Think Before You Drive

This is the time of year when preliminary firefighter line-of-duty death statistics are released for the previous year. Most times, the number is up from the previous year. But this year is different. According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), 93 firefighters died in the line of duty in 2009, representing one of the lowest tolls for a single year since records started to be kept in 1977. Many people in the fire service work tirelessly to reduce firefighter fatalities and promote safety. Although we recorded a significant reduction in line-of-duty deaths, one year is not a trend, but perhaps a good start.

How did firefighters die in 2009? No surprise here. As in previous years, the biggest category is heart attacks/stress, which accounted for 54 deaths (58.06%). Second is vehicle accidents involving personally operated vehicles (POVs) or fire apparatus, which resulted in 14 deaths (15.05%), five fewer than in 2008. Although we have made progress, we still have a way to go.

There has been more fallout from the 2009 apparatus crash in Boston, MA, that killed Lieutenant Kevin Kelley of Ladder 26. A police report about the accident investigation concluded that a fire department contractor installed the wrong parts on the ladder truck's brakes several months before the crash. The contractor replaced a brake chamber and brake pads with "unsuitable" parts in the spring of 2008, which the police report stated decreased stopping power significantly. A few months later, firefighters working on the truck noticed the brakes were not working properly, so they made manual adjustments to the automatic slack adjusters that may have masked underlying problems. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a Safety Advisory in October 2009, titled Manual Adjustment of Automatic Slack Adjusters May Contribute to Unexpected Brake Failure on Automotive Fire Apparatus.

NIOSH recommends that all fire departments operating fire apparatus equipped with automatic slack adjusters take the following actions:

  • Ensure that automatic slack adjusters are never adjusted manually.
  • Establish procedures to ensure maintenance on fire apparatus is conducted as recommended in NFPA 1911 Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus.
  • Ensure that maintenance is performed only by qualified technicians.

A question that I hear frequently is, "What do you think of dashboard cameras (or 'dash cams')?" Many firefighters say they find the cameras to be intrusive. But consider this: In Penn Township, PA, an emergency medical technician involved in a fatal ambulance crash captured on a dash cam video was found not guilty of vehicular homicide.

In the October 2006 accident, the ambulance ran a red light and struck another vehicle, killing the driver of that vehicle. Jurors were asked to decide whether it was a "reckless, negligent act," according to a local TV station. The jurors thought otherwise. The ambulance driver was found guilty of careless driving and failure to obey a traffic-control device, and fines were assessed in the amounts of $200 and $25, respectively.

During the trial, jurors viewed two videotapes recorded from the ambulance dash cam that showed the moments before and during the collision, according to published reports. The first video showed the ambulance going through the red light and the second recorded the driver looking at the roadway. The defense lawyer contended that the video proved the ambulance driver was not trying to deliberately "beat" the red light. Having taken a patient to the hospital, the ambulance was returning to its base when the crash occurred.

Another question that keeps popping up goes something like this: "I have not had an emergency vehicle driving course since 1972. Should I take another one now?" The answer was probably best said by fire service attorney Neil Rossman in an article he wrote in 1994 titled "Avoiding an Apparatus-Related Lawsuit." He wrote that fire department members who complete an apparatus driver safety course should be certified for such duty and should have to recertify on a regular basis, every three years not being unreasonable. Rossman went on to say that "this operator's safety course should include classroom work with an instructor well versed in apparatus safety."

In New York State, a defensive driver's course is offered for civilians that can reduce insurance costs and license points. The course must be taken every three years to maintain the insurance reduction. So the answer to the question is that each fire department and each apparatus driver should complete an emergency vehicle operator's course offered by someone from outside the department every three years.

MICHAEL WILBUR, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He consults on a variety of apparatus-related issues around the country. For further information, access Wilbur's website at