Fire Commentary: Good Intentions Send Wrong Message

By Jerry Holt

What’s the mission of your fire department? Preserve life, protect property, and promote safety through education? I bet it’s something along those lines. Your mission is probably not that different than other fire departments all across the country. Sure, other departments may have several paragraphs of fancy mission statements, but ultimately it is all about protecting our customers and their belongings while providing for the safety of everyone.

So why do firefighters and EMTs nationwide drive so recklessly, putting the safety of everyone in jeopardy? Is it because, when something bad happens, we send the message that it’s okay because “they did the best they could while responding to an emergency?” It’s simply not good enough if the best you can do only adds to the problem and injures people. The fire service is quick to point out an incompetent fireground commander and, as unpopular as it may be, it is time that we as members of the fire service stand up, speak out, and say that we will no longer tolerate senseless driving accidents–good enough is not enough when you injure others.

It happens all too often. Hardly a week goes by where we do not read about an incident involving fire department or EMS apparatus and civilians getting into a crash. The latest to catch my attention occurred a while back when a chief officer who was responding to an accident was involved in a collision.1

In this case, the vehicle the chief was driving was equipped with a black box, which tells a distressing story. The chief averaged 79 mph during his response before colliding with a civilian at an intersection. He had slowed from 64 to 63 mph one half-second before the collision. He was traveling through an intersection, against a red light, at 63 mph! The black box showed that the chief did not brake before the collision and that the vehicle was at full throttle with the gas pedal floored until that half-second before the crash. Full throttle through a red light…highly predictable, highly preventable! The speed limit at the intersection was 30 mph, so he was traveling at more than twice the posted speed limit. Also, this incident occurred in a school zone where the speed limit drops to 25 mph, but luckily there were no students on campus at the time.

As if the black box information is not telling enough, radio transmission recordings from dispatch raise further questions about the chief’s mindset during the response. Recordings of radio traffic detail a reckless approach to the response as the chief passes another response vehicle responding to the same call. The article quotes the chief saying to another responding chief that he passed, “Giddy-up on that s**t”–just 15 seconds before the collision. The chief’s vehicle turned over and slid 100 feet following the collision. Oh, and did I mention that he was not wearing his seatbelt? The state where this incident took place has a seatbelt law that states that the driver and each passenger must wear a seat belt.

The local police department had received a call from an off-duty officer regarding the driving of the two chiefs prior to the accident. The off-duty officer reported that when the two chiefs went through a different intersection, they did not have sirens on and almost collided with each other and caused an accident with other cars at the intersection.

Now here is the bizarre part. The local district attorney’s office reports that they have found no legal basis for criminal charges. What kind of message are we sending here? That we are above the law and if we injure people while on the way to help other people it is okay? Does the district attorney’s office think they are helping the fire service? Allowing reckless behavior to go unpunished undermines firefighter safety.

The law in the state where this incident occurred says that an emergency vehicle may proceed through a red light “but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation…(and may) exceed the maximum speed limits so long as he does not endanger life or property,” and only as long as an audible signal is sounded as may be reasonably necessary. I contend that this chief should be held criminally liable for his actions, but then again I am not a lawyer. Of course, there are always civil laws and I am sure he or the city will be defending his actions in court. That’s not enough–he should be criminally responsible for his actions.

As I put this article together, I was informed of another incident involving a fire department vehicle responding to the scene involved in a collision. This latest collision resulted in the death of a civilian. I am not out to get anyone–the facts of any case should be carefully considered before deciding to hold an apparatus operator criminally responsible. Accidents happen and the circumstances must be considered before labeling firefighters responsible for every accident.

But if the fire service is serious about changing the culture of how we drive to calls, the message needs to be sent: drive recklessly and you will be held responsible. We will no longer make a hero out of someone who recklessly injures others in the name of a faster response. Furthermore, if the involved department doesn’t have written policies regarding the proper driving of emergency vehicles, the fire chief or EMS director should be held responsible. If a chief officer drives this way, what kind of example is he setting for the rest of the department? Reckless driving and driving without seatbelts must stop!

Some people in the fire service may not agree with criminal charges for these cases, but I submit that everyone would be on board if it had been a teenager running the red light at that intersection. What if it was a person under the influence who ran the red light and caused the accident? What if this had been one of our brothers or sisters that were struck at the intersection by a private vehicle speeding through the intersection at 64 mph? People would be outraged and demand charges be filed. What if that was your teenage child going through the intersection at the posted speed limit, never expecting someone to come through the red light at the intersection?

I do not know the chief involved in this incident, but I am sure that he is a fine person with good intentions. I am sure he never set out to cause problems and the last thing he would have wanted was to be involved in an accident while responding. Everyone make mistakes. But criminal charges should be brought against the driver of the fire department vehicle. Any civilian driving that reckless would be charged.

The vehicle was going “at full throttle, gas pedal floored” through an intersection AGAINST the red light. This was no accident at all–it was inevitable. The tragedy will be if this chief officer is not held accountable for his recklessness and total disregard for the safety of the citizens (customers) in his community.

It is time to stop this kind of incident and hold emergency responders responsible for their actions. It is time for district attorneys to hold apparatus operators responsible for their actions. Send the message that apparatus operators will be held criminally and civilly responsible for their actions and perhaps the reckless actions of responders who are supposed to be helping will change. Hopefully this will help a few more of our brothers, sisters, and customers make it home!

There are many resources out there to help a department develop policies regarding vehicle operations. A Google search using the term “emergency vehicle operations” returns over two million hits. Help create a culture that demands safe driving of emergency vehicles. It is time we step it up and send the message: Drive safe–too many lives depend upon it!

Endnote

1. Korngold, Leslie, “Evidence details fire official’s actions before crash,” The Journal News, August 3, 2007. Reprinted in JEMS.com, August, 8, 2007

Jerry Holt is the chief for the Urbandale (IA) Iowa Fire Department. He is a Nationally Registered Paramedic; a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer’s Program and holds an associate’s degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in EMS, and is currently completing his master’s degree in leadership.

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