Headache racks — rollover protection for an engine?

Headache Rack

Above: photo from the report on the rollover of a U.S. Forest Service engine in Colorado September 12, 2017.

(Originally published November 30, 2017)

In a report released by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center about the rollover of a U.S. Forest Service engine in Colorado September 12, 2017 one item listed under “What went well” was “Rear Cab Protection Rack (headache rack)”. However, there was no explanation. As seen in the photo above, this is a structure behind the cab to serve as a mounting location for lights. It  has an expanded metal screen to prevent cargo from sliding forward through the rear window during a sudden stop, but they are not expected to provide serious protection during a rollover.

Backrack headache rack
Photo from Backrack.

We checked with Backrack, a company that specializes in these devices, about how useful they would be in a rollover accident. A spokesperson told us that “because of  our insurance” they are not allowed to give out that information.

Perry Shatley, Wildland Sales Manager for BFX Fire Apparatus, one of our advertisers, told us their headache racks are not designed for rollover protection:

We noticed a recent article(s) about engine accidents (rollovers) on your site. In reading some of the comments regarding the article – Hauser Road rollover – it became clear that there is a misunderstanding about the intended use of this headache rack. BFX Fire Apparatus does provide a very robust rack but roll protection or its ability to help with this was never its intended use. This rack is there to provide a platform for emergency lighting which includes the lightbar, scenes lighting, walking surface lighting or other lighting that might be desired. It is also used to protect the rear cab window from damage if an object were able to make its way near this window. We understand full well the desire to provide crew protection within the cab, but the headache rack has nothing to do with this nor was it the intent.

Not only are headache racks not designed to maintain their integrity during a rollover, if they are mounted to a body component, the body AND the rack could become deformed or separated from the rest of the vehicle.

Water tender rollover
Water tender rollover on the Jolly Mountain Fire in Washington September 11, 2017. Photo from PNW RLS report.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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7 thoughts on “Headache racks — rollover protection for an engine?”

  1. Rollover bars should be required on all pickups! they do save lives , I know from a personal experience, my daughter and her boyfriend were involved in a rollover accident the pickup rolled 6 times and although the boyfriend was thrown out( stupid didn’t have seat-belt on), my daughter only had a few bruises the cab was not crushed only because of the bar!

  2. i agree that these racks are useless in a roll over situation,but ive seen video on youtube of Australian and some Russian or Ukrainian engines with “cages” on them for protection,but again they were useless as they wer mounted on the cab body,not attached to the frame,whats needed is a fire engine manufacturer to build a chassis/cab mounted roll cgae thats race car like,mounted to the frame and run either on the extierer or inside the cab, if its inside and ridged,the cab itself can still be mounted on mounts or airbages with felexible gasketing to seal it at the cage areas,,i may not be expressing myself correctly.but i do know what i mean,as an ex race car driver (hobby but went semi pro meaning i was paid to drive sprint cars)and my friends and i built GTOs and Cameros for the street with full cages,doors opened,but that was only to pass DMV inspections,and we were able to seal off the points the cage passed through the floor,wasnt good enough for production,but it kept out the cold and rain and what have you.

  3. Headache racks are NOT roll over protection.

    While wildland fire engines are not typically reviewed in terms of commercial motor vehicle regulations, there are specific regulations about headache racks on cmv. They are for protection from shifting cargo only… not roll over.

  4. Actually, as a extricator who happens to also be a fabricator, over the past 40 years, I’ve seen this:

    numerous instances low velocity rollovers flatten or partially collapse the cab of pickups-new models, old models, every brand…

    I’ve seen even light duty ladder racks help keep the cab intact, and roll bars do better.

    I would never own a pick up without such a device. I can’t imagine how the best selling vehicles by the major manufactures ignore the cab structure on these vehicles that are subject to rollover due to high centers of gravity and clumsy handling.

    On heavier Type 4 and Type 3s, (also tenders) the roll over protection would need to be much stronger. I’ve extricated on older dump trucks, they are much tougher than today’s commercial type trucks on the fireground like Navistars and Freightliners.

    If you want a model on how to protect occupants in heavier vehicles, the custom chassis on Type 1’s may be the gold standard.

  5. As a retired police-lieutenant in a large municipality, I have seen a LOT of roll-overs. I am also an off-road enthusiast.
    I believe the problem could be mitigated to a great extent by going to an external exoskeleton on the rigs. They really aren’t that expensive to construct and they have proven themselves in the vehicle off-roading community.
    The USFS could have them spec’d to their requirements to accommodate equipment, etc. You could outfit a lot of vehicles with exo’s for a lot less that what it costs when ONE vehicle is totalled and the accompanying medical and legal costs are tallied. It seems like a no-brainer to me! Even with the added fuel consumption because of the added weight, the cost, both in dollars and lives, still makes sense to me.

  6. I wonder how the vehicles like Blanchat Mfg chaparral brush truck do in rollovers. They have sturdy protection for the FF outside the vehicle I wonder how the occupants in the cab would fare?

  7. How about returning to the basics. We have been responding to all types of fires with motorized apparatus since they retired the horse drawn steamers. EVOC driver training should be manditory and written as law in all 50 states and territories. No more lone ranger staffing. Two qualified people on the rig at a minimum at all times, not just water tenders, but dozer transports, type 6 brush patrols ect… Strict adherence to federal driver rest requirements and state license endorsements for ( ex. tank vehicle) commercial drivers ect…The 18 watchout situations do not necessarily apply to just direct fire suppression tactics. “In unfamiliar terrain” can apply to a mutual aid unit responding to or returning from an out of region incident on a paved highway they are unfamiliar with. Anotherwords roll cage installation on rigs should be a measure of last resort just like your fire shelter. Not to sub for the basics.

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