Apparatus & Equipment, Firefighting

National Firefighter Near Miss Report: Black ice gives no warning

Winter weather has already gripped much of the country. Even areas that do not normally experience slippery roads have not been immune to accumulations of snow, ice, or high water. For the next 60 days or so, fire department drivers and engineers are going to be dealing with short hours of daylight, fog, snow and the dreaded icy roads. “Black ice,” the subject of this week’s featured report and the most treacherous form of ice on roads, poses particular threats to apparatus and crews because of its “unexpected” formation and composition. Black ice contains few air bubbles; giving it an insidiously transparent look that fools drivers and pedestrians into thinking the road is dry. Millions of dollars in vehicle damage and personal injury occur each year due to black ice situations.

“Our engine was dispatched as a first responder to a vehicle accident involving a pickup truck and a utility pole. There had been numerous incidents earlier in the evening for vehicle accidents involving icy roadways but the road surfaces now appeared to be dry and salt covered. As we responded, I asked the driver how the road conditions were and he said that they were fine. In fact, the roads actually looked dry although white from salt that had been applied much earlier. As we traveled over a bridge, I once again asked the driver about the road surface over the bridge and he once again said that they were fine. Receiving a dispatch for a traffic accident at 0230 on a Friday night made me think that this was just another DUI driver that had not made it home… After traveling about 200 yards, the driver began to brake for a 90 degree bend in the road and the truck began to slide. At that point, the road did not appear to be icy but we were definitely sliding and gaining speed. I instructed the driver to ease off of the brakes to regain steering so we could make the bend and when we rounded to corner…”

Twenty tons of apparatus suddenly going into a slide is one feat apparatus drivers prefer not to experience. One second you are proceeding northbound in the northbound lane and the next you are facing west, but still proceeding north. Preparation in the form of knowing your area (topography, geography, weather) is one key to avoid the situation. Staying in tune with the situation is another key. Remember that during this period of weather, subtle changes in temperature, humidity and wind wreak havoc with the road conditions. All road surfaces should be suspect and other information should be considered clues to the situation (responses to multiple collisions, deteriorating weather, local traffic reports). Once you have reviewed the entire content of this week’s report (CLICK HERE), consider the following:

1. Have you ever driven into an “unexpected” road condition that caused you to lose control of the apparatus? What did you do to compensate/correct?
2. What steps do you take (driver and officer) to prepare for changes in weather/road conditions that occur during the winter months?
3. When did you last drive in a period of inclement weather?
4. If you have not driven on icy roads, do you know someone who has that you can seek out for advice and instruction?
5. Does your driver training program, either initial or recertification, include a practical skills session on an approved skid pad?

Had a near miss on an icy road? Add your story to before the next ice storm crosses the country.

Note: The questions posed by the reviewers are designed to generate discussion and thought in the name of promoting firefighter safety. They are not intended to pass judgment on the actions and performance of individuals in the reports.