Avoiding Apparatus Seating Pitfalls
April 2nd, 2014
In recent years, there has been much focus on seating for firefighters inside apparatus.
Firefighters come in all shapes and sizes, and they all carry pieces of equipment with them in their turnout gear, including hand tools as well as personal escape systems. All of these things add to the space a firefighter takes up when he sits in the apparatus. Additionally, recent emissions control requirements have increased the size of the “doghouse” between the driver and officer or rear occupants.
With all these factors impacting the space firefighters have to get in, sit down, don SCBA, and put on their seat belts, interest in apparatus seating is understandable. Anthropometric studies, which have resulted in new seat belt designs intended to make them easier to use, have focused on the average size of firefighters in and out of their personal protective equipment (PPE). Additionally, seating manufacturers have taken a look at what firefighters are carrying in or on their PPE to begin designing seating around today’s firefighters.
Although every fire department is different, there are commonalities to what they are demanding from their apparatus seating. “Ultimate durability,” says Joe Mirabile, vice president, business development, Valor Firefighter Seats. “Firefighters are quite possibly the toughest operators of gear on the planet. They put the seats through a lot, and the seats need to be able to stand up to the beating they will take. The upholstery itself needs to be strong and a very tight fit to avoid catching on equipment or ripping.” Mirabile adds that the seats should be easy to get into including belt safety restraint and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) pack straps.
In terms of ingress and egress, Paul Bostrom, vice president of sales and marketing at H. O. Bostrom, says departments are looking for SCBA brackets that automatically lock when an SCBA is pushed into the seat and releases with an easy release handle built into the front of the seat cushion. Bostrom also lists many other items fire departments are demanding:
- Seat adjustability, including fore/aft, height, back recline, and seat tilt adjustment.
- Driver seats that adjust to fit all size occupants.
- Officer seat adjustment, including SCBA seats with back recline and fore/aft adjustment.
- Crew seats with flip-up seat cushions to save space.
- Integral three-point seat belts mounted in the seats.
- Air suspension seats to absorb road shocks.
- Durable trim material.
- Low sewn seams on seat cushions.
- Ease of serviceability without special upholstery tools.
- Air bag integration.
Mirabile adds, “Once at the fire, adrenalin is going, and the seat needs to be as easy to get out of as possible. This is why we created the Valor SCBA pack support straps-magnetic straps that keep the straps in the right location to be easily accessed.” He continues, “Valor is also the only seat on the market which has a center release handle that releases both the seat belt and the SCBA bottle.”
There is a variety of options for the seats available to the fire service, but with many options come different challenges. One of the biggest challenges is space.
According to Ziegler, a major issue is lack of room for more comfort. “Firefighters, along with the United States population, are getting larger,” he says. “They would like wider seats. We have these available when there is room in the cab.”
It is room in the cab that can be an obstacle. “As a seating manufacturer, we strive to maximize comfort in our seats,” says Mirabile. “Firefighters statistically are large people, and this sometimes makes it difficult to accommodate certain configurations with larger seats because of the width of the cabs.” Ideally, Mirabile says the seats would be wider, which might create greater comfort for different body sizes. “Also, the seats, mainly along the rear wall, are often not able to have any recline because of space limitation,” he adds.
Bostrom contends, “Increased size of seats poses issues specifically for the driver and officer but also limits the number of seats across the back wall of the crew area. However, most cabs include six-person seating, offering adequate space for crew occupants.”
Seating size also affects mobility and comfort. “It is not standard practice for vehicle seating to provide a seat back that covers the entire width of the occupant,” states Bostrom. “In most cases, it is desirable to allow the occupants’ arms movement rearward relative to the seat back.” This provides, according to Bostrom, the occupant with mobility to readily twist around to see or communicate rearward. “In the environment of a fire apparatus, this would allow the occupant more mobility to put on an SCBA or reach for a seat belt,” Bostrom explains. “By making the seat back as wide as the occupant, it potentially limits mobility of the seated occupant and can create more interference with rope bags and other equipment the firefighter may carry.”
Other challenges, Bostrom adds, include the trend for storing EMS supplies in the cab, using every inch of space on the back wall, leading to limited leg room when personnel are seated, and minimum head clearance as mandated by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), requiring additional clearance for air suspension seats and less clearance for power seats.
Fire Department Mistakes
Apparatus purchasing committees have myriad items to consider as they work on specifications for apparatus. Seating should be no different than scrutinizing the type of hose for an engine, what nozzles to purchase, or the construction of an aerial ladder. Among some of the mistakes departments make, Zigler says, are “not looking beyond standard seats listed by the OEM’s quote writer and not being specific about their wishes. The fire department needs to tell its dealer specifically what it is looking for.” Mirabile concurs, “Often firefighters are not aware that there are many different seating options available.”
Mirabile also states some departments do not address lifecycle costs. “Often departments are only thinking about the upfront cost of the seat,” he says. “Departments should weigh the cost of maintenance and replacement cost of the seats during the entire lifecycle of the vehicle.”
Other items specification writers need to keep in mind, according to Bostrom, include changing the seat type after the apparatus has been delivered-i.e., specifying and ordering an SCBA seat and then changing to a nonSCBA seat or vice versa as well as a fixed seat vs. flip-up style-not requesting a department logo on the seats at the preconstruction meeting and not selecting a mechanical SCBA bracket that eliminates cords to pull or straps to snag.
Also, don’t be afraid to change. “There is lots of new technology that is coming out on seats,” Mirabile says. “Sometimes the market is hesitant to change.”
Making the Decision
Apparatus OEMs work to integrate department seating demands into the design of their trucks, but often these demands create challenges, and departments don’t always make the right first decisions regarding seating. How should departments put all this together to spec the right seats and seating arrangements the first time?
“They should fully research all available seating configurations and take into account the durability, safety, and performance of the seats,” asserts Mirabile. “Seats may be a small part of a large apparatus, but they can cause the most headaches. Look at new options that exist in the seating market-do not just accept the same seat you had in the 1980s. Technology has allowed for the design of safer and better seats.”
Ziegler adds, “Ask for what you want by name, and be specific about which options you prefer. Almost anything is available if you ask for it.” He suggests contacting the seating manufacturer, asking if there are new products, and letting the supplier know if there are dislikes with current seats to see if there is a better option. “Ask about add-on features such as hard parade panels and mask pouches to maximize the functionality of your purchase,” he says.
Preparation is key. Determine your needs first. “Decide on the total number of seating locations and the seat features you want in each location,” says Bostrom. “Physically sit in a ‘like’ cab with the seats in place to ensure the desired style of seat has been selected.”
Is communication among firefighters in the cab important? Technology exists for that. CommandCom offers embedded seat communications. “CommandCom™ is an H.O. Bostrom headrest that fully integrates Setcom’s specialized speakers and microphone system. The headrest is connected to an advanced Setcom intercom for full apparatus communications,” adds Bostrom.
Always consider firefighter safety. “Safety and performance of firefighters should be the main concern,” says Mirabile. “How can the seat help firefighters do their job better?”
Remember, not one seat will fit all, and there are many more options available than purchasing committees might realize. Bostrom says, “Fire apparatus seating has become more complex and is constantly innovating to meet department needs as well as accommodating more equipment worn by today’s firefighters.”
CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He is a member of apparatus and equipment purchasing committees. He has also held engineering officer positions, where he was responsible for apparatus maintenance and inspection. He has been a writer and editor for more than 19 years.