Protecting Young Responders

BY MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO

I have carefully watched firefighter line-of-duty deaths and injuries for many years. Although no death or injury is more important than another, I pay closer attention to reports of young firefighters’ injuries and deaths than ever before. I was once a young firefighter, and I know the risks I took when I responded to alarms in my own car and on fire company apparatus. My interest in the safety of young firefighters comes from the tragic deaths of some young firefighters in 2007 when responding and returning, coupled with the fact that an 18-year-old firefighter is now working in my department. My son Donald will also become a probationary member in my fire company sometime in 2008, and I feel it is the job of every experienced firefighter and company or department officer to keep these young firefighters, including my son, safe as they become experienced firefighters and knowledgeable drivers.

On May 11, 2007, 19-year-old Brandon Daley was killed after he lost control of and was ejected from his personal vehicle while responding to a nighttime residential structure fire in Kansas. On September 9, 2007, 20-year-old Jared Zimmerly died when his vehicle struck a utility pole and a tree while responding to a daytime mutual-aid call for a residential fire in Ohio. He reportedly was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from his vehicle. On October 4, 2007, 24-year-old Adam Cole was killed in a personal vehicle accident driving to his fire station for an outdoor fire call. His vehicle reportedly crossed the centerline while negotiating a curve and struck an oncoming vehicle; on-scene authorities reported that he was not wearing a seat belt.

I did not include the names and stories of these tragedies for shock value or to stir up bad memories for their home fire departments or their families. I also do not intend to blame or second-guess these young firefighters and their actions leading up to their final moments, which were admirable; they did what they loved to do—responded to their fellow community members’ needs. Hopefully, this article will make you think about the young firefighters in your own department. Bring this information to their attention. Talk to them regularly about responder safety. What more can we do?

CHANGE THEIR MINDSET

When I joined the fire service at age 18 in 1982, it was the culmination of years I spent dreaming about becoming a firefighter. Most of my childhood exposure to emergency services was through television and the movies. In most TV or movie situations, emergency vehicles flipped on the lights or slammed the magnetic gumball on the roof and kicked their rig into overdrive. There was no “due regard” or intersection safety.

Of course, in 90 percent of these movies and TV shows, the first responders came out of this scene safe and ready to save the day; I, too, believed I could drive like that. The fact that I was responding to an emergency as a member of my fire company was all the reason I needed to join the team. I was wrong.

We must convince young drivers that responding to a call in a personal vehicle or department vehicle is not an excuse to break the rules but a reason to use even more caution. In many cases, an 18-year-old firefighter has only been driving a passenger car for two years at most. Many teens have not even completed basic high school driver education classes when they join the local emergency services. Watching their behavior behind the wheel is very important during their first few years of membership and emergency vehicle driving; the habits they develop may take years to correct and can put your department, your personnel, the community, and these young firefighters at risk for serious accidents. Make sure your officers constantly remind them of their driving habits. Point out that your concern about their driving extends outside of emergency response.

Also, watch their behavior while driving department vehicles. Loud music blasting from a personal vehicle with huge light racks or colored roof lights and your department’s name, patch, or fire department slogan screened across their back window will make your entire department look bad. Their driving behavior is always your business.

CHECKING THEIR DRIVER’S LICENSE AND HISTORY

Do your young drivers have valid driver’s licenses? When did you last check their driving histories? Tickets, moving violations, suspensions, and revocations may all be attached to your drivers’ records. You do not want to discover that one of your apparatus driver’s license was revoked following an accident involving a member or an apparatus driver.

Make sure your drivers, especially young drivers who may respond in their own vehicles, have valid driver’s licenses. There are mechanisms for checking firefighters’ driver’s licenses, including motor vehicle notifications to volunteer fire departments, although these vary from state to state. If you are unsure how to get license information about your drivers, call your local motor vehicle department or your department insurance carrier. If they do not give immediate answers to your questions, they can point you in the right direction. Ask your drivers directly if they have a valid driver’s license. For some, it is tough to lie when asked the question directly.

