When Will We Have to Bury One of Our Own?

Emergency Vehicle Rollover Accidents

By Kevin Kupietz

The recorded firefighter death toll in the United States hovers around 100 almost every year. The United States Fire Administration (USFA) reports that since 1984, between 20 and 25 percent of these deaths have involved firefighters responding to or returning from calls. Between 2001 and 2003, more than 16,000 fire apparatus accidents were recorded. Although the fire service has maintained good data on accidents for decades, the emergency medical service (EMS) accident data is not as easily as determined. A study of EMS fatalities by Maguire, Smith, and Levick suggests there is a yearly rate of 12.7 fatalities per 100,000 EMS workers. They estimate there are 15,000 accidents yearly involving ambulances. National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) data from 1980 to 2000 suggest that when other vehicles are involved in these accidents, their passengers are 21 times more likely to die than emergency crew members. Data from NHTSA show that between 1991 and 2000 there were more than 300 fatal accidents involving ambulances: 82 EMS personnel died, compared to 275 civilians.

Emergency service vehicle accidents can be broken down into several different types: intersection transition, lane changes, rollovers, and others. This article will focus on rollover hazards in emergency vehicles and possible mitigation methods. Between 1991 and 2000, 42 firefighter deaths were recorded from rollover accidents alone (Thompson, 2000). Thompson reports that even though rollover accidents account for less than one percent of all emergency vehicle accidents, they are responsible for 12 percent of total cost of accidents.

There are several causes for emergency vehicle rollover accidents. One of the biggest is the mindset of the vehicle operators. In the emergency services, a quick response is seen as necessary to ensure saving lives. However, this concept seems flawed, especially in the case of larger apparatus such as the tankers, which have been involved in more rollovers than engines and aerials combined. The USFA has reported Code 3 responses in such vehicles offer little to no tactical advantage at the average incident. Other surveys propose that the average time saved between a Code 1 response and Code 3 is less than one minute. Despite these reports, the belief in the need for speed still is instilled in us.

The fire service sometimes embraces values and traditions that subvert the demand for safety. For example, in a 2003 fatal rollover accident in Wyoming, a junior member died as she responded to a brush fire; the driver's blood alcohol level was found to be 0.16.

The physics that apply to these emergency service vehicles are another factor in rollovers. The most likely vehicles to roll over are, in order: tankers, ambulances, and aerial devices. All of these rigs are top-heavy and have high centers of gravity. When these characteristics are combined with high rates of speed, they cause excessive body roll that can result in rollovers.

In addition, tankers carry a thousand gallons of water or more. The water moves along with the vehicle, and although internal baffles can somewhat minimize this movement, many trucks are inadequately baffled and transitioning water can affect the truck's driving characteristics. In a tanker that is only partially full, the water's sloshing can create more of a weight-changing effect on driving. In the United States, emergency service rig design has taken the "bigger is better" approach. The risk of rollovers increases as apparatus' size, weight, and ground clearance increases. Many areas are using "modified" tankers, large trucks repurposed with large water tanks placed on them, that can be very dangerous if not properly driven. Imagine the danger posed by a 6 × 6 military truck with a plastic, nonbaffled, thousand-gallon tank installed on it.

Another factor in rollover accidents is that there are very few codes that set minimum driver qualifications and training. Some states require paid firefighters to obtain a Class B driver's license for bigger trucks, but not for ambulances. In many states, volunteers need only a normal automobile license to be able to drive any vehicle in a department's fleet. Many states have no minimum age requirements for drivers of these vehicles, and most states have no training requirements, nor any mandatory safety program. Inspections, if performed at all, are conducted annually. This means that, in several areas, an unaccompanied 17-year-old with no truck driving experience or training can operate a 40,000-pound vehicle with bald tires, using lights and sirens, above the speed limit, while talking on the radio, and perhaps without wearing a seatbelt. The result easily could be tragic.

Several solutions are in development right now to try to minimize the number and effects of rollover accidents. These initiatives could be broken down into training/behavior, policies, and engineering.

Training is important and often the cure for what ails the fire service. For vehicle accidents and rollovers, several good training programs exist, such as those offered through Volunteer Firemen's Insurance Services (VFIS). However, these programs are not used as they should be; although the information is offered, it does not always change behavior. Many of the worst safe-driving violators never attend training classes because they feel they drive well enough and don't need to go to class.

