01/03/10 612 W, 4 I - + 25 - 15 The History of Open-Cab Fire Apparatus?

In our thread on Station 7, two readers have asked questions about open-cab apparatus. When did Raleigh stop using open-cab apparatus? Why did Raleigh stop using open-cab apparatus? And, for that matter, why was fire apparatus open-cab to begin with? Let's try to answer these questions, last to first. Readers, please correct me as needed. 

My copy of This Was Trucking - A Pictorial History of the First Quarter Century of the Trucking Industry by Robert A. Karolevitze (1966) shows quite a few cabs and canopies on trucks of all types in those early decades. Some cabs were fully enclosed, with doors made of cloth or heavier material (wood, metal). Fire apparatus, though, had neither. The apparatus of the 1910s and 1920s were entirely exposed. No cabs, no covers. Why was that?

Don't know, but am willing to speculate. Maybe ease of access was an issue, or thought to be an issue. Firefighters perhaps didn't want any impediments to quickly climbing into or onto the engine, or from quickly climbing from front to back. Perhaps space was an issue. Fully-dressed firefighters took up more space, and cabs or covers were thought to be too constricting.

In any city with tall buildings, firefighters needed the ability to spot smoke. Thus, a cab or cover would prevent those riding up front from simply looking up, and seeing the smoke. Ditto for arriving on scene. There are tales of ladder truck operators bemoaning the arrival of covered cabs, which made positioning apparatus that much harder. The operator couldn't look up.

Sound logical so far? 

Fire apparatus developed covers and cabs soon enough. The first fully-enclosed fire engine was delivered to Charlotte, in fact, in 1935. That Sedan-style was made particularly popular by Seagrave, which offered the style on its 70th Anniversary Series. Detroit had a bunch of those, I believe.

Seagrave also were selling many open-cab rigs, as were other manufacturers. By now, though, open-cab mean open-top. The trucks had windshields and doors. And any apparatus built using a commercial chassis was probably closed-cab, as both automobiles and trucks didn't stay "open" too terribly long.

Why then did closed cabs develop for all apparatus? Speculation now. First, obviously, were safety issues. Cabs protected the crews in the event of an accident. Was the civil unrest of the late 1960s also a factor, do you suppose? Protecting crews from rocks, missiles, etc.? Next, cabs protected against the elements. This certainly helped with operating the trucks in heavier rain and snow. It was probably an improvement on maintenance costs, from equipment damaged by rain and snow. It likely improved safety. No freezing rain forming ice your turnout coat, at least in winter climates. And so on. Readers, please additional speculation, or, gasp, even facts!

Interestingly, fire apparatus in Europe was consistently covered a good couple decades earlier. 

Finally, for the last question that was really first, when did Raleigh change from open to closed cabs?  The city's last open-cab apparatus was delivered in 1968.  That was a 1968 American LaFrance 900 Series that last served as Engine 19. In fact, Mr. Blogger rode the thing twenty years later. 

In the late 1970s or early 1980s, a fiberglass roof was added, along with clear acrylic windows. Cabs were built for a number of open-cab engines, and one ladder, a 1961 American LaFrance.

Jeff Harkey photo

See more photos of those trucks. And a memo to self, research and find the exact dates for those cab conversions.

So what's the verdict, do the above explanations make sense? Maybe I'll get brave and post a query to the Firehouse forums.

Updated with photos.
Legeros - 01/03/10 - 11:39

Variation posted to Firehouse forums, http://www.firehouse.com/forums/showthre..
Legeros - 01/03/10 - 11:47

There were a lot of commercial apparatus that were open cab, either with a windshield and doors or no doors. I hav see both. Smithfield had an open Ford (no doors), and I believe Angier had an open Chevrolet (no doors). Apex has an open Ford, as does Clayton. Oren built a lot of open commercials, as did Howe.

There was the belief that doors slowed firefighters down. I have never heard about why they had no roofs, other than what Mike mentioned about a ‘fireground view’.

Safety concerns aside, riding around in a open (topless) cab fire truck is the ultimate cool.
DJ - 01/03/10 - 17:22

What about the history of our gear? What were the first sets like? If any? When did we stop using 3/4 length coats and pullup boots, did we ever?
KOM - 01/03/10 - 17:36

Easy, easy. Let me catch my breath and I’ll see what I find on turnout gear history.
Legeros - 01/03/10 - 18:32

From the Firehouse thread, some additional information:

One reader read once about a large city department with covered cabs in the 1920s, but reverted to open cabs after an officer couldn’t find a fire scene as there was smoke in the sky. They also remember reading that FDNY covered to canopy cabs specifically due to urban violence in the 1960s.

Another reader added the “macho factor” as a reason that cabs stayed “topless” for so long. Perhaps officers or crews wanted open cabs, despite the availability of canopy cabs. He recounted a story heard of an apparatus committee that ordered an open cab because “if the guys on the tailboard were getting wet and cold, then the driver and officer needed to as well.”

Another reader added that open tops were popular due to corner pull boxes. Fires were reported by box numbers, not street address. So, arriving at a pulled box, the officer had to look around for smoke, or the person who pulled the box. The open top helped the officer and drive find and follow the smoke.
Legeros - 01/03/10 - 18:40

I really enjoyed this post, especially the “examples in this post” portion which made it really easy for me to SEE what you were talking about without even having to leave the article. Thanks
kandy (Web Site) - 07/07/10 - 03:01

AFAIK, open cabs allowed the LT or Capt. to stand & assess the scene, as the unit arrived. This was known as “the look”. The old-timers had to unlearn this practice, when cabs became covered, or get their bell rung!
anon - 04/05/12 - 04:05

KOM, we do not use 3/4 coats or roll-up boots due to 1. Safety reasons as the first Scott backs were donned the bottom portion of the coat “bloused” leaving the users legs opened to a backdraft to his whole body this is what helped the killing the Worcester 6 and roll ups are still in for fire ground (seen in clip 2 of beacon street fire) also medics usually have a
Only a coat and helmet so they use them to make entry to a hall way to recover a fire fighter we stopped the combo in the early 90s there has been talks of company’s producing PBI (current nomex but nomex is only used in white coats because PBI is not able to be tied white) 3/4 coats because they offer lots of protection and more pocket space
Connor (Email) - 04/14/14 - 11:09

To comment on the previous commment about sedans: Detroit did indeed have some number of them in the their fleet at one time. A group of guys got one completely restored and it is now available as a hearse for funerals. The pall bearers ride in the back with the casket. It is a phenomenal restoration and I believe that they replaced the original engine with a Mercedes diesel engine for reliability. I have some photos that I could post if anyone is interested.
Brad (Email) (Web Site) - 06/11/15 - 20:28

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