BY MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO
Every day in America, two responding fire apparatus proceeding to the same incident are driven in two different ways. One apparatus may exceed the speed limit, and one may not. One apparatus may come to a complete stop at an intersection. In the other, however, a person seated in the officer’s seat may exclaim, “We’re clear!” and the apparatus will roll through the intersection. Although both units are responding to the same incident, one of these responding apparatus is exposing your department to greater risk of line-of-duty injury or death and financial liability.
The fire service needs to address how apparatus are operated on the road. If your organization has a clear standard operating procedure (SOP) for how apparatus drivers should conduct themselves while driving your department’s rig, the scenario mentioned above may simply be a retraining or disciplinary matter. However, if your SOP is significantly out of date or, worse, nonexistent, your organization is looking for trouble. Below are some strong reasons to create and maintain SOPs for your apparatus drivers, the necessary building blocks to enable you to write a clear and concise document that will help significantly reduce your department’s risk of service disruption, public embarrassment, financial loss, and injury or death.
THE JOB NOBODY WANTS
Writing an SOP can be a thankless job. You could spend 40 hours writing and rewriting drafts of an SOP and never hear “nice job, great SOP.” However, the rookie who spends a few hours turning over the flowerbed around the flagpole in front of the station gets a slap on the back from every shift that comes on!
Many people who write SOPs do it solely because it is part of their job or skill level or because they see a true gap in the policy area for which they are writing. Nonetheless, prepare yourself to write draft after draft. Consider the document a work in progress, and obtain input from officers, firefighters, and legal counsel, if available. Also, prepare yourself for comments from the naysayers. This vocal group will always attempt to slow progress and prevent change. Remember, these people will have to work under the SOP you are writing, and it may disrupt their way of doing things, so be prepared. They may do their best to undermine your document before you even get it off the ground.
IF THERE’S NO RULE, YOU DIDN’T DO ANYTHING WRONG
There has been a common misconception regarding written policies/procedures and legal liability. For many years, people in many different professions felt that the less you put in writing, the better off you were. The employee would simply be off in this gray zone, and the employer could take the stand that he was unaware of the inappropriate conduct, even if it occurred regularly. However, over the years, that attitude became known as silent or unspoken approval-organizations were held accountable for the misconduct of their staff even though there were no written rules that forbade that conduct. Simply stated, SOPs clearly put your personnel out on their own if they choose to deviate from them and put your organization on much more solid ground in regard to liability and damages.
DON’T REINVENT THE WHEEL
If you have been sitting at your computer screen for a half an hour and all you have been able to type is “Fire Apparatus Driver SOP,” you may be in trouble. We live in an amazing time in terms of information technology. There is no need to write a policy from scratch. Contact your neighboring departments for copies of their SOPs, and visit fire service and insurance company Web sites. Consult applicable National Fire Protection Association standards, particularly NFPA 1002, Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications. Many of these resources have documents already completed that only need name changes or minor tweaking to fit your operation.
One caution when using borrowed SOPs: Make sure you read them thoroughly to ensure they fit your department’s overall goals. Also, make sure they meet your state’s vehicle and traffic laws and accepted procedures for emergency service organizations. Your SOP should address key areas such as driver responsibility, use of lights and siren, speed, intersections, early reporting, backing up, seat belts and seating, passing other apparatus, and low-risk responses (Figure 1).
Your first paragraph should clearly spell out the responsibility of the apparatus driver. There are four key points you must make clear in your document: (1) The apparatus driver must drive safely and with “due regard” at all times when responding to and returning from a call; (2) fire department vehicles shall operate under the parameters of the applicable vehicle and traffic law currently in effect in the federal, state, or other jurisdiction in which they operate at all times; (3) exceptions provided in the state and local vehicle and traffic laws apply only to apparatus responding to true emergencies; and (4) your SOP should clearly state that the driver’s personal definition of “emergency” does not absolve said driver from failure to use due regard. Also, it is the driver’s responsibility to be aware of local conditions such as railroad crossings, low overpasses, and so forth, and plan response routes accordingly based on safety and efficiency.
