Personal Vehicle Response in the Fire Service

Personally owned vehicle lights
Photo by Chris Mc Loone.

By Tim Zehnder

The topic of personally owned vehicle (POV) response frequently comes up in a discussion after there has been an incident in the country. It’s simply a reality for many rural fire departments in the United States, but there are two very distinct sides of thought when it comes to POV response.


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The places around our country that endorse these POV response practices are typically large in area with firefighters spread out across a wide geographical range. It would not be feasible for all members to come to the station to get on a rig and respond to an emergency scene. These departments may also stage grass rigs at distant locations to speed up response times to certain areas. I have had conversations with chiefs around the country who have fire districts that a greater than 500 square miles, much of it very sparsely populated, yet wildland fires, search, vehicle crashes, and injuries in these areas still need to be handled by the fire department. On account of the remoteness of these areas, driving a personal vehicle is almost a necessity.

Points to Consider

 If this is how your department operates, you must take into consideration a few things:

  • You must have standard operating guidelines (SOGs) or procedures (SOPs) that support and outline POV use. These outline the departments requirements to use a POV. If you do not have these SOGs/SOPS in place, there are many examples on the Internet that you can use as a platform to build what fits your department.
  • State law will determine whether you can run emergency lights on your POV. Every state is different. Check with your local law enforcement to make sure you follow the state and local laws
  • You must follow all driving laws. You have no special privileges driving your POV to an emergency. You are not exempt from the rules of road, and this fact ought to be reiterated to members who are responding in POVs.

I live in southwest Nebraska, and a number of rural departments including mine have members who respond in POVs. In our case, the issue of emergency lights has been left up to the county sheriff, and in our county it is not legal to have emergency lighting on a POV.

The Downside of POVs

Here are a few thoughts on the negatives of POV response that I have been thinking about for some time:

  • Members driving on adrenaline. It has been shown in the past that there are issues with members driving too fast and being in too much a rush to get to the incident. If you crash en route to the emergency scene, you are no help to your department and could injure yourself or someone else.
  • As an officer, you have no idea who and how many members are responding. When operating at an incident, an officer needs to decide several things: will we need mutual aid of this call? Where should we best position fire apparatus for success on scene? How many firefighters will I have on scene, and what roles will they fill? Officers are severely hampered in this regard by not knowing how many members are en route to the scene.
  • Parking for POVs at the incident. Some emergency incident scenes can get very congested, and this can pose operational problems for firefighters. Depending on the scene location, parking can and has been an issue. Think about this when putting your SOPs/SOGs together.

For the departments that do not allow POV response, the chief officers frequently have a better handle on how many members are responding and how many members are at the station, and this enables the chief officers to better control the situation. There is also less liability to the city if no POVs are responding and it is safer for all involved.

I spent 20 plus years in Minnesota and most departments responded to the station, and I know of only a few that had members respond in POV. Those departments either had assigned apparatus or had a rescue/hat truck where all the members’ personal protective equipment was stored.

I am not for or against the use of POV response but can see both points of view. Deaths in responding POVs is often caused by speed and inexperienced drivers. If this a practice for your fire department, have SOP/SOGs, and be sure to talk to members about safe driving practices.

Tim Zehnder began his fire service career in 1990 as a member of the Truman (MN) Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, where he has held every position from firefighter to chief. He received his emergency medical technician and NFPA 1001 training that same year. Zehnder has a degree in fire science from Lake Superior College. He also worked for two years as an engine foreman for the United States Forest Service at the Payette National Forest in Idaho, was a Minnesota State fire instructor for 18 years, and was the fire rescue training program manager at a Minnesota state training college for seven years. He retired from the Truman Fire & Ambulance service in April 2013 after more than 21 years of service. Zehnder then accepted the position of director of fire science at the Mid Plains Community College. He is also a paid-on-call firefighter with the McCook City (NE) Fire Department and the president of the Nebraska Society of Fire Service Instructors as well as the city of McCook’s 2015 Firefighter of the Year. Zehnder co-authored the “Grain Bin Rescue” video for Fire Engineering Books and Videos and presents programs on firefighter survival and safety, rapid intervention team, rural tactics, grain bin rescue, and more. He is also an International Society of Fire Service Instructors 1403, Live Fire Instructor, and travels the country delivering the program.

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