BY STEVEN M. De LISI
According to a report recently published by the United States Fire Administration, “More than two of every 10 firefighter fatalities in 2007 occurred when responding to or returning from an incident.” The report indicates that speed was a “contributing factor” for most of these incidents.1 Some recent examples include the following:
- Two firefighters were injured after a tanker truck overturned. Authorities said that the driver of the truck apparently took a curve too fast.
- Unsafe speed on a curve was a contributing factor in a crash that injured three firefighters.
- A firefighter was charged with criminal negligence following an incident in which he was racing to the scene of a car crash in his own vehicle and struck a pedestrian walking along the shoulder of the road at a point just beyond the crest of a hill.
- An ambulance driver was traveling at more than twice the speed limit in the oncoming lane when he struck another vehicle and killed the driver.
- A fire truck crashed with a two-door Honda, killing the car’s female passenger and severely wounding the driver. The force demolished the car, which ended up halfway down a city block.
- A Nissan Maxima proceeded into the intersection in front of a fire truck, which had lights and sirens on. The passenger car and the truck collided in the intersection. The driver of the car was pronounced dead at a local hospital. The crash also injured all firefighters aboard the truck, two seriously.
- A fire truck overturned while responding to a mutual-aid call. The tanker flipped as its driver attempted to avoid a vehicle stopped in the road.
- A firefighter was responding to an incident in his personal vehicle when he entered a curve, ran off the right side of the road, overcorrected, and ran off the left side of the road. The vehicle flipped several times. He was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle. He died at the scene. According to police, fog and speed were likely factors in the crash.
- Several firefighters were injured when a pair of fire trucks collided at an intersection. Sources said the drivers saw each other and tried to swerve out of the way, but they were too late. Both units were responding to a call that proved to be a false alarm. Officials said the accident likely was caused by the trucks being driven in an unusual pattern because they weren’t coming from their firehouses.
MOST COMMON CAUSES OF ACCIDENTS
Driving Too Fast
What do all these incidents have in common? They all involve fire apparatus and personal vehicles operated by firefighters traveling too fast for conditions, whether on straight or curved roadways or through intersections. Despite warnings to the contrary delivered during every driver training program I have ever taught or attended, some folks insist on driving as if the laws of physics and common sense just don’t apply to them. As a result, they continue to kill or severely injure themselves, other firefighters, and civilians and destroy or seriously damage some of the most expensive investments any fire department will ever make.
These tragic incidents also have the potential for long-term emotional trauma for those involved. All firefighters I know take an oath to save lives and property, and it is difficult for anyone with this mindset to go to bed each night knowing that he killed someone, perhaps a member of his own crew, simply because he couldn’t keep his foot off the throttle. Just ask those involved in the incidents described earlier.
Without a doubt, today’s fire apparatus are faster than ever. Powerful diesel engines that were unimaginable to a previous generation of firefighters, along with automatic transmissions, provide for rapid acceleration with very little effort. Gone are the days when a driver needed to double-clutch a manual transmission powered by a gasoline engine governed to 58 miles per hour. Some may remember when a novice driver would miss a gear while downshifting and, despite having lights and sirens in operation, the truck would stop in the middle of an intersection so that the driver could find the correct gear. It was often impossible to speed through traffic under these conditions.
Likewise, the availability of power steering allows drivers to make turns with relative ease. However, drivers still need to slow down to prevent the vehicle from rolling over. Years ago, rollover accidents during turns were much less frequent because a firefighter saddled with driving an older American LaFrance or B-Model Mack was faced with manual steering controlled by a huge steering wheel, and unless you had huge arms to match, turning was a major effort, and slowing down was an absolute necessity. At the same time, you also had to focus on downshifting, which helped to reduce your speed, especially if you were grinding gears as you came into the turn.
Would it make sense to abandon diesel engines, automatic transmissions, and power steering? Of course not, especially when so few firefighters today have any experience driving a commercial vehicle prior to entering the fire service. What does make sense, though, is to encourage drivers to adjust their speed so that it is relative to conditions.
Unable to Stop the Vehicle
Professional drivers of commercial motor vehicles concentrate on keeping their vehicles under control, which can be translated to mean that they are prepared to stop to avoid striking an object in their path. Are there times when a child may dart out from between parked cars on a narrow street? Will a motorist traveling through an intersection fail to yield the right-of-way to fire apparatus? The unfortunate reality is that these incidents will occur, and driving at a speed that does not anticipate these possibilities will almost guarantee that fire apparatus will be involved in a collision because of the driver’s inability to stop once the hazard is recognized.
