Reducing death and injury from accidents

By John M. Buckman

It should be standard operating procedure that the vehicle will not move until all personnel are belted.

This past year has been a tough year for firefighter survival. I have personally attended more than 10 funerals. The pain and suffering associated with the tragic death of a firefighter are indescribable. The lives of so many people-not just in the fire service-change when a firefighter meets an untimely death. The change is permanent; the loss is permanent!

Here are a few of the recent deaths that made the headlines.

  • A 22-year-old volunteer firefighter died and a 30-year-old volunteer district chief was injured after the rescue truck the firefighter was driving veered off the road and struck an oncoming car and then a tree.
  • A volunteer firefighter sustained a fatal traumatic head injury after falling off an open-cab ladder truck that was responding to a call.
  • A 33-year-old firefighter died after attempting to board a ladder truck.
  • A 27-year-old volunteer firefighter died after losing control of the pumper truck he was driving, which rolled.

The fire chief can help reduce the department’s potential risk for preventable firefighter death and injury. Certain contributing factors to death and injury from vehicle accidents are preventable if the fire chief and the other officers do their job of supervising. These factors include speed, inexperience, lack of seat belts, unsafe vehicles, and lack of supervision; in most cases, corrective action is quite simple (simple does not mean easy).

If you know someone is driving too fast or not wearing a seat belt, you can predict a catastrophic event; and if you can predict it, you can prevent it. It will take courage, stamina, and perseverance on your part. You won’t change attitude or habits overnight, especially in a volunteer department.


Firefighters die and are injured for five main reasons.

Lack of experience. Many volunteer firefighters are inexperienced-on and off the fireground. Just as they might go too deep inside a fire building (and not know how to get out), they might get behind the wheel of a 20-ton fire truck that they are not used to driving (which is just like a hammer when it hits someone or something). Much damage can be done, and in many cases that damage can’t be repaired.

The best way to gain experience is through training. Training is the key to competency. You don’t become competent doing something just once. Whether it be driver training, self-rescue, or pump operations, each firefighter must participate in an ongoing skills-based training program until he can perform the evolution as expected 100 percent of the time with 100 percent accuracy.

When someone does not attend training, you must not allow him to go on calls. It puts his life and others’ lives at risk on the fireground, it interferes with the incident commander’s strategic and tactical plan, and it creates havoc when others have to carry more of the load.

It is expensive to allow everyone in your department to drive and operate your trucks. It is expensive to train the firefighter, and it is expensive to maintain that truck so it is safe to make the next call after the training session. Ensure that all drivers receive driver training at least twice a year.

Unsafe vehicles. Not every volunteer department can afford brand new trucks or even custom trucks. But that is no excuse for allowing vehicles to be in service if they are unsafe to drive and operate. Brakes are an integral part of maintaining safe fire apparatus. Are your apparatus brakes in prime condition? How many departments have homemade tankers that are not designed to carry the weight of the water or that cannot hold the water without its sloshing, which can lead to rollover?

Removing vehicles that are not roadworthy from service is the first step in preventing unnecessary accidents. Keep them out of service until they are safe-not just repaired. Oftentimes, departments with older or homemade vehicles want to do minimum repairs so that the vehicle can respond if there is a call or because they can’t afford to make extensive repairs. Not making all of the necessary repairs makes you an accessory in case of an accident, in my opinion.

Lack of seat belts. It is a well-known fact that buckling up saves lives and also prevents injuries. You must have seat belts to require them, and most fire apparatus do. It should be standard operating procedure that the vehicle will not move until all personnel are belted.

Speed. It requires constant reminders and adequate supervision to make sure that firefighters don’t drive the trucks at excessive speeds. Many firefighters think they can drive the fire apparatus as fast as they want as soon as they turn on the red lights and sirens. This attitude requires constant monitoring.

Lack of supervision. In most cases, it’s not that officers are not around when violations occur; it’s that officers don’t take their safety role seriously. They may be more concerned about being reelected than about the ramifications of not acting when a simple safety violation occurs.

I once saw a safety sign on an office wall that read: “Asking me to overlook a simple safety violation would be like asking me to say your life has no value, and I don’t think that!” I realize that if you make a safety error, in most cases you don’t realize it.

It takes a good supervisor to ensure that drivers are responsible for the safe and prudent operation of their vehicle at all times. It will require a strong officer to enforce standard operating procedures at all times.


Following are actions you can take to reduce the potential for accidents while driving and operating apparatus.

  • Ensure that all drivers of fire department vehicles are responsible for the safe and prudent operation of the vehicle under all conditions.
  • Establish, implement, and enforce standard operating procedures on the use of seat belts in all emergency vehicles.
  • Ensure that all firefighters receive training equivalent to the NFPA Fire Fighter Level I certification.
  • Ensure that the department develops standard operating procedures, that members follow them, and that you provide refresher training.
  • Ensure that all firefighters are trained before they are allowed to drive and operate fire apparatus under emergency conditions.
  • Ensure that all drivers of fire department vehicles receive driver training at least twice a year, and document the training.
  • Take into consideration the movement required by the driver to reach switches and electronic devices when developing apparatus specifications.
  • Ensure that the placement of additional equipment (for example, radios and map card boxes) in the apparatus does not interfere with the driver’s ability to operate controls.
  • Consider limiting the number of initial responding apparatus to emergency incidents.

  • Keep all apparatus on a documented maintenance schedule.
  • Ensure that all apparatus equipped with water tanks have baffles to control water movement.
  • Ensure that fire command always maintains close accountability for all personnel at the fire scene.
  • Establish various written standard operating procedures, ensure record keeping, and conduct annual evaluations to monitor and measure the effectiveness of the overall maintenance program.
  • Enforce annual medical evaluations to determine members’ medical ability to perform duties without presenting a significant risk to the safety and health of themselves or others.
  • Preclude from firefighting activities those individuals with medical conditions that would present a significant risk to the safety and health of themselves or others.
  • Develop standard operating procedures for responding to and returning from an alarm, and monitor their use.
  • Provide defensive driver training to all emergency vehicle operators.
  • Ensure that all drivers are trained and certified in emergency vehicle operations.

John M. Buckman is chief of the German Township Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Indiana, where he has served for 22 years, and is president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He was instrumental in forming the IAFC’s Volunteer Chief Officers Section and is past chairman. He is an adjunct faculty member in the National Fire Academy residence program, is an advisory board member of Fire Engineering, and lectures extensively on fire service-related topics.

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