The Killing Fields

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Since the beginning of this year, 14 firefighters in the U.S. have died in the line of duty in driving-related crashes. Most, if not all, of those who died were not wearing seatbelts and were partially or totally ejected. Nine firefighters were volunteers, four were career members and one firefighter worked for the forest service. Most crashes were either in privately operated (or owned) vehicles (POVs) or tankers; there is nothing new here. In fact, at a recent seminar, the instructor noted that we have not found any new ways to kill firefighters; we keep killing ourselves in the same manner that we always have. What a sad commentary.

One crash in particular caught my eye. It occurred in Alabama and involved a tractor-trailer combination tanker. The rig was comprised of a military-surplus tractor with what appeared to be an old fuel tanker trailer that allegedly held 5,000 gallons of water. I have the interview with a firefighter/relative who talked about the firefighter who died in the accident. What is interesting is that many of the things said about that firefighter are stated over and over again — he was our best driver, and although he did not have any training, he was a good driver who had never had an accident and he always drove the tanker. It was reported in a local newscast that it would not have made a difference if the tanker had showed up to the fire, as the house burned down. There are some who may want to ask why the fire department was using a tanker like that? The answer is that the fire department does not have the necessary funding to purchase something else.

The fire service, in many regards, seems like it is trying to mirror normal everyday life as it relates to the haves and the have-nots. Some fire departments tend to get proper funding while others are warming up the griddles for the Sunday pancake breakfast so that they can raise enough funds to buy diesel fuel for the apparatus to respond for the week. Some who saw a picture of the wrecked tanker in Alabama may want to blame the fire department. However, these are good people, as are many others across the country who are trying to do their best to provide fire protection to their communities with very limited funding or, in some cases, no funding at all.

Who regulates the operating of fire apparatus? The reality is no one. Would government in general and the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) in particular allow a milk truck to haul acid? No, it is against the law. Can you haul propane in a gasoline tanker? No, it is against the law. Then why are fire departments allowed to haul water in any vehicle? Because no one regulates the operation of fire apparatus. No one.

Maybe somebody should. Maybe the DOT should be the regulating/enforcement agency that would make it illegal to haul water in any vehicle not built to do so. The DOT regulates the operation of all other trucks; why not fire trucks? It is obvious that we cannot do it ourselves. Maybe the DOT would require random alcohol and drug testing, require fire departments to get their apparatus inspected, require firefighters to wear seatbelts, require firefighters to submit to annual fire department medical exams and require firefighters to obtain commercial drivers' licenses (CDLs). These are all great ideas and the DOT would be the logical choice to offer its enforcement powers to help solve the problem.

One thing is for sure: if you were to combine the U.S. Department of Justice line-of-duty death benefit paid to that firefighter's family in Alabama with the cost of a firefighter's funeral, you could buy a tanker/tender that was actually made to haul water. This tanker/tender would have to be built to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 standard and would actually be safe to operate. What a novel idea.

If you would like to volunteer for the national seatbelt study (see my June 2007 column) and participate in a body scan, please access the Total Contact website at www.totalcontact.com.

I hope to see you at the Firehouse Expo in Baltimore.

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 his website at www.emergencyvehicleresponse.com.

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