If you drive more slowly, will the public know that your response time increased by a few seconds, or maybe even a minute? Most likely, they would not, but they would surely notice if you wreck the fire truck and don’t show up at all. And, if they do notice a delay and complain to city leaders, then the politicians need to find a way to build and staff more fire stations. Firefighters should never take it on themselves to compensate for the huge distances that exist between some firehouses. That situation is not your fault; but when you increase vehicle speed to make up for the difference, that is your fault. With that said, just what are conditions drivers should consider as a cause for driving slower rather than faster?
REDUCE SPEED FOR “TRAIN”
The mnemonic TRAIN can help drivers to remember important considerations for reducing the speed of fire apparatus: Time of Day, Roads Traveled, Anticipate the Worst, Inclement Weather, and Nature of the Incident.
• Time of day plays a role in determining the speed of apparatus, since it influences the number of pedestrians and vehicles that populate the highways. However, don’t think that late-night driving will eliminate all traffic. As an example, large industrial facilities with a shift change at midnight can produce heavy traffic, even for just a few minutes. Likewise, areas near late-night bars and restaurants often experience an increase in traffic shortly after closing. Also, some neighborhoods are home to pedestrians, regardless of the time. Never allow the time of day to lull you into a false sense of security in thinking that you won’t encounter another vehicle or person along the way. Lighting is also a factor to consider. Despite the presence of streetlights, nighttime driving will always reduce your visibility and will, therefore, always demand that you slow down.
Time of day, and even the day of the week, can influence the operating sequence of traffic signals. For example, on some roads you may be able to sail through a series of green lights while traveling at a certain speed during a weekday, yet early on a Saturday morning, because of reduced traffic volumes, these same lights may turn red as soon as a vehicle approaches the intersection from a side street.
Time of day also adds rush-hour traffic and, of course, school buses along with children at bus stops. In most states, drivers cannot pass a stopped school bus with flashing warning lights unless the bus is traveling in the opposite direction and there is a paved median between your lane of travel and that of the bus. During early morning and afternoon hours when school buses are out in force, always be prepared to reduce your speed and stop if necessary. Don’t even think about passing a stopped school bus in your lane of travel unless directed to do so by the bus driver. Remember, too, that roads located in school zones often have lower speed limits during certain times of the day, so be on the lookout for signs that warn of these reduced speeds.
• Roads traveled must always be a consideration for driving more slowly rather than faster. Although it might seem obvious that driving too fast on curved roads can cause a vehicle to roll over or travel off onto the shoulder, straight sections of road can encourage drivers to increase their speed because there may appear to be little that can cause the driver to lose controlthat is, until some object suddenly appears in the vehicle’s path. Remember that while limited-access highways, such as interstates, reduce the possibility of this occurring, that is not always the case for primary and secondary roads, where drivers of fire apparatus are more likely to encounter pedestrian traffic as well as those on bicycles.
Hazards associated with roads traveled also include slightly elevated grades that prevent a driver from seeing beyond the crest of a hill as he approaches. The same problem with limited visibility also exists with sharp curves, especially on narrow two-lane roads. In these situations, the potential exists for traffic to be stopped just beyond the farthest point drivers can see, even during times when you may not expect to encounter other traffic. Remember that the stopped traffic could be a disabled passenger van loaded with children or even a stopped police cruiser.
Narrow roads with minimal or nonexistent shoulders are an invitation for disaster. These conditions are made even worse when the road shoulder drops off several inches (most often because the road is being resurfaced) or when there are deep drainage culverts next to the road.
When these situations exist, there is always the potential for a wheel (or wheels) on the right side of the apparatus to drift off the road surface, resulting in the driver’s losing control while attempting to pull the vehicle back onto the road with a sudden turn of the steering wheel to the left. Once the right side of the vehicle is off the road surface, the driver could also encounter a drainage pipe placed in a culvert at an intersecting road or driveway. Striking this pipe with the right front wheel of the apparatus can cause the vehicle to become airborne.
Without a doubt, these are dangerous situations. However, a reduced speed while traveling on these types of roads will not only lessen the chance of drifting off the road surface but will also increase the driver’s ability to safely regain control should this occur.
Underpass routes are another cause for concern. During winter, accumulations of ice and snow can reduce allowable clearance so that a vehicle normally able to clear the underpass could instead strike it and damage a light bar or a deck gun. If you are unsure, reduce your speed when approaching the underpass, and check for available clearance before proceeding. It might seem inconvenient to do so while responding to an emergency, but the alternative could be costly.
