Distracted: Dealing with the Dynamics of Driving Diversions

By Robert Raheb
It doesn’t matter whether you work for a volunteer, career, or combination department, or what your level of certification is; the most important duty you may ever have is the safe operation of your department vehicle.
All the training and knowledge we bring to an assignment to do the most good is exactly that, brought there by you, the Emergency Vehicle Operator (EVO).
When operating that vehicle, you are responsible and in control and are the one that will have to answer any questions if a situation arises. Your officer or senior partner may be asked for an explanation, but remember, their role is limited and you, the EVO, will bear the brunt of the responsibility and/or blame.
Too many times, drivers make small yet serious mistakes when operating the apparatus. The biggest problem is they do not keep their mind in the present and on their driving. Most of us are already at the scene performing a size-up, thinking of the type of conditions we may find, or the type of equipment we may need, and we have not even cleared the second intersection yet. Most devastating collisions result from the smallest mistakes, things like failing to read varying road/vehicle conditions, taking your eyes off the road, or attempting to multi-task while driving.
Hazardous scenarios are numerous and varying in condition. But, some basic tips on helping you get to the scene safely are easy to follow.
If you have a partner with you: 
  •  Have him or her perform all ancillary functions; the only thing you should be doing is driving.
If you are responding or driving alone in the front of the vehicle:
Avoid this as much as possible. It is simple to say not to do it at all, but the reality is that until departments and installers get on board and recognize the hazards involved, you the end-user will have no choice. So the best advice is to limit your exposure and choose the best time to multi-task.
Radio Use
If the dispatcher is calling on the radio as you are approaching an intersection, do not answer until after you clear the intersection. If you must use the radio, put it back on the clip immediately–do not hold onto it or leave it lying in your lap. If it lies in your lap, stepping on the brakes will cause it to fall between your feet and possibly get entangled in the pedals, which can lead to a serious collision. If you are involved in a collision, the microphone can become a lethal projectile.
Computer Use
Mobile data terminals (MDTs) are a big problem. Most MDTs are mounted low so they do not obstruct the driver’s view. The problem is that most of the time you must take your eyes off the road and look down to see the message or keyboard. Again, don’t use it while driving. Your best bet is to pull over to read or send the messages. At highway speeds of 70 mph, your vehicle is traveling over 100 feet per second. Most drivers take their eyes off the road to read a message for two to three seconds. If someone asked you to drive with your eyes shut for that long, you would think they were crazy for asking and you would be stupid for doing it.
Regardless of who is with you:
If you are going to use it, make it count. Hitting the manual button to produce an intermittent sound is just not acceptable and downright dangerous. Sirens cycle through high and low frequencies for several reasons. The wail or yelp siren both fluctuate their tone for maximum effectiveness. Frequencies travel at different speeds and distances and are reflected or absorbed differently.
Certain frequencies such as low bass travel farther in dense weather conditions (fog, rain) than high frequencies, which travel farther in lighter weather conditions. Those same frequencies also penetrate windshields differently based on the angle and composite of the glass. Another reason is that not all drivers can hear all frequencies; remember you share the road with a large variety of drivers and none of them took a hearing test to get their license.
Sirens are omni-directional and tend to bounce off buildings, causing further confusion to surrounding drivers. Sirens also are affected by the Doppler Effect; a vehicle can outrun its siren to the point that other vehicles don’t hear your siren until you are practically on top of them. Picture an invisible cone radiating out from the front of your vehicle. The faster you go, the shorter and flatter that cone becomes until it is only 10 feet in front of you.
Air Horns
Both actual and electronic air horns are helpful in identifying the location of your vehicle by surrounding drivers. Air horns are uni-directional and travel in only one direction, allowing other vehicles to pinpoint you quicker. Air horns should always be used in small, quick bursts and never held longer than one or two seconds. Longer air horn activation will result in it becoming an omni-directional sound, adding to the problem.
When responding to an incident, more departments are beginning to recognize that not all calls for emergencies require emergency response. Modified response is probably one of the most prudent things we can do to help ensure a safe response. When responding to an actual emergency with lights and siren, remember that you cannot control time or distance and that increasing your speed dramatically will only save you one to two minutes, (less than .01 percent of all calls will that really matter) but will have increased your risk of having a collision.
Studies show that speeding triples the odds of crashing. When crossing left of center, reduce your speed to 20 mph or less. There are several reasons for doing this, including: 
  • it increases the closing time between you and oncoming vehicles,
  • it increases the reaction time of all drivers now realizing that there is a big red truck in their lane heading for them, and
  • in the event of a head-on collision, the speed of impact is reduced, making it a more survivable crash.
Responding to the Hospital
When transporting a patient to the hospital, the patient’s condition always dictates the type of transport. Some departments have relatively short transports of 10-15 minutes while others have over 45 minutes. If your patient is stable, which most are, there is no need to drive faster to the hospital than road conditions permit. If your patient is critical, which requires continuous monitoring and care in the back of the ambulance, then most likely your crew and equipment are not properly secured, and giving them a ride that allows them to perform their skills effectively and safely is more important then racing to the hospital.
In summary, following a few simple tips will help to ensure that you and the crew you are responsible for when driving will make it to the assignment safely. Remember: drive like your life depends on it. 
Robert Raheb is a retired lieutenant from the Fire Department of New Yokr (FDNY) 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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