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The Office of the Fire Marshal in New Brunswick is sounding alarms about rescue vehicles that don’t conform to standards developed by the Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC).

November 1, 2010
By Rosie Lombardi

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The Office of the Fire Marshal in New Brunswick is sounding alarms about rescue vehicles that don’t conform to standards developed by the Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC).

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Metalfab Ltd. of Centreville, N.B., was the first Canadian manufacturer to build a special service vehicle to ULC standards. This truck was delivered to Digby, N.S.
Photo courtesy Metalfab
 

Smaller, cash-strapped fire departments in towns and rural areas often use rescue vehicles that have been retrofitted for firefighting duty, says Gordon Green, president of Metalfab Ltd., a truck manufacturer based in Centreville, N.B.

“Many of these departments use second-hand vehicles that were designed as delivery vans or for other purposes,” Green says. “Since they have an unknown pedigree, how do we know if these trucks meet safety standards?”

The New Brunswick fire marshal recently issued a recommendation to restrict the number of firefighters who can travel in rescue vehicles in the province, says Oromocto Fire Chief Jody Price, president of the New Brunswick Association of Fire Chiefs.

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“Concerns were raised about moving firefighters in the back of rescue vehicles that didn’t meet ULC standards,” he says. “The province has moved to correct this by stopping transportation of people in the backs of rescue trucks.”

Although there are many rescue vehicles that don’t meet ULC standards across Canada, New Brunswick is the first province to make a move to mandate a solution.

However, other provinces are eyeing the issue and may follow suit. The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) didn’t have a position on this issue when we enquired but it was on the agenda for an upcoming board of directors meeting.

Yet more issues
New Brunswick’s new rules will help reduce the fatalities in motor vehicle accidents involving firefighters, as they restrict riders to the safer, front parts of rescue vehicles that don’t meet ULC standards, says Price. “We know from stats that 25 per cent of firefighters who die in the line of duty are killed in vehicle accidents responding to or returning from the fire. That’s a high rate, so we should do everything in our power to ensure the vehicles they use are as safe as possible and meet standards.”

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Metalfab is the first manufacturer in Canada to produce ULC-listed rescue
Vehicles that are tested and approved.
 

ULC safety standards are mandated for pumpers and tankers but not rescue vehicles, Price says. “That’s sad, as we move more people in the back of rescue trucks than pumpers and tankers in our volunteer department. There’s no rollover protection or guarantee people will be safe in the backs of those things. Equipment put in the back is often not fastened down, so if you get into a rollover situation, equipment rolls and strikes firefighters.”

However, these concerns are addressed in the ULC’s new program for rescue vehicles, so rescue trucks built to its standard can put many people in the back safely, he adds.
Unfortunately, many rescue trucks don’t meet ULC standards, says Price. “Many fire departments have rescue trucks they bought and repurposed in recent years, and they’ll probably be in their fleets for the next 20 years before they’re replaced. But you can only move two people in those. So we’re stuck with this problem for some time.”

Although New Brunswick’s new mandate is a welcome boost to safety, the rule is creating other issues. “The solution the province jumped in with was not to put anyone in the back of the truck, and just put everyone in the front cab, which is typically tested for safety by most manufacturers,” says Price. “But this restricts the number of people you can transport, and some departments were transporting up to eight people in the back. If the vehicle meets ULC standards, then they can continue to do that, because the back box part of the rescue truck will have rollover and crash protection, same as the cab.”

Responding to a major incident in New Brunswick can be a logistical headache, especially with volunteer firefighters, who may need to drive to the scene in their own vehicles. “It’s an issue when you get a big number of people who need to be moved all at once,” says Price. “You can only fit a maximum of two people in pumpers and tankers, so the rescue truck has been the vehicle for moving people until now because it had the most seating.”

SSV manufacturers weigh in
Special service vehicle (SSV) manufacturers are also sounding alarms about retrofitted rescue vehicles.

Vehicles that are repurposed for fire fighting may not be customized properly, which makes them difficult to maintain, says Green. “For example, if all the wires used are the same colour, no one can figure out later how it was all done if something has to be fixed.”

The average cube van is designed with a carrying capacity for general freight, but this may not be sufficient for rescue purposes, says Green. “The rescue truck needs to carry additional lighting, rescue tools, pumps and a bunch of guys sitting in the back.”

The ULC has had safety standards in place for rescue vehicles for years governing weight, wiring and other safety aspects, but until recently, it didn’t have a comprehensive program for testing to ensure vehicles meet the standards. Although pumpers and tankers have been safety tested for years by the ULC, there wasn’t enough demand for testing rescue vehicles, Green says.

“Over the past couple of years, we, along with other manufacturers, have pushed for testing. We’ve seen too many trucks out there that are overloaded, have insufficient lighting and are unsafe. The ULC responded to our lobbying and went ahead with its program. This independent, third-party testing protects both customers and manufacturers.”

However, the ULC doesn’t test retrofitted trucks, just new ones. “The ULC won’t test and certify these – but there’s nothing stopping firefighting departments from applying ULC standards in their specs to ensure their existing trucks are safe.”

Metalfab is the first fire truck manufacturer in Canada to produce ULC-listed rescue vehicles that are tested and approved. The company started working on a ULC plan for special service vehicles early in 2009 after New Brunswick raised questions about their safety, says Green.

“I knew that Metalfab vehicles were safe but we were unintentionally lumped in with others that were not. We decided to provide ULC listing for these smaller vehicles in the same way we do with larger fire trucks. Now we would like to see the fire marshal consider including ULC listing as a requirement when bids for these vehicles are requested. As well, we have begun meetings with fire chiefs and others to explain the benefits of ULC listing.”

Green says the insurance industry has been informed of the ULC listing and is supportive since all fire vehicles face higher-than-average accident rates due to the role these vehicles fulfil.

There are different price points for ULC-listed rescue vehicles, which are often custom built with different features to suit different firefighting operations, he says. “For about $100,000, we offer trucks with a one-ton chassis and walkaround body, so you can have two guys in the cab and some equipment in the back. For $500,000, you can get a custom cab with a 120-volt generating system, telescoping floodlights and an air system.”

Although the costs of ULC testing are buried in the overall price, there may be issues with manufacturers who don’t specialize in firefighting vehicles, warns Green. “Our equipment was already built to ULC standards, so testing it won’t make a big difference in price. But there may be issues with manufacturers who only build the occasional SSV as a fill-in for another production line – they might charge more.”

Response from Green’s firefighting customers has been positive. “Everyone’s quite interested in our ULC-listed SSVs. Some are actively adding ULC to their specs. We see ULC listing as a win-win for all – it ensures manufacturers aren’t cutting corners, and we have a growing safety standard that will get updated every few years.”


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