Fire Apparatus Driving: Drive to Survive: It Starts at the Top

By Chris Daly

Over the past 10 years, I’ve been fortunate to travel the country and lecture on driver safety at various fire departments. During that period, I’ve also reconstructed serious and fatal vehicle crashes, some involving emergency vehicles. During these countless trips and visits, I’ve noticed that when it comes to driver safety, a safe driving attitude starts at the top.

Regardless of the size or the type of fire department at which I’ve taught, I’ve always clearly noted that those in charge set the attitude of the entire department. When in a packed auditorium with more than 100 students, I can almost guarantee that the chief has arranged the training seminar and made the class mandatory for both his members and those in mutual-aid departments.

From time to time, I may also be in a run-down crew room with just seven or eight members attending. In these rare instances, I can almost guarantee that I am standing next to a frustrated lieutenant or training captain who has no support from those in charge. Chief officers are probably nowhere to be found; these same chief officers have probably given little thought to a comprehensive driver training program.

In those smaller classes with just a few people, I can’t help pondering the dangerous and litigious situation that a chief officer is creating for himself. Few activities on or off the fireground present such a dangerous liability to those in charge than vehicle operations. If these same chiefs could sit in on some of the lawsuits and depositions that I’ve observed, their attitude would quickly change.

Although a fireground death is tragic for all involved, the incident itself is usually contained within the fire service. Lawsuits may or may not occur, depending on the circumstances. However, a vehicle crash often involves a second vehicle, usually operated by a civilian. In these instances, I can almost guarantee that within a short time, the lawyers will be knocking at your door. How ready are you and your organization to answer the difficult questions regarding the status and attitude of your driver training program?

seat belt check
(1) A surprise seat belt check during the 2013 Pennsylvania State Firefighters Convention parade caused quite a stir. Despite having given firefighters strict instructions to wear their seat belts during the parade, many did not. Direction and discipline must come from the top to change this way of thinking. (Photo by author.)

Lead By Example

A common theme I’ve seen across the country is that the chief and his officers set the tempo for a driver safety program. When a chief recognizes the liabilities and hazards of vehicle operations, his department is usually well-equipped to prepare, train, and hold vehicle operators accountable. Policies are in place, training is frequent, and those who fail to operate emergency vehicles safely are quickly held accountable. These are the departments that will fare well in a courtroom should a crash occur.

Ironically, it is the well-prepared department that rarely has to face a lawsuit, since crashes are few and far between. It is the unprepared department that often finds itself at a deposition table trying to explain why there are no written policies or training programs and why a preventable apparatus crash was allowed to happen. These chiefs and officers will be left stammering when an attorney picks apart their department piece by piece and the dollar amounts quickly build up.

Last year, I read about an Ohio fire department that clocked its battalion chiefs traveling to calls at more than 100 miles per hour (mph). The article stated that it was unlikely that any discipline would be taken against these officers. The attitude of those interviewed seemed to imply, “When you’re in trouble, don’t you want us there quickly?” No one would argue that we want fire personnel to arrive at an emergency quickly, but we also want them to do it safely. You would be hard pressed to prove to a jury that traveling 100 mph is driving with “due regard for the safety of others,” the standard that you will usually be judged against to determine if your actions were justified. You don’t believe me?

Let’s say you’re traveling on a highway with a 65 mph speed limit. A vehicle traveling 65 mph is traveling at 95 feet per second and will take 55 seconds to travel one mile. A vehicle traveling 100 mph is traveling at 146 feet per second and will take 36 seconds to travel one mile. When compared to the vehicle that is traveling the speed limit, we see that over the course of a mile, the vehicle traveling 100 mph will arrive only 19 seconds sooner.

Many of the chiefs who have poor attitudes regarding driver safety will say that 19 seconds could be the difference between life and death. Those chiefs probably stopped reading this a long time ago. After 25 years in the fire service, I can tell you that I doubt that. Nevertheless, let’s look at how saving 19 seconds will affect the safety of the other people on the road.

The distance it takes a vehicle to skid to a stop depends on many factors, including the road conditions and the ability of the driver to properly perceive and react to a hazard up ahead.

In this case, the vehicle traveling 100 mph will take more than 678 feet to skid to a stop on a dry asphalt roadway. The vehicle traveling 65 mph will take 339 feet to skid to a stop on a dry asphalt roadway. So, to save 19 seconds responding to an “emergency,” you will have to give yourself twice the stopping distance should you encounter a hazard while en route to the call. To put this in perspective, 678 feet would be equal to two football fields put end to end. Do you think you could see a small child running across his front yard chasing a ball into the street 678 feet ahead of you? No, you couldn’t. So how would you be expected to safely avoid this type of unexpected situation if you are driving at 100 mph? You can’t. Therefore, you are not driving with “due regard for the safety of others.” Go get your checkbook.

Remember: Our job is to save lives, not trade lives. Allowing your drivers to drive so recklessly allows them to act as judge, jury, and sometimes executioner to someone else on the road. So I ask you: What gives you and your drivers the right to risk the safety of countless other people on the road?

Protect Yourself and Your Department

The only way to change the culture of your fire department is to lead by example. Wear your seat belt, train your drivers, and make sure that you have strict and enforceable policies and procedures in place. Should someone fail to adhere to these policies and procedures, hold them accountable.

Design your driver training program and vehicle operations policies around relevant National Fire Protection Association standards and International Association of Fire Chiefs best practices. There are plenty of sample policies on the Web. Your insurance company would also be glad to assist you in creating comprehensive policies and procedures regarding apparatus operations. Remember, should you find yourself at the center of a lawsuit, opposing attorneys and driver training experts will want to see your policy manuals, driver training logs, and apparatus maintenance records. Are they readily available? How thorough and up-to-date are they? These are the questions you need to ask yourself to protect and insulate yourself from undue liability.

What types of new technology will help you to improve your driver training program and decrease liability? Are your apparatus equipped with “drive cams”? How are they used? Do you routinely review these videos with your drivers to teach them and identify deficiencies in their driving? For those who refuse to equip their apparatus with such cameras for “fear of liability,” I ask you: What are you hiding?

Do you have an accident policy in place? Who investigates minor crashes? What procedures do you have in place to secure evidence for later litigation should your apparatus be involved in a crash, especially with another vehicle? You would be amazed how little attention is paid to properly documenting roadway evidence that can later be used to refute false accusations regarding the primary cause and “who’s at fault” in a crash.

Only through these actions will you be able to “bulletproof” your department and reduce liability should you find one of your apparatus involved in a motor vehicle crash. More importantly, our goal should be to reduce and end fire apparatus crashes so as to improve the safety of our firefighters as well as the public we protect. Safe driving starts at the top.

CHRIS DALY is a 25-year veteran of the fire service and a full-time police officer who specializes in the reconstruction of serious civilian vehicle and emergency vehicle crashes. He developed the “Drive to Survive” training program, which has been presented to more than 14,000 emergency responders across the country, and lectures nationally on the prevention of emergency vehicle crashes. Daly has a master’s degree in safety from Johns Hopkins University, is a contributor to Fire Engineering, and has presented at FDIC for the past 10 years.

Additional Links

Fire Apparatus Drunk Driving

Distracted: Dealing with the Dynamics of Driving Diversions

CODE 3 DRIVING

Strategies for Safer Driving

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