How a fire department trains its members to drive/operate fire apparatus speaks a great deal about its commitment to its members’ safety. Unfortunately, there are still departments that don’t provide any training to members who operate their apparatus; they rely on the skill of the driver and luck. A properly trained and educated driver can help alleviate many problems for the department. The drivers will be able to operate the apparatus safely and skillfully on and off the roadway and to recognize when apparatus are in need of repairs before the problems become major and costly.

The Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department’s (AFD) Training Academy recently completely revised its driver training program. A year ago, our firefighters attended a four-day driver school before driving fire apparatus. They received a few lectures on driving, pump operations, and aerial ladder operations. Drill time was very limited; not every student had sufficient time to practice the required skills. After the course was completed, students practiced their skills on their shift with their assigned field unit and asked to take the driver certification tests when they felt they were ready. Once certified, the firefighters drove the engine and ladder apparatus when staffing levels permitted; they then were eligible for a promotional exam at a driver rank.

Our driver certification testing process was outdated: Some of the certification test sheets applied to apparatus our department had retired years ago. Many firefighters failed the certification process. The Academy staff evaluated the effectiveness of the entire driver training program to ascertain why so many firefighters were failing the testing process-one out of three firefighters was failing one or more portions of the certification process. Every firefighter seemed to have a different way of operating a pump panel or setting up an aerial ladder.


We researched driver training programs on the Internet and found several Web sites dedicated to driver training; they became invaluable as we built our new program. Following are the Web sites we used as resources and still use on a regular basis:

  • lists line-of-duty deaths in the fire service, including driving accidents. These reports were incorporated in lectures to help enforce the importance of safe vehicle operations.
  • reports and links related to safely operating emergency vehicles, from studies on emergency lighting to crash tests, are on this site.
  • checks for fire apparatus, driving course evaluation sheets, emergency vehicle accident reports, and more can be downloaded.
  • links related to emergency vehicle operations, everything from braking systems to state laws, are available.
  • used examples of standard operating procedures and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for emergency services operations to help develop our department documents.
  • added current accounts (and photos) of the apparatus accidents to our lectures. Nothing grabs the attention of a student more effectively than seeing a fire apparatus that was involved in an accident only a few days ago. Firefighters must realize that accidents do happen to firefighters while driving fire apparatus.
  • site is dedicated to the 16 Life Safety Initiatives. Information for improving and enhancing driver-training is available in various media formats.

We also identified several fire departments relatively similar in size to ours. We called their training divisions and asked what they did for their driver training programs. Some of these departments were worse off than we were; others were about the same, except for the Tucson (AZ) Fire Department (TFD), which has an excellent driver training program with a first-class facility and instructors. Captain Tom McNamara of the TFD Training Division allowed us to participate in some of the department’s driver training exercises.

To ensure that our driving training program would be objectively and completely assessed, we invited Lieutenant Michael Wilbur of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) to assist with the evaluation. He held nothing back and told us what we wanted to hear-the truth. He then suggested a tremendous number of resources and ideas for improving the program.

The following problems with our four-day driver school were identified:

  • The program did not comply with several National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.
  • We did not administer an approved emergency vehicle operator course.
  • Our driver school curriculum was outdated and incomplete and did not provide adequate drill time for the firefighters.
  • Our new apparatus were not sufficiently covered.
  • There were no skill sheets for instruction.
  • There were almost no SOGs regarding driving or the rank of driver.
  • Firefighters with little or no training were allowed to drive fire apparatus.
  • There was no provision for annual driver refresher training.
  • The driver certification testing process did not adequately test for the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the driver position.


We redefined the position of “driver,” making sure it accurately reflected the required knowledge, skills, and abilities. We extracted information from all of the applicable NFPA standards pertaining to a driver: NFPA 1002, Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications; NFPA 1451, Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program; NFPA 1900, Automotive Fire Apparatus; and NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. We used this information as a template to create policies, procedures, and training criteria. By citing specific NFPA standards, we were able to get the chief’s approval to overhaul the driver training program.


In creating the new program, a two-week Driver Academy, we focused on a core group of subjects applicable to what the AFD driver needs to know. Existing job descriptions and standards were used as references; we focused on AFD-specific material. Course reading materials include several IFSTA textbooks, owners’ manuals, AFD SOGs, and magazine articles. The course covers the following: Definition of a Driver Operator, Apparatus Inspection and Preventive Maintenance, Starting and Driving Apparatus, AFD Dispatch and Communications, eight hours of an Emergency Vehicle Operators Course specific to Fire Apparatus, Response and Positioning of Apparatus, Water Supply, Fireground Hydraulics, Fire Pump Theory, Operating Fire Pumps, Fire Protection Systems/AFD High-Rise SOG, Foam Operations, Aerial Ladder Operations, Aerial Ladder Strategy and Tactics, Brush Truck and Portable Pump Operations, and Heavy Technical Rescue and Haz-Mat Squad Operations.