Drivers of fire apparatus who typically encounter steep downgrades may tend to rely on devices such as engine brakes or other types of retarders as a means of reducing vehicle speed, yet the manufacturers of these devices often state in their operating manuals that they should not be used on slippery roads. When these conditions exist, drivers will instead need to control their speed through use of a lower transmission gear, since brake application alone while traveling downhill on slippery roads can cause a vehicle to skid.
For fire apparatus not equipped with retarders, drivers descending a steep grade on dry roads can encounter “brake fade” as brake components heat up from prolonged application and lose their ability to slow or stop the vehicle. Therefore, remembering to downshift to a lower gear before beginning a steep descent is vital. Never attempt to downshift during the descent; if you are unsuccessful, you can lose all control as the transmission fails to slow the vehicle while in too high a gear (or neutral) and the brakes quickly fade as you frantically try to stop!
• Anticipate the worst. If something can go wrong while you are driving fire apparatus too fast for conditions, it probably will. Remember that should an accident occur, even though a court may determine someone else to be at fault, thus relieving you of criminal liability, the facts will never relieve your conscience if you know that you could have prevented the accident by simply slowing down.
The driver’s ability to anticipate the worst is most critical when approaching a “negative right-of-way” situation or when traffic traveling in other directions would normally have the right-of-way. This usually involves intersections controlled by stop signs or traffic signals. Although the laws in most states read that motorists must yield to approaching emergency vehicles, the reality for drivers of fire apparatus is that they must anticipate that motorists WILL NOT yield or reduce their speed and that the driver must be prepared to stop.
In this situation, one of the best ways to confirm your suspicions regarding the actions that motorists are likely to take is to account for every vehicle in every lane of an intersection and, if possible, attempt to make eye contact with every driver. Obviously, doing so will require you to slow down, which is exactly the point! The results of countless accident investigations involving fire apparatus often indicate that the driver of the “other” vehicle failed to yield the right of way. Yet, if this is known to be such a common occurrence, why then do some fire apparatus drivers seem surprised when it happens to them?
Drivers may also encounter motorists who stop in front of them rather than pull to the right to allow fire apparatus to pass. Most likely, the motorist thinks that if he stops, you will then be able to maneuver around his car. Other motorists may slow down to make an illegal U-turn as a means to avoid traffic stopped by the incident to which you are responding. In these situations, if you fail to anticipate that motorists may stop or suddenly slow down and you are traveling too close at a speed too fast for conditions, you will likely run over them.
To some drivers, a green light at a traffic signal means “GO”; yet, in reality, a green light is nothing more than a red light waiting to happen, sometimes referred to as a “stale” green light.
Some may argue that the absence of cars on side streets at an intersection will prevent a green light in your direction from turning red (because of sensors in the road surface that detect the presence of a vehicle), but there is no guarantee for drivers of fire apparatus that this will always be the case.
Anticipating the worst in this situation means that for every second you are under acceleration while approaching a green light, there is a proportionate increase in your stopping distance should the light turn red. Therefore, a good practice to follow when approaching a green light is to remove your right foot from the throttle pedal and place it over the brake pedal, without applying the brake. By doing so, the vehicle is no longer accelerating as you approach the intersection and your reaction time to apply the brake, if needed, would be less, thereby reducing your total stopping distance.
Another problem that drivers may encounter when approaching an intersection with a green light is that motorists from an intersecting street on your right may attempt to make a right turn on red and turn directly into your path. Always anticipate the worst, reduce your speed, and keep a lookout for drivers of other vehicles in this situation.
• Inclement weather. It presents many challenges to drivers of fire apparatus. Most already know that slippery roads will increase their stopping distance, but they may not know that the commercial driver manual for most states recommends that drivers of large trucks reduce their speed by one-third when traveling on wet roadways and by one-half when traveling on packed snow.
Drivers must also remember never to “overdrive visibility,” meaning that your stopping distance can never exceed the distance you can see in front. Although rain and fog are usually the two most common causes of reduced visibility in inclement weather, “whiteout” conditions that occur during snowstorms can result in a significant decrease in visibility. Rain, fog, and snowfall that occur during nighttime hours create an even greater challenge as the glare of apparatus headlights is often reflected back into the driver’s eyes. For this reason, even though some may believe the use of “high-beam” headlights will improve visibility under these conditions, the reality is that the reflected glare from high beams is even worse.