SET THE RIGHT EXAMPLE

The expression “Do as I say, not as I do” is clearly the case for some departments concerning safe fire service driving. As a young firefighter, I recall hearing our veteran members preach about driver safety, both in personal vehicles and company apparatus. Those same members would then be the first to exceed the speed limit or take chances at intersections; even some chief officers are guilty of this.

I have heard all types of excuses from veteran drivers who suddenly realize young firefighters are taking notice of their driving, such as “It sounded like a serious call so I stepped it up”; “I have been emergency driving for years, and some day you will have these skills, but for now, don’t do what I did”; and “I might get away with this because everybody in this town knows me, but you’ll get into a jam if you try it.” Simply put, nobody in your department, from the chief on down, should drive like they are above accepted safety practices or good defensive driving. If you do not set the right example, your young drivers will follow your lead.

ENCOURAGE TRAINING

Practice is the only thing that makes a person proficient in the job or that changes bad habits. Firefighters spend a great deal of time training on topics such as extrication, roof operations, interior attack, and EMS during regular drills. In a real call situation, you will have to drive to the call location. Every drill, no matter what the topic, must begin with 10 minutes about driver safety. Young members must have driver safety hammered into their heads.

Aside from this regular dose of motor vehicle safety, require that your state or county emergency vehicle operation course (EVOC) programs or safe driver workshops offered by your insurance carriers be part of your regular annual training program. If your department has the funding available, budget training dollars to host special safe driver training events with guest speakers. A new face or guest speaker will make an impact with the same message you have been sending but nobody paid attention to.

BE SELECTIVE IN AUTHORIZED APPARATUS

Young firefighters are available to respond at all times of the day. In all-volunteer departments, where it is difficult to muster a crew during the day, a young college-age firefighter who drives is an asset. However, our desire to move daytime apparatus must not cloud our judgment in allowing a young person to drive apparatus. In most cases, EMS rigs are smaller than full-size fire apparatus, and considering that many responses are EMS-based, it is acceptable to clear young drivers on these rigs.

Pumpers, heavy rescues, and aerial apparatus are a different story. Base clearing a firefighter to drive these rigs solely on driver performance. In my volunteer fire company, there was always somebody on-scene who knew how to use the apparatus. This is no longer the case. Today’s apparatus operator must get water to the pump, operate a light tower, and stabilize and raise an aerial. Add maturity and temperament to safe driving and vehicle knowledge when clearing a young driver on your larger apparatus.

WORK WITH LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT

Across America, relationships between police and fire departments range from close and friendly to hostile. I know of areas where many police officers are also volunteer firefighters. I also know of areas where the local police ignore firefighter traffic infractions. I believe in a healthy, good working relationship between police and fire departments and that a good firefighter, especially a young volunteer, deserves a break for an honest one-time mistake. However, the goodwill should end there.

If law enforcement has a concern with a firefighter’s driving of either a personal auto or an apparatus, bring this to the attention of the fire chief immediately. If the firefighter continues his reckless driving, the police officer should stop the driver and give a stern warning. If the officer sees this behavior for a third time, he should then issue the firefighter a ticket. Of course, I am speaking of minor vehicle and traffic infractions. A police officer should and will deal with all reckless or dangerous driving by a firefighter with any action that he deems necessary to prevent a tragedy.

CHECK THEIR WHEELS

Look at what vehicles your young firefighters are driving to calls. Make sure the tires are safe and the car has a valid inspection sticker and registration. There are many handy people in your fire department; some may even own auto shops. Point these young people in the right direction. You could even take a day to teach them about caring for their cars. They may not forget the time you and your officers took to help them. This added concern could save their life down the road.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO SUSPEND

The time may come when you have to restrict a young firefighter’s driving privileges. This is not an easy task, especially when this young firefighter may be a top daytime call responder or the son of your chairman of the board of fire commissioners. If your instincts tell you to suspend, act on them, but don’t publicly embarrass this young firefighter. Get this person remedial driver training and get him back on the road; keep an eye on his skills, because old habits die hard. Be firm, be fair, and stand on safety as your only platform. This person will most likely improve with time and attention.

MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO is a 24-year volunteer firefighter and chairman of the Grand Island (NY) Fire Company board of directors. He has instructed at FDIC and is a trainer for the fire service, the public transportation industry, and certified commercial vehicle drivers.

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