APPARATUS COLLISION DECISIONS
BY JAMES R. FAULKNER
The temperature had been above 95 degrees for about 20 days now. Firefighters at Station 18 stood in the apparatus doorway commenting that it actually looked like rain. Everybody agreed they couldn`t remember what rain looked like as they went to the bunkroom to go to sleep. Somewhere in the night, the cool drops of rain fell from the sky and actually caused some steam to rise from the overheated sidewalks and streets. Also rising to the streets` surface was the oil from the asphalt. As Engine 18 responded late in the night, no one anticipated there would be a skid and resulting crash.
About two minutes later, the phone at the chief`s house was ringing–the “dreaded phone call” that immediately places us in the position of having to deal with a serious problem, often while adjusting to bad news. It was the dispatcher. “Chief,” he reported, “Engine 18 has been involved in an accident. The crew is okay; but from the police radio traffic, I think the rig turned over.” Believe me, folks, this would not be the time for the chief to have to decide “What do I do next?”
I was amazed at how many good questions I was asked at the conclusion of a school I conducted about the “dreaded phone call.” I was also concerned, however, by the follow-up calls I received from about 24 of the 500 participants asking if I could provide a sample of a written policy or SOP on handling accidents. It became evident that although we preplan for bombings, tornadoes, hurricanes, major fires, and floods, we are not prepared for a disaster that involves one of our department`s apparatus and the effect such an incident can have on the public. We still believe “It won`t happen to me.” Well, it can happen–and has happened.
No matter how big or small your department or fleet is, you will at one time or another have to deal with an accident involving one of your units. I`m not talking about an accident with a chief`s vehicle or an ambulance. These units present no major difficulties; they are easily moved by any wrecker company. I am referring to the loss or incapacitation of a capital piece of apparatus–an engine or aerial ladder.
We use the incident command system (ICS) for fires and other emergencies. Why not try to tailor it to emergencies involving major accidents involving an engine or aerial ladder? Your organization should have an SOP or Guidelines for Personnel for handling the damaged/incapacitated apparatus that assigns responsibilities and provides for authorizations that will enable the officers in charge to get the job done quickly.
SOP or Accident Checklist
Your policy should cover at least the following:
Notification. The following individuals must be notified:
— Fire chief: Notify immediately.
— Public information officer (PIO): Place high on the list for initial notification; provide as many facts as soon as possible so he can effectively handle the media–an important component of all emergencies affecting the public. Only the PIO should give information to the media.
— Maintenance officer: Must determine how the vehicle will be moved.
— City or county officials: Notify especially if a civilian or firefighter has been seriously injured. In many cases, they can aid at the scene by cutting red tape.
— Incident commander: Should establish a command post, staging area, and briefing area and coordinate scene security. Should have the ability and authority to make decisions concerning the incident just as if it were a fire or other disaster. In essence, if you have just totaled your $500,000 rig, it is a disaster.
Removal of the apparatus: Parameters and procedures for the IC. The IC must be able to contract for any equipment (bulldozer or crane, for example) and services needed to recover the damaged vehicle. Three a.m. on Sunday morning is not the time for the IC to be attempting to get a purchase order signed.
— List of nonfire department experts who can best assist in recovery efforts. In the scenario of a rolled-over aerial, it is best to have the names of the closest authorized manufacturer representative who can and will respond to the incident. It may be best to secure the scene and await the arrival of professional help in this instance. In my responses to accidents of these types, I have observed towing companies causing more damage to the apparatus than the accident itself.
— Towing and recovery services. Check out the suppliers of these services before an accident occurs to ascertain that they have sufficient liability coverage and the equipment capable of moving large apparatus. I have found a flatbed carrier, if available, to be easiest on a truck in tow. Next best is an underslung towing unit. Towing an aerial or tower with anything but an underslung wrecker is asking for trouble. Try to avoid the old-style hitches, which can cause additional damage to the apparatus.
— Air bag and winching capabilities. The tower should be able to provide these services. There are not too many points by which to pick up an engine if the tailboard is sunk in the mud.
— Prequalify the towing contractor. Drive out to his lot or have him come by the station. Let him look over your biggest unit and maybe even pick up the truck to prove he can move it. I recently saw a photo of an aerial ladder hooked to a hydraulic wrecker. The fire department felt good that the contractor could move its largest rig, and it was great publicity for the towing operator. Many times, these contractors will move fire apparatus at no charge as a favor to volunteer departments.