NFPA 1002 describes several “Job Performance Requirements” (JPR) for a driver/operator, basic tasks necessary for functioning in this position. IFSTA and other sources have composed skill sheets relevant to these JPR. Instead of using a generic form, we created our skill sheets using information in the NFPA standards and our fire apparatus owner manuals. We created 23 detailed skill sheets for “Driving Fire Apparatus,” “Pump Operations,” and “Aerial Operations.” These sheets provide a consistency in our training that had been lacking in previous years: All instructors teach the same skills to all students.

Also, our certification test sheets are based on these skill sheets. We added points to all of the tasks on the skill sheets. Full points are given if the task is completed correctly; points are deducted if the skill is not performed or if the task is incomplete. Automatic fail (auto fail) parameters are clearly defined on the skill and certification test sheets.


The education component is reinforced with the following SOGs: Driver Training (to ensure that future training staffs would have outlines for the new educational program and certification process), “Driving Policies and Procedures,” “Apparatus Inspection/Maintenance,” and “Fireground Hydraulics.”

The Driver Training SOG mandates an annual Driver Refresher course for every firefighter, driver, officer, and commander who drives an emergency vehicle in the field. The first refresher course was given to the entire department this past summer. Every member was trained in the new Driver SOGs and completed an eight-hour Emergency Vehicle Operators course. Also, it is now a policy that any documented driver training members receive, inside or outside the department, must be kept on file at the Training Academy. This information may prove invaluable should one of our drivers be involved in an accident.

Remedial training is also covered. The procedure for referring a member to the Academy for remedial training is outlined, and the officer in the field is authorized to request the training and to work with the Academy staff to develop a unique program for the member involved.

The Driving Policies and Guidelines SOG defines the “rules of the road.” Seat-belt usage, approaching an intersection, laws and policies, safe and effective driving habits, appropriate apparatus positioning on EMS and fire scenes, and the department’s accident reporting policy are covered.

The manufacturer’s Operator Manuals were used to create the Apparatus Inspection and Maintenance SOG, which includes all terminology and procedures applicable to our apparatus and department. Members can confidently inspect the apparatus by following a step-by-step listing of the equipment checks. The operator manual for every department’s apparatus was scanned into an electronic format and placed on a Web site all department members can access. A hard copy and the scanned document are also filed at the Training Academy. The entire manual can also be e-mailed to firefighters at their fire station.

In our SOG covering fireground hydraulics, we referenced operator manuals and documents relating to our nozzles, monitors, pumps, and hose. The document is AFD specific-from our high-rise protocols to the maximum operating pressures for our large-diameter hose. This SOG is detailed enough so it can replace the Hydraulics chapter in the IFSTA Driver Operator textbook we used for the course.


Firefighters must complete a “Pre-Suppression Driver Academy Form,” which assesses a “minimum” knowledge related to engine and ladder apparatus, before attending the new two-week Driver Academy. The firefighter must complete the form with his company officer and driver. Among the criteria is a minimum of five hours of “parking lot driving.” Absolutely no firefighter in the department is allowed to drive a 40,000-pound engine or an 80,000-pound ladder truck in traffic conditions or on any city street without the required, documented training. From a liability standpoint, we do not feel comfortable with members’ driving apparatus when they have not been adequately trained. Even firefighters with a commercial driver’s license (CDL) are not allowed to drive an engine or a ladder on the roadway until first completing the two-week Driver Academy.

All firefighters must also complete two 20-minute online courses-Driver Intersection Safety and Driver Operator (available free on before attending the Drivers Training Academy. Course completion is verified with a printed certificate. The two certificates must be presented to the Academy staff the first day of the two-week course.

Another prerequisite is that the firefighter read several articles related to driver safety provided by the Academy and respond to a few short-answer questions relating to the articles.


The new two-week Driver Academy offers significant drill time as well as classroom activities. The students learn by repetition and critiquing each other during practice sessions. Various field units are brought to the Academy for use during the course.

On the first day of the Driver Academy, all firefighters are given a three-ring binder containing the department’s new Driver SOGs, practical skill sheets, and a detailed instruction/rule sheet for every skill on which they will be tested. After completing the Driver Academy, firefighters have certificates from a nationally recognized emergency vehicle operator course, a New Mexico State Firefighters Academy Pump Operation and Hydraulics course, and an 80-hour AFD Driver Academy certificate of completion.

After the Driver Academy program has been completed, firefighters return to the field and complete the required 20 hours of documented driving time (10 hours engine and 10 hours ladder) on city streets in traffic conditions. This driving is CODE 1 only (no lights and sirens) and under the direct supervision of an officer.