Another problem with emergency driving training is that it usually comes in book form or is limited to low-speed maneuvering drills. Although this may improve and refresh driving safety knowledge, the student doesn't experience driving a large apparatus at response speed under stress. The fire and EMS service used to train driving at speed, but the classes proved to be dangerous for the students and harsh on the vehicles.

A modern solution could be simulators like the one used in Sacramento, California. These provide students valuable experience in making driving decisions at speed, but these tools can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Also, an interesting problem that Sacramento ran into was simulator adaptation syndrome (SAS).They found 40 percent of their students were getting motion sickness before they could finish the scenarios, but this was addressed by using seasickness bracelets.

Several engineering alternatives are available to help alleviate death and injuries from vehicle rollovers. All new fire apparatus are built so all firefighters can be seated and belted with red seatbelts for visibility in a fully enclosed cab. Some departments also have installed recording cameras in the vehicle cabs, which are designed to record the 10 seconds prior to and after a "marker" event. A marker event can be specifically designated, but usually include hard acceleration, braking, or g-force deviations in any direction. These units hold between 17 to 24 recorded events. Supervisors and crews then can go and play back the recorded incident and train on preventing an accident.

Another engineering device is the onboard computer, better known as the little black box. These boxes not only record information but sound audible alarms if the driver is in violation of one of the parameters. The alarm increases in volume until the situation is corrected.

In reading through stacks of documented rollover accidents, I couldn't help but think there is a deeper cause involved in these incidents other than training or engineering. Although good training programs and technology innovations are available, rollovers continue to happen. There needs to be more of a commitment from management in individual departments in addressing this issue. The government has provided regulations to prevent risky behavior, such as prohibiting firefighters from riding the tailboard. Government and private groups have set in motion awareness campaigns, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) and VFIS's safety initiatives.

Independent department leadership should look at setting policies aimed at eliminating the occurrence of rollovers, such as mandatory driver training for all members, including hands-on training on each type of department apparatus, along with annual updates. Departments should:

  • Require operators to obtain the proper state license for the type of vehicle the operator will be using, taking into consideration the vehicle's weight class and any special features such as airbrakes.

  • Determine minimum age and experience levels for departmental vehicles operators.

  • Establish standard operating guidelines for drivers regarding safe vehicle operations that recommend appropriate response modes, speeds, and other safety considerations.

  • Most importantly, leaders should set the proper example in their own driving to show that these policies are important to them. Members should be held accountable for not following the policies. When an officer rides with a driver who is committing unsafe acts and the officer does not correct the driver, it only enforces the idea that policies are not important.

Management also must take other actions to show that these policies are important, such as safety talks with crews, spot checks, and keeping apparatus in top operating condition.

Although rollover accidents may have many different causes, most can be traced back to a breakdown in management. Fire service management must take an active role in changing the behavior of apparatus drivers to focus more on safety and less on speed in response. Until management does this, we will continue to see more deaths and injuries of both emergency personnel and civilians. A truck rollover accident in my county more than a year ago inspired this article. Although I had seen many different safety briefs concerning rollovers in other places, nothing brings it home until you are out taking pictures of a rolled truck that could have killed a young man you know. I couldn't help but wonder how many times our luck will hold before we have to bury one of our own from a rollover. This is a question management of each department ask themselves.

Kevin Kupietz has more than 15 years of experience in the fire service and is the fire/EMS director at Halifax Community College in North Carolina. He is a level III fire/rescue instructor and has a bachelor's degree in fire engineering from University of North Carolina at Charlotte.


U.S. Fire Administration (2004). Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2003, FEMA, August 2004, 13-1.

Patrick, R. (2003). "Safe Arrival." Pennsylvania Fireman, December 2003, 68-70.

Thompson, T. (2000). "Rollovers." VFIS News. Vol.00 no. 5, 2-4.

NIOSH (2003). "Career Fire Fighter Dies in Tanker Rollover." 6/30/03 www.cdc.gov/niosh/pdfs/face200241.pdf

NIOSH (2004). "One Volunteer Lieutenant Dies and a Volunteer Fire Fighter is Seriously Injured While Enroute to a Trailer Fire." 10/25/04. www.cdc.gov/niosh/pdfs/face200330.pdf

FEMA (2004). Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative (FA-272, August 2004). FEMA, 1-120.

Cline, D. (2005). "Safety in the Fire Rescue Service-It's a Matter of Attitude." The Fire & Rescue Journal, Fall 2005, 4,11.

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