“Chief, I Have Just Been Charged In an Emergency Vehicle Accident”

Chief, I have just been charged in an emergency vehicle accident." In just one month, those words were uttered three times in three separate incidents in three different states. Driver/operators of fire apparatus are being charged criminally in an alarming number of cases.

In the first case, in California, a veteran firefighter pleaded not guilty in September 2006, in a criminal vehicular manslaughter case stemming from a fire apparatus crash that killed a 23-year-old fellow firefighter in August 2005. In August 2006, the Riverside County District Attorney's Office charged the 47-year-old California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) operator with one count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence. The action followed a yearlong accident investigation.

A California Highway Patrol accident report found that the driver had been driving too fast for the rainy conditions, had not disengaged the auxiliary brake system and had failed to ensure that all firefighters on board the apparatus were wearing seatbelts. The firefighter who was riding in the officer's seat died after the engine sailed more than 40 feet over an Interstate 10 embankment in Beaumont. Fire officials say this is the first time a fire apparatus driver has faced a vehicular manslaughter charge in the 101-year history of the CDF, which contracts fire services throughout much of Riverside County. The driver could face up to a year in prison if convicted.

In Delaware, a firefighter was charged in October 2006 in a deadly accident that occurred in January 2006. The driver/operator was indicted on one misdemeanor charge of operating a motor vehicle causing the death of another. The apparatus operator was responding to an automatic alarm and went through a stop sign. The 3,000-gallon pumper-tanker hit a civilian vehicle in the driver's door, killing the 84-year-old driver. Police said the apparatus operator slowed down at the intersection, but did not stop completely. According to Delaware law, a fire apparatus driver must come to a complete stop if the driver does not have a clear view of the intersection. If convicted, the apparatus operator could face a minimum fine of $1,150 and up to 30 months in state prison.

In Ohio, a quint responding to a car fire in August 2006 was driven through a red light at 58 mph, 23 mph over the posted speed limit, and struck a car, killing the 73-year-old civilian driver. The apparatus operator was charged, with his first court appearance in October. Officials said that a sound-activated device that was supposed to trip the traffic light at the intersection to make the light green for the fire truck malfunctioned, failing to stop other traffic.

The apparatus operator has been charged with one count of vehicular manslaughter, a second-degree misdemeanor; and one count of failing to exercise due care when operating a public safety vehicle at a stop signal, a fourth-degree misdemeanor. Police said the law requires public safety vehicle operators proceeding past a red signal to operate with due regard for the safety of all persons using the street. If convicted, the apparatus operator faces up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine on the vehicular manslaughter charge and up to 30 days in jail and $250 in fines on the second charge.

I have always believed that 30 years ago you could run over the mayor's daughter in Anytown, USA, and nobody would care much except the mayor if he happened to like his daughter. Today, that is just not the case. Times have changed and there are no more free passes. The idea of a firefighter causing the death of another person in a driving accident and then going to court saying, "I am a firefighter and I did not mean to do it, I am a good guy, please let me go," simply will not work any more.

Many have written extensively about culture change in the fire service. For years, it has been lights and sirens, drive fast and take chances. This behavior is unacceptable! It's over. It is unacceptable to try to beat other responding units into the alarm location under the misrepresentation, to the public and ourselves, that we are providing good fire protection. There is no way that anybody in this business can justify killing another human being going to a bell ringing (automatic alarm), a car fire or a structural fire even with people jumping out the windows.

The rules are clear: you must come to a complete stop at all red lights and stop signs. Period. The ends do not justify the means. You do not do anyone any good if you do not get there. You must heed this warning! Why? For if you do not, you too could be calling the chief to say, "Chief, I have just been charged in an emergency vehicle accident." You too could end up in jail and nobody wants that — not the public, not the fire department and especially not your family.

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.