By MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO
In May 2007, I was invited to be a guest speaker at a spring business meeting for one of New York’s state associations. I delivered a 60-minute speech on safe apparatus operation, both responding and returning. Following my presentation, one of the state’s more senior emergency vehicle operations center (EVOC) trainers approached me to compliment me on my lecture. He also asked me why I didn’t spend more time talking about the vehicle and traffic laws that apply to emergency vehicle drivers in our state.
All too often, speakers and instructors dwell too heavily on the legal aspects of driver safety and vehicle operations and do not spend enough time on its emotional or human element. They need to focus on what is going on inside the driver’s head or in his department that may have contributed to a particular fire apparatus accident or a high-risk environment that led to an accident. The purpose of this article is to make you ask yourself if you are ready to commit to keeping drivers safe in your department.
When I first started looking closely at fire apparatus and emergency vehicle accidents, I hoped to see what event or chain of events made each of these motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) unique and different. After all, there had to be a reason our line-of-duty-death (LODD) numbers never seemed to decline despite the fact that many parts of our country were spending more and more time and money for state- and county-level training programs to improve driving and firefighting skills. I began to realize that the MVAs I was researching and discussing in my workshops were the same types of MVAs that occurred over and over again. Different departments, different parts of our country—but, nonetheless, the same types of MVAs. Apparatus were rolling over, getting into pileups at intersections, and running off the road in all 50 states; very often speed was a root cause.
If we know what types of accidents we continuously have and what causes them, why have we not successfully reduced or eliminated the number of apparatus accidents that we have annually? This question has caused me to begin to break away from traditional discussions of safe apparatus operation and the standard lessons found in the curriculums for cancelled EVOC courses nationwide. The lessons taught and learned within traditional EVOC settings and curricula have considerable merit and should remain an integral part of a successful driver safety program. However, there seems to be a significant disconnect between the information taught in EVOC such as managing speed, center of gravity, centrifugal force, friction, and road conditions, which is what I hope drivers consider as they operate their vehicles, as opposed to what is actually running through their minds as they drive their rigs.
Aside from traditional EVOC lessons, also consider the attitudes and examples toward safe driving department leaders set and the seriousness with which our fire districts, department boards, and local governments budget for and purchase up-to-date, modernized fire apparatus containing today’s life-saving features and technology. There are reasons firefighters have accidents; they can be boiled down to basic principles of defensive driving such as cushion of space and speed. However, to truly make an impact on firefighters and emergency vehicle drivers over the long term, departments must combine quality EVOC programs with an attention to details that they do not often discuss.
XCEEDING THE SPEED LIMIT
Fire apparatus drivers involved in wrecks where speed was a contributing factor made the decision to accelerate their vehicle from a safe speed to an unsafe speed. Remember, the drivers are responsible for their vehicle’s safe operation, both responding to and returning from incidents. They speed because of certain factors. If department leaders know these factors, they can begin to reduce apparatus accidents. Some of these factors include the following.
Television’s culture of speed.From the time firefighters are born, everything they see in movies and on television about emergency vehicle operations is all about speed, excitement, adrenaline, and theatrics. Firefighters hear what instructors tell them during training courses and workshops. However, they continuously repeat the television images over and over again in their minds even though deep down they know what is wrong and what is right.
One way to try to avoid this “TV brainwashing” is to integrate clips from popular movies and TV shows into classroom driver training sessions and have firefighters offer critiques on what they see. Once they can make the connection between the actions of emergency vehicle drivers on TV and what they identify as wrong when behind the wheel in the real world, they may begin to break those bad habits.
Do as I say, not as I do.Another reason firefighters speed is that they attend training sessions and drills where speakers drone on about safe driving and then watch that same speaker (an officer or a chief) exceed the speed limit in the department SUV for the first call received after the drill ends. This scenario plays out in departments where certain individuals—because of position, friendship, or perceived experience—are given a pass on speeding while other members are disciplined for it. It does not matter if you are the chief’s best friend, you have been driving apparatus for 12 years, or you hold rank. The rules of safe driving should apply to all.
Hurry up and get there!Statistical and geographical issues also contribute to the risks firefighters who exceed the speed limit put on themselves, their crews, and the motoring public. Many apparatus drivers think about or at least consider the importance of response time while responding; it is one of those statistical items held over the heads of fire departments whenever quality of service, labor contracts, or funding is discussed.