Code 3 driving. Your policy should state that the use of lights and siren or lack thereof should not be left up to individual crews or dri-vers. Basically, when responding to a true emergency, lights and siren should be used if your apparatus driver is going to request the privileges that come with that type of response. Driving to scenes quickly but activating emergency lighting only at intersections or in areas of heavy traffic is a poor habit to get into and sends a confusing message to other motorists. Your SOP should state that apparatus drivers must make every effort to communicate their presence in traffic and make their intended actions clear to other motorists. Furthermore, it should be clear that apparatus operators must drive defensively and prepare for the unexpected actions of motorists, pedestrians, and others at all times.
Speed. If you look at investigation reports of fatal fire apparatus accidents, you will find that speed is a factor in many of them. For that reason, your SOP should have a very clear paragraph regarding speed. Your state may authorize emergency vehicles to exceed the speed limit when responding to a true or bona fide emergency under favorable conditions-your SOP can reflect that privilege. However, the term “favorable conditions” cannot be left up to the individual driver’s interpretation. You must spell out what your department defines as favorable. Some suggestions include light traffic, excellent road surface and shoulder quality, clear visibility, and dry pavement. Your SOP should state that under less-than-favorable conditions, the posted speed limit is the maximum speed the apparatus may travel-in many unfavorable conditions, speed may need to be significantly reduced.
Intersections. Intersections present the greatest potential danger to emergency vehicles today. If your SOP is to make any impact on the safety of your drivers and their passengers, it will most likely be at intersections. Simply stated, while responding in apparatus approaching and crossing an intersection where that vehicle would normally have the right-of-way as a part of the normal traffic flow, the driver should cover the brakes and reduce speed. At intersections at which the apparatus would not normally have the right-of-way when flowing with traffic (e.g., at a red light or a stop sign), the driver must make a complete stop and proceed only when he is sure other traffic is aware of the fire apparatus’ presence and its intended actions.
Early reporting. Any good SOP should encourage reducing the number of units responding to an incident, which will directly reduce the chances of an injury or a fatality as a result of that response. Your SOP should have an automatic mechanism for cutting back or slowing down the response if the first-arriving officer or unit broadcasts a “nothing showing” report. Since we all have heard of responders who have reported “nothing showing” too soon, your SOP should allow other apparatus en route to continue in emergency response mode except that these units should no longer exceed the speed limit. As soon as the unit that made the initial “nothing showing” report is able to fully confirm it, your SOP should allow that units not needed at that particular scene be returned to service as soon as possible. Furthermore, it should require that, whenever possible, apparatus that have been “picked up” or returned to service while en route to a scene should use a route back to the station that does not take the vehicle down the street of the incident. This will reduce the chance of an accident involving the returning apparatus and an on-scene apparatus, a police car, a volunteer firefighter’s personal auto, or any fire or EMS personnel still at the scene. Whenever possible, the SOP should reduce “sightseeing” or “drive-bys” by returned apparatus.
Backing up apparatus. As you develop your driver SOP, consider developing a separate backing-up SOP as a stand-alone document. Clearly, there is enough information regarding backing-up safety to do that and incorporate procedures for communication between driver and spotters or guides, clearly specifying the standard hand signals to be used in all backing situations. If, however, you opt to incorporate backing into your overall driver SOP, here are some key points to include.
First, your SOP should state that backing apparatus should be avoided whenever possible. Second, when backing is unavoidable, spotters or guides should be used, when available. When no spotter is available, drivers should exit the cab prior to backing to check for obstacles and clearance behind and around the vehicle. Third, the SOP should reflect that if at anytime during the backing-up operation the driver loses sight of a spotter/guide, the vehicle must be completely stopped until the spotter/guides can be located.
Seating and belting. Ejection of personnel and injuries from loose cab equipment continue to be serious problems in apparatus accidents. Driver SOPs should clearly state as policy that drivers are not to move apparatus until all personnel are seated and belted in approved seating surfaces. This should apply any time the apparatus moves under any condition. It is senseless to have each passenger seated and belted during your responses and then allow 20 firefighters on the truck riding on the tailboard or the hosebed during the next parade, funeral, or field day.
