By Michael P. Dallessandro
In the fire service, there are people who just drive fire apparatus and there are those who skillfully drive and safely operate fire apparatus. As a guest speaker in 2006 and 2007, I was fortunate to be able to travel to many conferences and fire departments that held safe apparatus operator workshops. Throughout my travels I met many skilled apparatus drivers and operators, but I also met a number of people who just drive fire trucks. There is a difference. I will even go so far as to say that I have been driving fire apparatus myself for approximately 24 years but have only really been an apparatus driver/operator for about 18 of those 24 years. What is the difference?
Firefighters who just drive fire apparatus hop in the cab, turn the key or push the starter button(s), engage the transmission, activate the lights and siren, and mash the accelerator pedal to the floor. They often give little thought to the type of call to which they are responding because in their mind one response mode fits all. They also give little thought to whether the crew onboard is belted or even seated, for that matter, little thought to what the truck is made of and what it can or cannot handle, and to the community at large. In most cases, they are an accident waiting to happen.
Driver/operators are clearly different individuals. The driver/operator likes, if not thoroughly enjoys, the important job of operating the fire apparatus and may pick that role over any other in the department. The individual who is just driving a fire truck also enjoys the task, but for different reasons. He enjoys breaking loose from the confines of his car and the laws that govern it and crossing over into the emergency vehicle to which he believes no rules or laws apply. He gets an adrenaline rush from the speed and power; two sirens wailing and an air horn blown until there is no air left in the auxiliary air tank to sound it. He is often so jacked up from the ride to the incident that, on arrival at a minor incident or an accidental alarm, he is somewhat dazed and not quite sure where he now fits in at the scene because that’s it–the ride is over and the rush has ended.
The apparatus driver/operator is an individual who approaches his job seriously right from the beginning. This individual generally follows the vehicle and traffic laws in his state–both those that apply to his personal vehicles and those that apply to emergency vehicles. From the time of the alarm, this driver is constantly evaluating the type of incident, traffic conditions, weather conditions, and any other situation that may factor into how he is going to operate the vehicle. These drivers cautiously observe their crew to make sure they are safely seated and belted, and they apply the same standard to themselves. They proceed to the incident fully aware that if they do not arrive safely, they cannot provide service to their community. They are also keenly aware that if their apparatus is involved in an accident, responding or returning it may complicate their department’s ability to provide quality service. These driver/operators know there are limitations to their apparatus and what their rigs can safely handle because of weight, length, size, tires, and braking systems. Although it is easy to accelerate the rig to significant speeds simply by putting some light pressure on the accelerator pedal, stopping can be a completely different story.
Recently during one of my visits to a fire department to present a safe emergency vehicle operations workshop, some fire department board members asked me to visit a recent apparatus accident scene. In this situation a large class A pumper was responding to an alarm at night and allegedly was faced with a car that may have drifted into its lane. The apparatus operator steered off the road in a “run-off” style incident–he said, to “avoid colliding” with the alleged oncoming vehicle. I had the opportunity to look over the apparatus involved in this near-miss incident.
My background is clearly centered in a few disciplines when it comes to large commercial vehicles: driver training and evaluation, the development of vehicle loss prevention policies and best practices, large fleet management, and maintenance and repair. I am not an accident investigator. With that said, when you work with large commercial vehicles and fire apparatus, hundreds of drivers, and respond to numerous accidents over time. you develop accident instincts that give you a gut feeling as to what happened. It appeared from my visit to this accident site that speed may have been a contributing factor in the incident. Long skid marks or tire marks were clearly visible at the scene. As speed increases, especially on residential roadways with lower posted speed limits, accident-avoidance techniques become much more difficult. Also, the end results (such as injuries and damage) of attempts to avoid accidents made at higher speeds can be more severe, since the time the driver has to make critical decisions is greatly reduced as your speed increases. Couple that with the time of day at which this incident occurred (darkness), and safe apparatus operation procedures would have clearly warranted a speed at or below the posted speed limit. At night, because of visibility, apparatus drivers should always slow down to a speed that produces good visibility and ample reaction time within the range of the apparatus headlights.
The apparatus presented to me had clear signs of a run-off accident (various undercarriage injuries), but the undercarriage damage was more extensive than that of a low-speed run-off. I have been involved with a number of commercial vehicles (more than 26,000 pounds) that have left the road surface at speeds less than 30 miles per hour; all of these vehicles were towed to our repair facility, inspected, and, after some minor exhaust system repairs, immediately sent back out on the road. The damage to this pumper required what one would term “collision” repairs, indicating that this was more than a simple low speed run-off incident.
The most telling piece of information I was able to gather was from listening to the comments of the driver during the morning session of my driver safety workshop. It was quite clear that this young driver was in denial about the seriousness of the accident or lacked the experience to recognize the seriousness of the incident. He repeated a number of times that his actions “saved” the crew or possibly reduced their chances for injuries. Had I been young again and still in those first few years I mentioned above as an apparatus operator, I might have bought into his comments and joined in the collective thumbs-up, back-slapping, feel-good fest from his buddies seated around him. But the aging fire apparatus driver/operator and school district bus fleet operator I have become believes the driver and crew were simply lucky this time. They were lucky that a tree, telephone pole, or a light standard was not in the run-off path taken by their apparatus. They were lucky nobody was ejected from the vehicle, either out of a cab door/window or a windshield, and lucky there was no jogger, cyclist, or pedestrian dressed in dark colors walking in the area of the run-off incident who could have been struck when the truck left the road surface.
It is my opinion that firefighters who can respond and get apparatus out on the road are a valuable asset to any fire company and their dedicated service to the community is needed. I do not wish to drive away through disciplinary procedures any individual who has the desire to serve. However, before individuals who have been involved in near-miss incidents or accidents are returned to the road to drive apparatus again, they should be required to undergo retraining as a driver. This could consist of supervised practice drives followed by actual response drives under the direct view of an officer. Additionally, once cleared, an officer, safety officer, or driver trainer should evaulate their driving skills every six months for up to 24 months. The first and most important step in this improvement process is that the driver in question be able to step back and look at all sides of the incident objectively from a defensive driving viewpoint. He must recognize factors that may have been out of his control when he had the incident as well as factors that were under his control. He should then explore what he had to do to gain control of the factors that caused the incident or accident and use those newly found skills to prevent similar situations in the future. Then and only then can somebody be transformed from a person driving a fire truck to a skilled and professional apparatus driver/operator.
Michael P. Dallesandro is a 24-year volunteer firefighter and chairman of the Grand Island (NY) Fire Company board of directors. He has taught at FDIC and is a trainer for the fire service, the public transportation industry, and certified commercial vehicle drivers.