How to safely operate firefighting tenders

These unwieldy beasts make up a large percentage of apparatus crashes; follow these sound safety procedures to tame that beast and keep firefighters safe


I remember the instructor in my first rural water supply class telling us, "An efficient rural water supply [using tenders] is accomplished through rapid loading at the fill site and rapid unloading at the dump site. You don't do it by driving fast between those two points."

Words to live by, not to die by.

The U.S. Fire Administration delivered a report on firefighter fatality statistics in the United States for the past 37 years up to 2013.

Each year during that time, fire service line of duty deaths resulting from vehicle collisions while responding to or returning from emergency calls averaged around 25% of all LODDs. In 2013, two of those nine deaths (22%) involved a fire department tender.

For the 12-year period (1990 to 2001) USFA studied, approximately 22% of fire apparatus collision fatalities occurred in tenders. That's more fatalities involving tenders than pumpers and aerial apparatus combined.

USFA estimated at that time that tenders only accounted for 3% of all fire apparatus in the United States. Shortly thereafter, USFA published a report, "Safe Operations of Fire Tankers."

That report provides comprehensive information on the causes and prevention of fire department tender crashes. Here's a synopsis of what was in that report.

Human factors

The report indicated insufficient training as a problem and suggested mandatory training for tender drivers. Extensive training must be done before a firefighter is allowed to drive the tanker on public roadways.

It also recommends refresher training on a regular basis according the requirements of NFPA 1451: Standard for a Fire and Emergency Services Vehicle Operations Training Program (2013 Edition), and NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program (2013 Edition).

Tender operators should receive practice time driving the tender on a variety of weather and road conditions. This practice time should also include driving during daylight and nighttime conditions.

The report also recommends always operating a tender at a safe and reasonable speed. Never exceed the posted speed limit when driving under nonemergency response conditions.

Posted speed limit signs prior to curves in the road are based upon automobile traffic on a dry road surface; a tender should never be operated at or above that posted speed limit.

Another issue is lack of familiarity with the response district and the roads within it. A driver's level of familiarity with the various routes within their response district and associated hazards like dangerous curves, bridges with weight limitations, etc., has a direct impact on safe vehicle response.

Driving surfaces

Keep all of the wheels on the primary road surface at all times. A common cause of tender crashes is when the tender's right-side wheels drift off the edge of the road.

If this happens, do not try to bring the apparatus back onto the road surface at a high speed. Slow the apparatus to 20 mph or less before trying to bring the wheels back onto the road.

Avoid poorly constructed or unpaved roads whenever possible. It may be safer (and faster) to take a paved route that is longer than the shorter unpaved route. If such an option does not exist, the tender operator should significantly slow down and proceed with extreme caution.

Require operators to come to a complete stop at all intersections containing a stop sign or red traffic light in your direction of travel. Nearly all intersection vehicle crashes can be prevented if a driver brings their vehicle to a complete stop when faced with the signal to do so.

Require that all personnel are seated and belted whenever the apparatus is in motion. A significant percentage of tender crashes involve the vehicle rolling over and the occupants being ejected. The chance of serious injury or death is greatly increased when the occupant is thrown from the vehicle.

Unwieldy beast

Tenders are not primary-response units, like engines or aerial apparatus, that are critical to the initial stages of managing the fire incident. Rather, for the majority of incidents to which they respond, tenders are key support units whose primary function is to establish and maintain an adequate and continuous water supply.

Provide guidance and direction to your personnel on when tenders may respond under emergency conditions (lights and sirens operating) and when they shall not.

Even a tender that is specified and built from the ground up as a tender can be an unwieldy beast on the road, and operators should treat it as such. If your department is operating a retrofitted tender, you should strongly consider restricting its operation to non-emergency response.

Minimum staffing for a tender should be the operator and another firefighter. The firefighter riding shotgun is a co-operator and should be the only person operating warning devices and handling radio transmissions. They should also provide a second set of eyes to assist the operator in identifying potential hazards during the response phase.

The co-operator should have full authority to alert the operator if they feel that the tender is being operated at an unsafe speed and the operator should be required to acknowledge that alert and slow down.

Travel with the water tank either completely empty or completely full. This minimizes the effects of liquid surge within the tank. Don't rely on tank baffles to prevent such surges.

NFPA 1500 requires the use of ground guides for backing, regardless of whether the apparatus is equipped with back-view cameras or other backing safety equipment. One ground guide should be equipped with a portable radio in the event that they need to contact the driver during the backing operation.

Design and maintenance

All new tenders shall comply the requirements of NFPA 1901 including the chapters on general requirements; chassis and vehicle components; low-voltage electrical systems and warning devices; driving and crew areas; body, compartments and equipment mounting; and mobile water supply fire apparatus.

Vehicles that have been retrofitted to be tenders, from milk or fuel delivery trucks, are overly represented in tender crash statistics. Serious accidents have been attributed to poorly designed, retrofitted or homebuilt tankers.

Departments should make every effort to only have tenders in service that are specifically engineered and designed for fire department operations according to the requirements of NFPA 1901.

All tenders should be weighed completely full and that weight should be posted (in pounds and tons) on a plaque on the vehicle's dashboard. This will help the driver to determine if it is safe to drive the vehicle on a road or bridge that has posted weight restrictions.

Ensure that all tenders are equipped with audible back-up alarms to alert others in the area that the tender is backing up.

Many mechanical failures that lead to crashes can be prevented if the apparatus is inspected and maintained on a regular basis. Guidelines for establishing proper maintenance programs can be found in NFPA 1911: Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire report, Safe Operations of Fire Tankers [Tenders] and use it to develop good policy and procedure for your personnel regarding the operation of the tender(s) in your fleet.

You would also be wise to make reading the report a prerequisite for becoming a tender operator. And, I would include the report's use in refresher training for incumbent tender operators as well.

This article, originally published April 21, 2015, has been updated

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