A few months ago, our rescue truck was involved in a collision with a private citizen’s vehicle at an intersection. The driver of the automobile was seriously injured, while our driver suffered broken ribs. Two rescue truck passengers, although shaken up, escaped injury. Our department rescue truck came to rest on its side and burst into flames (it doesn’t happen only in the movies). Fortunately, no lives were lost, although the automobile and rescue truck both w ere total losses and a great deal of equipment w as destroyed by the impact and fire.
While w e must be prepared for all eventualities, in this case, as in others, prevention is the best preparation. Following are some steps that can help prevent such a situation from occurring in your department.
TO HELP AVOID ACCIDENTS
- Drivers should be required to take a defensive driving course or a general course in operating emergency vehicles. This training should be documented, and a record of the course kept in each member’s file as well as a general training file for future reference. If a driving test or an exercise is given, keep a copy on file.
- If the course was offered to your drivers but refused by some, keep the refusals on file.
- Be certain that the firefighters who get behind the wheel on a call are qualified and authorized to drive an emergency vehicle.
- Your SOPs should mandate the use of seat belts. Granted, as a commanding officer, you cannot be in each and every vehicle, but the use of seat belts should be a written policy. Officers should take responsibility for enforcing the policy.
- Your SOPs should clearly define the proper use of sirens, lights, intersection right-of-ways, and so forth.
- Advise your department members that, should an accident occur, they should avoid providing information about it to the media and the public. The officer in charge or an appointed media officer should be the only one releasing information—-and that cautiously and sparingly. The rule of thumb is the less said, the better. Members involved in the accident may be contacted by the media, attorneys for nondepartment members, and so forth. Any conversation should be cleared first w ith the chief and/or city administrators and legal counsel.
- If your local law’ enforcement assists your department with traffic control during responses—such as through intersections—make sure they are aware of the route you are taking. If your emergency vehicles take an alternate route, law enforcement officers will be out of position
- and unable to assist you, and an accident is more likely to occur.
- Keep a complete inventory of all equipment and its value, both original cost and estimated replacement cost, in case it is destroyed in an accident. This will assist tremendously with insurance company settlements for the equipment. Also, be certain your governing body carries the proper coverage for the equipment. As the years go by, more and more equipment can be accumulated. If the governing body is not kept up to date on the accumulated value, it may be underinsured and unable to replace the equipment later.
Hopefully, your department will never be involved in an incident such as this. However, if you are, there will be paperwork and other time-consuming work to be done, particularly for the chief or head of the department. Among the things to be considered are the following:
- Document, document, document —evereything.
- Work closely and cooperate with the investigating law enforcement officials. Normally, they will feel some kinship with fellow emergency services personnel and will keep you informed and advised of developments. Working with —and not against —law enforcement will be a definite plus.
- Take as many photographs, both still and video, as possible. Photo-
- graph flic* accident scene from all angles and points of view.
I^tw enforcement personnel often will photograph the scene and make the photos available to you if you do not have access to a camera. If you suspect that bad weather/sun conditions contributed to the accident, try to duplicate the time and weather conditions as closely as possible when reconstructing the routes, positions, anti visibilities of all vehicles involved. Document times on the videotape by using the camera’s date and time features. In addition, you can have dispatch give the time and date verbally, by portable radio, so it will be recorded on the tape as well as being in the dispatcher’s log, should the tape’s reliability be questioned later. A copy of the log should be obtained for recordkeeping. When videotaping, record from various angles, using vehicles of similar size.
- Contact department superiors,
- especially in the cases of severe accidents. The chief should be notified immediately and in turn may wish to advise the city administrator of the situation.
- Verify as soon as you are able that the department’s insurance company and city counsel have been notified of the accident. The insurance company most likely w ill send a representative to reconstruct the scene, interview those involved, and so forth for future use.
- Strongly consider the use of a critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) team. In our case, a citizen had been seriously injured and the department rescue truck and much equipment destroyed. A CISD team was brought in two days following the incident to meet with the driver, passengers, officer in charge, ambulance personnel, and chief. Some members were having some emotional difficulty dealing with what had happened and later stated that the debriefing was instrumental in getting them “back on track.”
- Individual pieces of equipment involved in the incident should be inventoried and photographed to document conditions and to assist with getting repairs or replacements. We developed a graph-type inventory sheet, with separate columns for each piece of equipment, showing whether it was operable, damaged, or destroyed; where it was repaired, at what cost, and on w hat date; where a replacement was purchased and at what cost; and when the equipment was back in service. Having photographs of the equipment gives you a backup for insurance purposes.
- Keep damaged and destroyed items on hand until an insurance settlement is reached and a letter is in hand from the insurance company authorizing you to discard the items no longer of value. If the equipment is discarded prior to insurance settlement, reimbursement may be more difficult to obtain.
- Document the facts leading to the accident. Maintain copies of the emergency call and dispatch conversation sequence to verify times of dialogue
- and possibly to obtain clues that will be essential later on.
- Require those involved with the accident to write a thorough account of what happened to them personally from receipt of the call through the accident. That way, you will have immediate accounts documented and on file. These situations can lead to litigation months and even years down the road. Recording your thoughts shortly after the accident will help you and members to reconstruct the events thoroughly and accurately later. If need be, members can review these reports later.
- If the city’s legal counsel hasn’t contacted the department head, the department head should seek out the legal counsel as soon as possible to review proper action. Even if you as chief officer feel you’ve done everything correctly, simply including the counsel wall bolster relations, if nothing else.
- Public relations undoubtedly will take a blow should it be perceived that the department was in the wrong to any degree. As mentioned before, this is not a time for excessive talk with the media and the public. Be as honest as possible; state the obvious and that the matter is under investigation. If you suspect litigation will be a possibility, advise the public that you are not at liberty to discuss the details. This is in fact a true statement.
- As this is a potentially serious problem, start and maintain a file with all the information you accumulate. A little organization now w ill save time and headaches later. The following items should be kept in this file: photographs, videotapes; dispatch tape and log; and copies of the police report, reports made by department personnel and witnesses, equipment inventory, and letters of communication with the insurance companies and other involved parties.
An accident involving a piece of department apparatus is an unpleasant experience. However, by adequately preplanning and follow ing the proper procedures afterward, further unpleasantries can be avoided.