Your policy should also indicate the appropriate attire for the apparatus’ particular intended trip (e.g., “Full turnouts must be worn by all personnel when …”) and forbid moving the apparatus until any loose equipment (e.g., thermal imaging camera, ax) in the cab is safely stowed. Loose equipment and a rollover are a deadly combination.
Passing other apparatus. Fire apparatus passing fire apparatus can be dangerous regardless of whether or not an emergency response is in effect. The vehicle’s driver may be aware that another apparatus is about to pass his unit by using his vehicle’s mirrors. However, personnel in the crew area may open a door to exit, unaware that an apparatus is about to pass. Your SOP should state that any apparatus about to pass another apparatus must communicate those intentions to the apparatus it intends to pass and must receive acknowledgment prior to passing. The driver of the apparatus about to be passed then must inform his crew that they are about to be passed.
Your SOP also must direct drivers to exercise extreme caution entering and exiting the fireground and to be prepared for unexpected apparatus or personnel movements while they are driving on the fireground or in the staging area. It is also strongly recommended that the SOP direct apparatus drivers to use apparatus to shield personnel working at emergency scenes, a procedure that could be developed into a separate stand-alone SOP as well.
Writing your own SOP can be a labor- and research-intensive process. You can reduce or expand on any of the many paragraphs listed above to develop an SOP that fits your individual operation. We should continue to look at ways to better train our apparatus drivers, continually evaluate their skills, and reduce injuries and fatalities from apparatus accidents.
MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO is a 22-year veteran of the volunteer fire service and a life member of the Grand Island (NY) Fire Company, serving on its board of directors. He is an experienced conference speaker and trainer for the fire service and the public transportation industry, a certified commercial vehicle driver trainer, and a public school administrator.
Figure 1. Sample SOP for Safe and Efficient Fire Apparatus and Emergency Vehicle Operations (excerpts)
• Introduction. It is a given that the drivers of emergency vehicles are under extreme pressure to make timely responses to calls for assistance from the communities they serve. Literally, communities almost mandating a “timely” response while at the same time failing to complete a response due to motor vehicle accident is unacceptable. For this reason, the information included within this document shall be the accepted Standard Operating Procedure that all drivers of the [fire department name] will follow when responding to or returning from alarms ….
• Responsibility. It is the responsibility of each driver to operate his or her vehicle responsibly at all times. Fire Department vehicles shall operate within the parameters of the [state] Vehicle and Traffic law and all applicable sections. The V&T grants special exceptions or privileges to emergency vehicles; these exceptions are only extended during times of a bona fide emergency or while transporting a patient for purposes of emergency medical treatment to a hospital or health care facility. Emergency response does NOT absolve the driver from failure to use due regard.
• Lights and siren. When responding to an emergency call, all emergency lights and a siren shall be used. Drivers clearly must understand that lights and siren simply “request” the right-of-way and do not guarantee any special privileges. It is the responsibility of the apparatus driver to make every reasonable effort to communicate the apparatus’ presence and the driver’s intended actions to other motorists and pedestrians. Despite lights and siren, drivers must drive defensively and prepare for the unexpected actions of others.
• Speed. Fire department vehicles are authorized to exceed the posted speed limit ONLY when responding to an emergency and ONLY under favorable conditions. Favorable conditions for the purposes of this document are described as light traffic, good road quality, clear visibility, and dry pavement.
Under less than favorable conditions, the posted speed limit is the maximum speed that may be attained ….
• Intersections. It should be understood by all apparatus operators that intersections pose the greatest hazard to emergency vehicles. When approaching an intersection where the emergency vehicle has the right-of-way, drivers will NOT exceed the speed limit and SHALL move their foot from the accelerator and cover the brake ….
• Records. Each driver of Fire Department vehicles shall have a “drivers” file created. This shall be a manila office type file with the driver’s last and first name on the tab for filing alphabetically. Said files shall be kept in the chief’s office and shall be reviewed for content annually. The file shall include a copy of the driver’s state driver’s license and at least four years of the training documents listed in the above training section of this document, to be able to demonstrate consistency and proof of completion.