Code 3 driving, WHICH IS best described as responding in an emergency vehicle with warning lights and a siren, is a funny thing. When you first join a fire department and get to drive, it is second only to fighting fire on the “coolometer.” At some point in your career, you become aware of your impending mortality and you start to slow down. The problem in the fire service is bad things are happening within that zone that’s somewhere between “It’s cool to go fast” and “Let’s slow down and just get there, son!”

That bad thing is a hurtling 40,000-pound death bomb with a loose nut behind the wheel-at best, it doesn’t make it to the incident; at worst, it also kills folks including the driver, other firefighters, and others in the process. We spend an inordinate amount of time working out ways to fight fire safely because we get killed doing it dumb, yet we seem to ignore something equally dangerous that is hurting our firefighters, citizens, and taxpayers-irresponsible emergency vehicle operations (photo 1).

Photos courtesy of author.

Now, before you toss this aside because you have read Code 3 driving articles a million times, keep on reading. I thought I would once again analyze this phenomenon using no technical research and take a look at why I think we drive like idiots when we get behind the wheel of the big red fire machine and why we crash when we really don’t have to.


This is probably the root of all the evil when we are getting ready to crash. In California, we have a vehicle code that addresses Code 3 driving. Basically, we have the right to ask someone for the right of way so we may proceed. It really doesn’t say much about how fast you can go or how aggressively you can ask for that right of way. Amazingly enough in California, they actually assume the operators will use “common sense.” First fatal mistake: When they wrote the law, they did not take into account the fact that common sense goes out the window when the alarm goes off.

I believe that although we do ask for the right of way, we are too aggressive. We need to understand the types of folks firefighters are. As an example, the alligator is very aggressive, and it has a very large medulla oblongata, which contributes to its attitude. I bet firefighters have large medulla oblongatas, too, because we seem to drive Code 3 like alligators eat. We do not make eye contact with the driver we care about; we do not slow down in any situation to attain a speed that will allow us to avoid an accident. That is correct. I have a policy that says you will drive at a speed that allows you to avoid an accident. Short of someone’s running into you while you are stopped, if you get in a wreck, you have some culpability.

The other aspect missing in the common sense or lack thereof arena is the assumption that you do not have to pay attention to the posted speed limit when driving Code 3. This is ridiculous. Speed limits are posted for a reason; many times, it is the speed that a particular roadway can accommodate based on various traffic-engineering principles. For the life of me, I don’t understand how red lights and a siren with air horn augmentation can re-engineer a turn, road surface, or traffic-flow criteria, or change the dynamics of a water tender that is capable of negotiating turns safely only at a certain speed.

Look at it this way. Remember the basic speed law? Drive as the conditions allow, taking into account the vehicle you are driving. If you think in that fashion, then you should understand that Code 3 is intended to help you proceed when traffic conditions won’t, but at a speed at which the road, the traffic, and your vehicle will safely allow.

There is really no reason to exceed the posted speed limit at all, or five miles per hour over at best. You have heard it a million times: An additional 10 miles per hour over a three-minute response will gain you zip in time. Since we sometimes have to work on a freeway or two, a common complaint I hear from my staff is they get blown off the road when driving Code 3 on the freeway because we Californians like to drive very, very fast. My response: “So what? Let them pass you. Turn off the lights because you have free sailing anyhow. Turn them back on as you arrive so you can get the best parking place. Then watch out, because they like to run into parked emergency vehicles with lights on.”


I will admit it up front right now. This is probably the single reason I go or have gone too fast. I have to get there first, or at least while it is still exciting. Who wants to get to a call to do overhaul? As a young operator, I wanted to get there first to get water on the fire first and, whether appropriate or not, cancel the other companies because I just don’t need them. Any healthy (unhealthy) competition between engine companies in your neck of the woods?

As an officer, I wanted to get there first so I could set up the attack prior to the arrival of the first-due engines. It did not take too many instances of arriving first in a command vehicle to a working fire when folks really wanted to see a fire engine to change my speed of approach. They did not understand why I was messing with paperwork instead of running into the fire like they see on the TV show Cops.

Sometimes I wanted to be first because a mutual-aid engine was coming, and it was my area. Doesn’t matter why-we just have to get there first, right? Slow down! It will be there when you get there, trust me.

Another reason we like to get there first is so the cops don’t park in front of the building. Give it up; they will always get there first and be in the way. Just block them in.


I think Gordon Graham (a guru in the change-process area) says it perfectly; “If it is predictable, it is preventable” (photo 2). When we put folks behind the wheel of an emergency vehicle, we probably have some awareness of the critical nature of this task. The problem is that we don’t know if the person behind the wheel shares the same concern or awareness. When I see pictures of water tenders upside down, and the caption says the 18-year-old driver rolled the vehicle trying to overcorrect while responding, that validates this section’s headline. I really start to wonder when it says the driver was a 16- or 17-year-old cadet.

