National Driving Standards: Is the Minimum Good Enough?

By Rob Raheb

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) guidelines for training offer the minimum requirements that departments can follow to ensure that training needs are being met and upheld. The problem doesn’t lie with the NFPA, but with departments and trainers who feel that the minimum is good enough when it comes to training.

We can’t afford to maximize training in all areas; it would be too costly and require adding a lot of time to a program. But arguably we cut training to the bare bones on one issue that has been surfacing over and over again–driver training.

Every day, an emergency vehicle is involved in a collision somewhere. We see it on the news, get it in our e-mail, on our Smart phones, etc. What we don’t see are the lawsuits that involve departments, personnel, and families of members. The pennies saved by cutting training on the front end turn into big dollars paid out on the back end. Departments are often called to defend themselves after a collision occurs; training records, personnel files, and a litany of other material is subpoenaed. Overtime and workers compensation cases add more to the payout.

But why are we still crashing into things? It is easier and sometimes justified to simply blame the public for failing to yield to our lights and siren, but the reality is that in every collision involving a fatality, we struck the other vehicle 74 percent of the time.

Minimum standards for driver training are dangerous and cost lives, period. Some administrations feel that the state has issued the employee a driver’s license and if the state says they can drive, that is good enough for them. What we fail to recognize is that the state issued the license once without recertification and only after passing a 20-question test and a three-minute road test, none of which was with emergency driving. Only a small number of states require some sort of advanced license for emergency vehicle operations.

It is the department’s duty and responsibility to both its members and the public to ensure that every person who gets behind the wheel of a department vehicle or even a private vehicle that is used to respond is properly trained. Departments may indemnify a member during a lawsuit, but if negligence can be proven and department standards and policies were not followed, the driver can be facing both criminal and civil action. The emergency vehicle operator (EVO) cannot assume that an intersection is clear and rely on the lights and siren. EVOs who assume that the public will yield the right of way at an intersection simply because they have their lights and siren on are operating at or below the minimum standard, and we know that is not good enough.

Practice Makes Perfect, Right?

Wrong! Perfect practice makes perfect. Training centers that are forfeiting safety and quality for speed and time trials are doing a disservice to everyone involved. So what are minimums and what is the standard?

If you teach driver training, are you trained? Simply being assigned to do the training does not qualify you; both firefighting and EMS require certified instructors capable of lecturing and demonstrating the knowledge and skills taught. Are your staff and department passionate about driver training? This is the one area that has the most impact to the community and your employees. ALL other training means nothing if you can’t get there safely and all the public relations work your department does means nothing if you are driving recklessly through the streets or yelling and giving rude hand gestures to the public.

How much time does your department allow for training? A four-hour lecture once every three years is not sufficient. Training should have the philosophy of “cradle to grave” and not just when someone is hired or has a culpable collision. Lecture needs to be met with behind the wheel training on a closed circuit course that helps improve the student’s depth perception and spatial awareness. This is not Driver’s Ed; driving around the streets with students accomplishes very little unless you are doing area familiarization and evaluating them after being on the cone course.

What about lights and siren use? Emergency response cannot be trained in the streets without endangering everyone and it cannot be critiqued afterward. At best, we can give students a sense of how the siren affects them by driving the cone course first without a siren, then with a siren, then measuring the difference.

The best way to train, evaluate, and measure the response segment of driving is with simulation training. The Department of Defense requires all of its members to train on simulators, whether it is a weapon, plane, or truck–if you shoot it, fly it, or drive it you can simulate it. EMS/Medicine performs codes on simulation mannequins that can mimic everything from pulses and respirations to tears and vocal interaction. As more departments use simulation training, it is setting the benchmark at a higher level and everyone knows it: we know it, communities know it, and lawyers know it. Can you stand up to a cross-examination on the witness stand about how your department trains your drivers?

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) studies have shown that fatalities from collisions are down and yet collision rates are up. Why? The good news is we are building safer vehicles and roads that increase survivability; the bad news is we are more distracted behind the wheel and are trying to solve behavioral issues with engineering. We need to change from within the mindset of the Fire/EMS culture and the driver.

Everyone is getting on board. Agencies (NFPA, NFFF, etc.), insurance companies, and departments recognize there is an issue, but part of the problem is our response to it. Everyone wants to put their ideas into action (good), but we are not unified and our actions are piece-meal at best (not so good). NFPA  Standard 1451, Standard for a Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program, and Standard 1002, Standard for Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, are great starting points, but we can take it several levels deeper. EMS has the national curriculum for EVOC, which is not actually the national curriculum and has not been revised since 1995.

Until there is a national standard curriculum that states can adopt, which requires lecture, skills, simulation training, and an actual set number of hours, we will always be chasing our tail and training at the minimum and that is simply not good enough.

Robert Raheb is a retired FDNY lieutenant and EVOC instructor. His instruction using driver training simulators led to a 38-percent reduction in intersections collisions in the FDNY-EMS. Currently he serves as the Emergency Response Specialist for FAAC, Incorporated, which makes professional driver training simulators.

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