The most important element in firefighting is a safe response. This is a strong statement, but common sense often comes across that way. The point is obvious: Before firefighters can take any action to deal with the emergency, whatever it may be, they must first get there. It is also evident that response is one of the greatest safety issues facing the fire service. A convincing argument can be made that it should be the primary safety concern for every run, without exception. It represents the one area of firefighting where each member of the crew is equally at risk.

Do not underestimate the dangers in-volved in the “getting-there” part. Apparatus accidents present a huge, many-sided problem. The potential for injuries and fatalities–firefighters and civilians–is always present. These accidents have a direct impact on a department`s ability to provide the services the public expects. They create a second emergency, destroy and damage vital equipment, place personnel and governing bodies at a severe liability risk, and erode public confidence. It is not necessary to cite the latest statistics. One suspects most firefighters have experienced firsthand the sad details of specific accidents. That is enough.

In recent years, the fire service has sought to address this problem by strengthening driver qualifications and improving the safety features of apparatus. These steps have brought marked improvement and were an absolute necessity. Still more can be done.

There is an additional way, which is easy and inexpensive, to bring about some relief. Any department can do it. Before getting into the particulars, first ask yourself the following questions:

Do other drivers frequently fail to yield the right-of-way?

Is it common for people to pull out in front of the unit?

Have you ever known that individuals ahead of you are oblivious to your approach because (a) their heads keep bobbing back and forth to the beat of the music on the car radio, (b) they remain engaged in animated conversation with other vehicle occupants, or (c) the driver continues to talk on the mobile phone?

While reacting to another driver`s maneuvers, have you employed colorful, perhaps even profane, language to describe his or her driving abilities, intelligence, or heritage?

Is the response often more nerve-racking than the actual incident?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you have defined an area that leads to many apparatus accidents: A large percentage of civilian drivers simply do not know how they are supposed to react to an emergency vehicle. You and your department can work to improve this problem.


Developing an emergency vehicle awareness (EVA) program is a logical way to address the need for educating drivers on this important safety issue.

EVA is based on a simple premise: All drivers, civilian and firefighter, have certain responsibilities that both must fulfill to ensure a safe emergency response. These responsibilities are defined in state motor vehicle statutes. Following are some guidelines for establishing an EVA program in your community.

Obtain a copy of your state laws pertaining to emergency vehicles. Use them as the outline for your lesson plan and as handouts for your students. On a cover sheet for the handouts, list response statistics for your department, accident figures, or anything else you may wish to stress.

Develop a video presentation. Mount a camcorder inside an apparatus. Be careful the device does not interfere with the vision of any cab occupant and that it is safely secured. Now, begin filming your runs. You will soon have plenty of tape showing what a motorist should not do and, just as important, what one should do.

Remember, most civilians have no idea of the time factor you are up against when responding to an emergency. A portion of your video presentation, therefore, should show how fast fire moves. A number of videos on the market illustrate this very well, or you may want to produce this segment yourself.

Our state statutes prohibit driving over fire hose, so we use a short clip of a wild line to show how a line can rupture should a motorist drive over it. Caution: Do not try this at home. If you wish to produce a similar shot, charge the line for only a few seconds and film from a sheltered distance. Immediately after playing this scene is a good time to relate to the audience the dangers interior crews face when their water supply suddenly fails.

You may want to tape some segments of an engine approaching a civilian vehicle. Record them from inside another vehicle. The unit should make two passes with warning lights and siren on. Have the radio playing inside the “camera car.” Film one pass with the windows closed and one with a window cracked open about an inch–to illustrate that simply opening a window slightly considerably affects the distance and time it takes for the siren to become audible inside the car. It also offers a sensible solution to interior noise interference.

Select instructors. Excellent ones are easy to come by. Start with your apparatus drivers. No one knows better than they the great dangers associated with responding to emergencies. Most would be more than willing to do something that can help reduce them.

Select your target audience. Our department concentrates on high school students enrolled in driver education courses. By focusing on this group, we have been able to consistently reach two-thirds of the teenage drivers in our area. College safety courses also provide receptive gatherings. (These age groups represent the highest traffic accident categories.) We have found that teachers and professors are glad to have outside speakers. In fact, to our delight, EVA has become part of the established curriculum in our local high schools and university.

The various elements of the class may be presented in any order, depending on what you wish to emphasize. The format our department uses begins with a brief lecture on firefighting and emergency response procedures, followed by the video of fast-moving fire, another short lecture on the statute requirements, and then finishes with video segments of runs, the wild line, and the approaching fire engine. At least once during the class, emphasize these key points:

– Lights and sirens mean someone is in trouble.

– That “someone” may be a family member or close friend.

– Proper reactions to emergency vehicles save seconds and lives.

Handouts are important. They constitute homework for the students and provide a means of expanding your audience when the students take them home.

To measure how good a job you are doing at getting the message out, maintain class rosters on which the age of the students are listed. Your driver`s license bureau can probably supply an annual count of how many licenses were issued for each age group you wish to measure. Compare your program`s totals with those of the bureau`s to see what percentage of new drivers you are reaching. This comparison also gives you the basis for a brief year-end progress report on your program.

Another important reason for maintaining class rolls is based on the worst-case scenario–an apparatus accident involving a civilian vehicle. Documentation that the driver had received instruction on how to properly react to emergency vehicles could be of great value in any ensuing litigation. Think of rosters as liability insurance.


Once you have the program up and running, it is time for some publicity. The press is interested in anything new going on in the schools. You already have the tape. All any television reporter has to do is air it. Perhaps you can get a station to produce some public service announcements based on your program. Take advantage of the government access channel on your local cable system, and don`t forget newspaper articles, or even ads.


The “run” videos have other uses. Obviously, they are helpful in training potential fire drivers. Some tapes may be helpful for critiques. If you have an arson problem, you might get some footage of the crowds at fire scenes for your investigators. EVA also gives you the opportunity to plug other programs or special concerns your department may have.

In this day of litigation, it is of utmost importance that every possible step be taken to provide greater protection against liability. We cannot depend on, and perhaps should not expect, the court to educate the jury once it is seated. Here is your opportunity to do so beforehand.

Our department has been presenting this program for more than five years. During that time, more than four thousand students have attended and have been given handouts of the appropriate state statutes. Through media coverage and the passing on of the handout materials to family members, we have reached many more people.

Programs such as EVA give the fire department a chance to be proactive. The work involved is prevention–a function to which firefighters are accustomed. A widespread and sustained effort to educate the public on how to react to emergency vehicles promises real hope of improving response safety. n

GERRY H. BROWN is training officer for the City of Bowling Green (KY) Fire Department and currently is completing work for an associate`s degree in fire and safety engineering technology at Eastern Kentucky University. He is a peer member of the Kentucky Post Trauma Response Team.

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