Folks, come on. The insurance industry in our country has spent millions of dollars to study driving, and it has found out one thing for sure. If you are under the age of 25, there is a very high probability that you will have a vehicle accident. The probabilities go up exponentially as you drift toward the age of 16, when a driver first gets a license in some states. I ask you, how do lights and sirens augmented with an air horn nullify or minimize that high probability? They don’t, so don’t let the kids drive until they are 18, and then only after they have completed extensive driver training and proven their ability to do so with an accomplished officer for a period of time.

I brought up two girls and had a hard time letting them drive my old truck, let alone a $300,000, 20-ton fire engine. I know, you have a volunteer department and if you don’t let them drive, the rig may not go. I would rather let it sit and have the house burn down than have as a driver a kid who does not understand the relationship between stored energy and kinetic energy while wheeling a 60,000-pound water tender down the road. Let’s get real here. If your primary water source is water tenders, and you have not controlled the fire with tank water, and you are actively fighting fire, then the house will probably burn down anyhow, so why get someone killed? Get there in time to protect the exposures.


When I first started in this business, I received the best advice I ever had from an old heavy equipment operator: He told me to drive a fire engine as if it did not have brakes. He meant, drive slow enough so that you could stop without stomping on your brakes all the time. It works, and if you were to randomly check fire engines throughout the United States, this advice is gold. So many of them have no brakes anyway from lack of maintenance. Many will give you one panic stop, and that’s it.

When I started in 1972, we did not have good brakes. But with the advent of air brakes, better chassis specifications, and ABS, these things stop pretty well, so our confidence is translated into more pressure on the gas pedal and less pressure on the part of our brain that says, “Drive as if you don’t have brakes,” or maybe it goes to the medulla oblongata again.

I will say it here and now that way too many small departments don’t have a modern, consistent, and technically informed vehicle maintenance program for a myriad of reasons. No money, Firefighter Smith is a good mechanic, no time, no knowledge, time slipped by, we go to too many calls, or just we’re unaware. This is a terrible combination, since these are the departments that can’t afford designated drivers who theoretically are trained professional drivers. Frankly, I see some wildly expensive Code 3 equipment on junk apparatus. The community would be much better served if they sold the Code 3 systems and used the money to maintain the rig.


I am convinced that we go Code 3 when we don’t have to, but I learned that from hindsight. Many departments have decided which types of calls require a Code 3 response and which don’t. For example, I have heard that dumpster fires, grass fires, and smoke detectors via alarms are not handled as Code 3 response. The problem is that I have been to catastrophic fires that originated at all these types of calls.

I will never forget pulling out of Station 43 in Chico and going to a television fire when I was a kid. As we turned the corner, we saw a big header. My old captain looked at me and said, “Big TV.” So be very careful in outlining what type of call requires Code 3.

Don’t use warning systems for nonemergency situations such as pickups and put-backs; leaking pipes; and, for heaven’s sake, when returning to quarters. It should pass this test: If the call is a threat to life and property, go Code 3. I have seen some dumpster fires get pretty entertaining when they are next to a hotel. Using the warning systems when returning to quarters is crazy, but many will say it is the only way to get back because of traffic. Well, unless you are clear across town, aren’t you available for dispatch sitting in the rig just as much as if you were in the station? Get some gizmo to turn off the stove by radio if that is a problem.

I believe that listing which types of calls require Code 3 is going in the wrong direction or an attempt to cure the symptom, not the problem. If folks would drive in a safe fashion, then we would not be trying to minimize the exposure in the first place.

Finally, when trying to understand what makes us drive as we do, we should look at ways to help our personnel be better drivers. Your insurance providers have a risk-management section that will help you with training and information. If you have real problems in suburbia, place sensors on the rigs that measure stopping, starting, and cornering speed. If you have a cowboy or a cowgirl, it will show up, and you can deal with it. Try following your drivers sometime and watching their behavior behind the wheel. I will tell you that initially they know you are there, but the Code 3 syndrome will kick in, and they will soon forget.

This will give you a chance to congratulate them on their excellent driving skills or start the disciplinary process to change an unacceptable behavior. If a firefighter does something foolish on the fireground such as enter a burning home without proper protective equipment, we will drill him. But when we see him do something unsafe while driving, we seem to let it go. I ask you now, what is killing and injuring firefighters in this country at a faster rate: lack of driving skills or lack of firefighting skills? You be the judge (photo 3). I think I read once a saying that went something like this: “We should not be dying doing this job, but if you are going to die, at least do it while trying to lay your hands on someone.” I begrudgingly accept that thought, but you still have to get there to do it.

MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER is chief of the Truckee (CA) Fire District. He began his career in 1972 with the California Department of Forestry, where he served for 24 years in the following assignments: division chief of operations (South) in the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Ranger Unit and operation section chief and planning section chief on a Type I team from 1988 to 1996. He is a certified fire behavior analyst. Terwilliger was incident commander for Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators Team, which operates along the eastern California/Nevada border. He also instructs operations section chiefs, division group supervisors, and strike team leaders.

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