By Andy Woody
Did you know that motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) are the second leading cause of firefighter fatalities? Did you also know that most of the time they are our fault? Many times they are preventable and can occur in the career and volunteer service, during emergency and nonemergency responses, and in fire apparatus and personal vehicles.
We have a dangerous and unpredictable job. There are many things that are out of our control at each scene to which we respond. It is of vital importance that we take control of the things we can control; this includes the way we operate our fire apparatus. Most fire departments offer a wide array of training programs to personnel. Topics such as self-contained breathing apparatus, ventilation, fire attack, CPR, water supply, and so on are trained on regularly. When was the last time you ventilated a roof or advanced a charged hoseline through a house? These are great tools for our toolboxes and fantastic training topics. These are also topics that proficiency could literally mean the difference between life and death.
Think about this: The ONLY thing you do on every single call you respond to is DRIVE. Everything you train on is reliant upon needing that tactic. Not driving. Next time the bell rings, you WILL use that tactic. If motor vehicle accidents account for 25-30 firefighter fatalities annually and we start paying attention to how we drive, firefighter fatalities WILL decline.
It is believed that the overwhelming majority of these collisions can be averted. As you might expect, most emergency vehicle accidents occur in intersections. In a large number of accidents, apparatus are being driven too fast and, in many others, with drivers without seatbelts. Many accidents involve all three.
In response to the number of MVAs that occur within emergency services during both emergency and nonemergency responses, firefighters should follow “3 S’s” which WILL save firefighter lives.
Simply, WEAR YOUR SEAT BELT. Your vehicle should not move in any direction, any number of feet, for any length of time if you are not wearing your seat belt. This infraction will not be tolerated. Fire departments should insist that in any type of testing, whether promotional or certification, or training such as proficiency or recertification. If you operate or attempt to operate a vehicle and do not wear your seat belt, you fail; it is far too simple to not do.
Most of us would never think about operating our personal vehicle without wearing a seat belt. We certainly wouldn’t move a vehicle if our children weren’t restrained. Officers, drivers, firefighters—check each other! This is no different than any other piece of personal protective equipment. Demand seat belts are worn. Do not move a vehicle if everyone is not wearing a seat belt. We should no longer hear about firefighters being thrown from apparatus during an accident or falling from the apparatus as it turns on the apron. These stories should be part of our history. WEAR YOUR SEAT BELT.
Also, we must slow down our vehicles. If you cannot stop your vehicle, you are not in control of it. On a daily basis, you may see an emergency vehicle being driven too fast in your jurisdiction, be it an ambulance, police car, or fire truck. Our trucks are not made to be driven the way they often are. We have to ensure that we are operating with the safety of those around us in mind.
This isn’t about anyone’s driving ability. I have no doubt that you can handle the vehicle on three wheels. This is about caution, due regard, and respect. The people in our jurisdictions trust us as they should. When people see what appears to be an emergency vehicle operating out of control by speeding, weaving in and out of traffic, or not obeying general traffic laws, we are taking that trust for granted.
It is important that everyone reading this look up the definition of “due regard,” “true emergency,” and “vicarious liability.” These are definitions that you may or may not be familiar with that affect you now and will affect you tomorrow.
Supervisors—make each of your subordinates look these definitions up NOW. Discuss as a crew or a department how these terms affect your emergency responses. Discuss how these terms affect your lives. SLOW DOWN.
We must stop our vehicles when we are asked to stop. If we come to an intersection showing a red signal, stop. If we come to a stop sign, stop. Chief officers must understand that if you are running emergency all the way across town and you come to a complete stop at each intersection that presents a red light, you are going to add nearly 30 to 45 seconds to your response time; potentially moving you from third- or fourth-due to fourth- or fifth-due; chief officers can live with that.
If you are asked to stop, stop. As stated previously, most of our accidents occur in intersections. In EVERY intersection, someone is supposed to stop; it may be you. We must operate our vehicles in intersections as if no one sees us, hears us, or knows we’re there at all.
Many times, we approach intersections as if we have the right of way because we have sirens and air horns. In reality, we are requesting the right of way. It is the law for us to be granted right of way, but we don’t enter an intersection with it automatically. To a jury, this assumption betrays guilt, e.g., “I had a green light, and when I went, a fire truck hit me.” That scenario is your fault. That civilian driver, someone that we will ridicule and call names, who we hope to see in the grocery store tomorrow, who was not paying attention, is right. Even though he may be in his own world and couldn’t care less where you’re going, he is right. It IS the law to give emergency vehicles the right of way, but if civilians don’t know you’re there, they’re not yielding. When their light turns green, they’re going. If our vehicle isn’t moving, this is not a problem and a much different scenario. The car, although driven by an idiot, proceeds safely through the intersection with his green light, and we proceed safely to our emergency. When you are asked to stop, STOP. If we adhere to the 3 S’s, firefighter fatalities WILL decline.
Emergency vehicle accidents will decline. I am not so naïve that I think this will eliminate vehicle accidents. It won’t. It certainly has the potential to eliminate fatality accidents. It is our responsibility to see that this happens. If you encourage all personnel to follow the 3 S’s, and you pass this along to the operators of emergency vehicles everywhere, together we will reduce firefighter fatalities. Read this, understand it, tell someone else about it. Let’s stop reading about firefighter fatalities that are within our control and take control of it. The 3 S’s: Seatbelt, Speed, Stop. Learn it. Do it.
Andy Woody is a 20-year fire service veteran and the assistant chief of training with the Springfield (MO) Fire Department. Woody has a bachelor of science in business management and an AAS degree in fire science. He is an adjunct instructor through the University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Training Institute and an active member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Safety, Health and Survival Section. Woody is also a chief training officer designee through the Center for Public Safety Excellence.