During winter months, drivers must be aware that ice will often form on an overpass before it does on other road surfaces because of the presence of cold air that circulates both below and above an elevated section of roadway. Another wintertime hazard for drivers is known as “black ice,” which is a transparent film of ice that appears as a wet surface and forms on roadways when outdoor temperatures are below or near freezing. These conditions really become a problem when arriving at the scene of an accident involving several vehicles that have collided as a result of black ice or a slippery overpass and finding that you can’t stop for the same reason. If other vehicles are having trouble traveling because of slippery roads, remember to slow down so that you remain part of the solution and don’t become part of the problem.
Another cause for concern during winter involves the melting of snow and ice that occurs from direct sunlight. Although the resultant wet road surface might have improved traction when compared to snow and ice, the outdoor temperature may still be cold enough so that as you approach a section of roadway that is shadowed from sunlight by large trees, snow and ice may still be present. Suddenly, your speed could be too fast for conditions.
As stated earlier, use retarders with caution while traveling on slippery roads, and always use them in compliance with the recommendation of the company that manufactured them. These manufacturers often provide precise instructions for use on slippery roads so that if you incorrectly apply the retarder during inclement weather and then attempt to sue the company for damages following an accident, the company will most likely remind you to read the owner’s manual. A simple rule is to reduce vehicle speed whenever use of a retarder is discouraged.
• Nature of the Incident. This refers to being able to objectively evaluate whether you are responding to a true emergency. Some departments allow dispatchers to determine that certain calls do not require a response involving the use of “lights and sirens”; many others do not, and it is then up to the driver and officer to determine the nature of the incident based on the information they receive on dispatch. This information should influence the speed of the apparatus. When making this decision, remember that although laws in most states allow fire apparatus to exceed posted speed limits when responding to an emergency, in many instances driving at the speed limit will suffice.
Think about it. Does the incident you are responding to have the potential to cause injury or deatha car fire with occupants out of the vehicle? A fire in a trash container? Consider that if your department is dispatched to a structure fire with the words “in the block of,” “across from,” or “next to,” it’s a good chance that this is a working fire with smoke and flames visible to the caller. The same holds true when dispatchers report receiving multiple calls on an incident. However, if you are dispatched to a structure fire and the first unit on-scene reports “Nothing showing,” this is most likely not a working fire, and you should back off the throttle.
Likewise, a call for an overturned vehicle with occupants trapped should take on a whole new meaning when units responding are advised by the first-arriving police officer that there was only a driver and he is out of the vehicle and refusing treatment. In this circumstance, there is probably still a need for the first-due EMS unit to continue its response for a possible true “medical” emergency; support units such as heavy rescues should slow down, if not discontinue, their response.
In some volunteer departments, the number of units responding all too often is determined by the number of drivers available. As a result, a vehicle fire that occurs during a weekday morning when few volunteer firefighters are home may get only one engine, whereas one that occurs during a department meeting with many members in attendance may result in having three or four units en route. Although some might argue the merits of sending additional units in this circumstance, all but the first unit should consider reducing its speed unless there are factors involved such as those mentioned earlier.
All drivers must remember that a piece of fire apparatus is really nothing more than a “big truck,” and the laws of physics that influence the performance of large vehicles are not lost when adding red lights and sirens. A heavy fire truck will require a greater stopping distance and is more likely to roll over as the speed of the vehicle increases, and these conditions are only exacerbated during inclement weather. Remember, too, that as you maneuver through tight spots in traffic and elsewhere, a high rate of speed will almost guarantee that you destroy whatever it is you might hit; driving more slowly will likely result in no more than a dent. The outcome depends on you.
Unfortunately, the concept of speed control may be difficult for some drivers of fire apparatus to grasp, especially when their pulse rate and blood pressure soar as they jump behind the wheel. These individuals should consider that pointing a large truck at other vehicles while traveling down the highway is no different from pointing a loaded handgun at someone; the trigger is akin to the throttle pedal. The more pressure applied to the trigger (throttle), the more likely they are to experience devastating consequences.
1. “NFPA releases provisional 2007 firefighter fatality statistics,” News in Brief, Fire Engineering, March 2008, 91-92.
STEVEN M. De LISIretired after a fire service career spanning 27 years, which included serving as a firefighter and lieutenant for the Newport News (VA) Fire Department; a regional training manager for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP); and, most recently, as the deputy chief for the Virginia Air National Guard Fire Rescue. De Lisi is an adjunct instructor for VDFP and is the author of Hazardous Materials Incidents: surviving the Initial Response (Fire Engineering), and more than 30 articles dealing with hazmat safety that appear regularly on the Fire Engineering Web site.