Have department or government leaders done their part to maintain minimum staffing levels? Have they planned for growth in their communities and constructed fire stations where they are needed? Have they closed or temporarily removed companies from service to save dollars? The longer fire apparatus have to travel to respond to an alarm, the longer the response times. Many apparatus drivers will subconsciously respond to this added pressure and may use speed to compensate for the greater travel distance to alarms, thus increasing the potential for speed-related accidents.
Volunteer firefighters often use speed to make up for a delayed response caused by a lack of staffing and multiple tone outs. By the time a firefighter arrives at the station, especially during the day, your department and neighboring departments may have already toned out the call two or three times. When that firefighter finally rolls off the ramp in the rig, he is subconsciously thinking that he is already late for the fire.
Firefighters know what it feels like to arrive at work, school, or a fire department meeting five or 10 minutes late. Their mind is already worrying about those five minutes. Take that feeling one step further: When an apparatus driver already programmed for a quick response feels behind or late to a call, speed will definitely become an issue with that response.
Many department driver trainers do not tell their students that the rig can and will roll over. Training programs must cover the risk of rollover with each department vehicle and drill on specific community, response, and mutual-aid areas that have a high risk for rollovers. Members should understand soft shoulders and the impact heavy rains and roadside ditches can have on shoulder stability. Teach your drivers how to recognize areas where three or four inches of pavement have built up over the years, leaving a road edge that can literally grab your rig and draw it toward the ditch.
Firefighters must carefully practice in controlled conditions the feeling of the rig dropping off the pavement and then how to gently bring it back onto the road surface or allow it to fully stop and slowly drive it back up onto the pavement before accelerating. Regular hands-on training in preventing rollovers will help reduce the risk of rollovers.
WHY ARE FIREFIGHTERS BEING EJECTED?
Firefighters are ejected from apparatus in accidents because they are not wearing their seat belts. But it is not that simple; there are reasons firefighters do not wear seat belts. Many departments still operate apparatus that may not be equipped with seat belts or that have broken or ineffective seat belts. We continue to speak about seat belts at conferences, promote seat belt pledge forms, and write about seat belt use in magazines. But what if a firefighter gets on the rig for a call and there are no seat belts to use?
Noncompliant apparatus must be phased out, and every effort must be made to retrofit old rigs to make them compliant. If your local officials are not supporting your apparatus updates either through their actions, comments, or funding, then bring the trucks to them and have them sit in the seats and try to buckle up. Show them the danger in which they are placing firefighters.
Enforcement by officers.Again, so much of the responsibility for reducing the chances for injury and death falls on the officers and authority figures. Starting at the top, establish a culture where seat belt use is the standard, not the exception. Your fellow member sometimes needs to be told to wear his seat belt. If you don’t care enough about him to talk with him about seat belts, maybe you are neither a good officer nor a friend.
Too restrictive or time-consuming.Many apparatus drivers feel that seat belts restrict their motions or, even worse, make them feel that they may become trapped inside the rig in an accident. Drivers should have a full range of motion in the driver’s seat and the ability to see all around the vehicle. Departments should also address proper attire and footwear for apparatus drivers. Test how drivers feel in the apparatus when wearing boots and turnout gear before driving a rig to an emergency response to make sure they have the ability to control the vehicle. Also, never cut corners for safety to achieve a timely response to a call. The 15 seconds or less it takes to buckle up are meaningless in the big picture of a timely response.
Tell the truth.When I was growing up, there was something about fire trucks that always caught my eye. I believed that fire trucks could do almost anything and that no harm could come to them. When I first started driving fire apparatus as a 19-year-old volunteer firefighter, that almost mythological “winged chariot” view I had of our rigs as a child still remained with me. Because of that perception, I drove apparatus as if no harm could come to me, the community, other motorists, fellow firefighters, and the rigs themselves. Here I am, 25 years later, the manager of 80 school buses. I now understand how a vehicle is built and how to operate it safely.
Teach our fire drivers the nuts and bolts of our apparatus. The sooner they clear their mind of the “almighty fire truck” attitude and understand that the truck is a man-made tool that must be respected, the better off everyone will be. When drivers hit the road, they should switch their mindset and remember a truck is just a truck. If personnel push that rig too far, the apparatus will not correct errors for them or do anything more than any other truck on the highway. Your rigs most assuredly do not have a mind of their own; if you push them too far, they will take over the driving for you.
● MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO is a 25-year volunteer firefighter and chairman of the Grand Island (NY) Fire Company board of directors. He has instructed at FDIC and is a trainer for the fire service, the public transportation industry, and certified commercial vehicle drivers.