truck is going with a full crew, I opt for the jump seats. Short crew, and I’ll go inside.

Only select members can drive, hence the opening qualifier. The rule of thumb is if you drive, you have to run the pump, and I don’t want to do that for now. I’m getting old, but while I’m still physically able I want to pull hose.

Most full-time departments do it like this:

The Engineer drives. He’s also responsible for running the truck on scene.
The officer rides shotgun. Usually a lieutenant or captain.
The other guys ride in the back, 1-3 of them depending on the truck and the department.

We have 2 model A fire trucks that see parade duty each year on the 4th. One is a 1929 that has a history of never being on a fire ground. There is an infamous story that goes with it,
The Cooley fire department was enroute to a fire south of the Location and met the 1931 Nashwauk model A fire truck returning from said fire. Cira 1933
These fire trucks still see a fireman riding the tail board when giving free rides to children after the parade:)

I suspect the tailboard riding stopped not long after cities stopped maintaining their streets. Ever ridden down the street full tilt in a New York City cab? Think you could hold on to a handbar and stay on through some of those dips and potholes? (Ride the bus sometime and see how the back of the vehicle exagerrates every pothole…) My city is no better.