— Obtain an estimate of costs for a worst-case scenario before an accident occurs. Also, ask for written estimates for winching units from the mud and snow; brief the towers on how and where you want these vehicles winched. Firefighters then would be instructed to call the prequalified wrecker if they get stuck. I once responded to an incident in which the right side of an aerial ladder`s tandems got stuck when they dropped off the pavement. No one wanted to call a wrecker, so the firefighters hooked a chain to the front tow eye of an engine and hooked the other end around the ladders going up to the turntable. Once the engine began to pull on the unit, the rear half of the ladder truck came off and promptly sailed into the engine`s windshield.
— Include the phone numbers and radio frequencies of prequalified towers. Briefing the towing operator prior to arrival will allow him to send sufficient personnel and equipment. The sooner the truck is moved off the street, the better.
— List tasks that must be done to protect and preserve equipment during towing. For example, we`ve all seen five-inch hose slip out of the hosebed; it`s extremely difficult to reload after it has been laid down the highway while the engine is being towed by a wrecker. Make sure, therefore, that the hose is secured prior to towing.
Factor in specialists under the preauthorization parameters. Experts such as photographers and accident investigators may be needed to assist in reconstructing or preserving evidence. If your organization has an audiovisual department, you may want to take your own videos. Be careful during the taping, however. Do not make any comments that can prove damaging later, such as, “Wow, look at that front bumper; they must have been doing 100 mph.”
Debrief and sequester the crew. The department should obtain from the crew members involved in the accident as much information as possible as soon as possible. As noted, only the PIO should give information to the media.
At the Scene
— Treat victims and injured personnel.
— Notify police, if this has not been done already.
— Call for any additional units needed.
— Activate accident preplan or SOP.
Photographs. Have pictures taken from all angles; stationary reference points should triangulate exact vehicle impact and resting points. Nothing should be moved; location of parts may be a key factor in determining how and why an apparatus failed, for example.
Evaluate vehicle`s condition. The maintenance officer should evaluate the vehicle to determine whether it is safe to move, can be sufficiently repaired at the scene to make it drivable, or needs to be towed. If the vehicle is overturned, its resting attitude must be determined. In some instances, cabs sustain only minor damage in rollovers. Proper recovery methods can ensure that the towing does not add to the damage. For this reason, it`s best to have a prequalified recovery outfit instead of having to rely on the mover specified by the police department. In this way, you can advise the police that you have prequalified a recovery outfit and ask for permission to call it. It may be your apparatus, but it`s the police`s accident scene.
Keep the crew from the press. Let your PIO do the talking. Only the obvious should be addressed. If, for example, Engine 18 is rolled over on the side of the road, the PIO might state the following: “Engine 18 was responding westbound on Colorado when it came to the intersection of Munger Street and, for reasons unknown, the vehicle landed on its side. No personnel or civilians were injured, and the incident is under investigation.“
Manage the scene. It is likely that crowds of onlookers will gather and that a number of them will be videotaping the incident. It will be difficult to stop them. These tapes could become part of media reports or court proceedings. Be aware also that these cameras usually have microphones attached. Therefore, this would not be the time for the captain to tell a firefighter, “Son, I`ve been telling you for years that you drive too fast.” Nor should the driver jump out of the engine saying, “I`ve been telling the shop for months that the brakes on this engine are bad.” Statements made in the heat of the moment can create difficulties during investigations and legal proceedings.
If one of your units is involved in an accident in which a civilian is injured or killed, be prepared for a microscopic examination of your department`s training records (including those of maintenance personnel), maintenance records, and your managers` on-scene management techniques and abilities. Depending on the nature and extent of the accident, representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) may also conduct an investigation of the incident.
Accidents can happen in any department. It`s just like a fire. You hope you never get the big one, but you train for it every day.
Try a training scenario in which a fire department unit is wrecked. Have firefighters play the roles of the public and the media. You might also try an accident scenario in which the fire truck hits the “wrong” car in a neighborhood where firefighters must wear flak jackets when responding. How would you secure a scene in such an area? Another scenario could have one fire apparatus hitting another fire apparatus or a police car. I believe they call it “sirencide.” I`ve been to several of these types of incidents; believe me, they add a new twist to the question “Who`s at fault?”
Your incident command system should assist you in preplanning for incidents involving apparatus collisions. The ICS and command system training are as applicable to incidents involving apparatus collisions as they are to fires and medical and other emergencies. Obviously, the best course is to prevent such an accident. In the real world, however, one can occur at any time. Therefore, practice safety at all times, and prepare in advance for the accident that may occur. n
Some recovery operations necessitate the services of experts provided by the manufacturer of the apparatus as well as specialized righting equipment and techniques. (Photos by author.)
JAMES R. FAULKNER is president of Special Equipment Services, Inc., an apparatus repair and refurbishing firm in Kaufman, Texas. Previously, he served as a career firefighter and paramedic for 14 years. Faulkner often acts as the liaison for manufacturers and clients in issues involving maintenance, accident-related problems, and equipment failure.