A passing score for all certification tests is 80 percent. If the firefighter fails any test in the certification process, a retest is allowed after 15 days. The firefighter must complete a “Retest Form,” which must be signed by his officer. This form identifies the test the firefighter failed and the remedial actions that will be taken.

During the certification process, a general knowledge written exam covering the department’s SOGs and hydraulics policies is administered. Firefighters cannot continue with the certification process unless they pass this test.

Cone Course

The Academy also includes a “Cone Course,” designed in accordance with that detailed in NFPA 1002 and is performed in an engine apparatus only. Firefighters are to complete evolutions in which they drive through the entire course without moving cones. They are given a map of the cone course and a rules/instruction sheet, which identifies the marking point system, parameters, and conditions for auto fail. A score of 100 points is given at the start of the test. Five points are deducted for every cone the firefighter hits. In specific sections of the course, the proctor measures the distance between the position of the apparatus and an object. If the distance is 12 inches or less, no points are deducted; five points are deducted if the distance is between 13 and 24 inches. A distance greater than 24 inches indicates an auto fail. The passing score is 80 points. If the students do not pass the test the first time, they have to schedule a retest for a later date. The Academy provides two engines for practice on the cone course.

Apparatus Road Test

The Apparatus Road Test, designed to exceed the recommendation in NFPA 1002, follows the Cone Course. This test is taken in an aerial apparatus. The department’s biggest, longest, heaviest, and most difficult-to-maneuver apparatus is used. The test begins with the student’s conducting a preliminary check of the vehicle (360° inspection) and correctly identifying the starting procedures. During the evaluation, the proctor tells the student where to go and evaluates his driving habits and actions. A predetermined route is used, and the detailed point system is based on proper driving actions. Points are deducted for not using turn signals, speeding, stopping too close to the vehicle in front, and other potentially dangerous driving habits. Additional points are deducted for not knowing the location of, or how to operate, instrument gauges and instruments. At the end of the driving component, the firefighter must demonstrate the correct shutdown procedure and secure the apparatus in a predetermined location.

Examples of auto-fail criteria include striking curbs or tree branches and failing to ensure that all passengers are wearing seat belts. The minimum passing score is 80 percent.

Pumping Evolutions

In the first segment of pumping evolutions (“Pump Operation Tests”), students supply water from an engine’s onboard water tank and then switch over to an external water supply using a 2 1/2- or five-inch supply hose. In the second part of the test (“LDH Supply/Dual Pump” evolution), students may supply any of the following: multiple attack lines, a ground monitor, a standpipe system, or an aerial master stream (forward or reverse lay). Each evolution is complete and separate.

Although the students have to know all of the required pumping evolutions, they are tested only on two randomly selected evolutions-a “changeover” and an “LDH supply/dual pump” evolution. As in all other tests, the passing grade is 80 points. Auto fails, identified in the instruction sheet, include cavitating the pump, incorrect hydraulic calculations, and not setting wheel chocks.

Aerial Operation

In the Aerial Operation practical skills test, students are tested on aerial ladders and aerial platforms, since the department has both. Only in-service field units are used.

Before the test begins, the firefighter is given one of three scenarios: rescue, ventilation, or blitz attack. The scenario is played out on the seven-story tower at the Training Academy. The proctor gives the firefighter the side, floor, window/balcony, wind direction, and description of the scenario. The firefighter positions the apparatus, sets the stabilizers, and deploys the aerial device accordingly. During this test, the proctor asks specific questions about operating the aerial device, overrides, and emergency functions. Auto fails include factors that compromise the stability of the apparatus and aerial device or the safety of the victims/firefighters.

Special Operations

Every member of our department is trained as a structural and a wildland firefighter. Our department protects a large urban interface area in the center of the city and uses two types of portable pumps in addition to several brush truck-mounted pumps. Each driver and those upgrading to the rank of driver must know how to operate all three. During the certification process, the firefighters are tested in operating one randomly selected pump.

Certification qualifies the firefighters to drive all the department’s engines and ladders. Their test sheets and other driving certificates they receive are placed in the firefighters’ training file. Firefighters assigned to a haz-mat or heavy technical rescue squad must be specifically trained and certified for that apparatus. Only firefighters who have met the minimum training requirements for these units are eligible to operate them.

• • •

Some areas of our new program still are not up to our desired standard, but the program is a vast improvement over the previous one. Since the implementation of this new program, the passing rate for certification has dramatically improved, and firefighters’ confidence and skills have increased. Accidents involving our fire apparatus are the lowest they have been in recent years. Firefighters, drivers, and officers have given the Academy positive feedback on the program. We believe the new program has made our firefighters more knowledgeable and our department and community safer.

PAUL DOW has more than 10 years of fire service experience and has been a member of the Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department (AFD) since 2000, where he is a lieutenant on Engine Co. 3. He is an IFSAC firefighter II and instructor I and was previously assigned as an instructor of recruits and field personnel at the AFD Training Academy.

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