This column is a component of VFIS' "Operation Safe Arrival" initiative, aimed at heightening safety awareness and reducing the frequency and severity of accidents involving emergency vehicles.
Here is a short quiz. Can you determine which statements are true or false?
- The safest way to back up a vehicle is not to back it up at all.
- You must drive fast while responding to an emergency, because every second counts.
- When you are using your lights and sirens, civilian drivers must yield right of way.
- The formula for safe following distance under 40 mph is 1 second for each 10 feet of vehicle length.
- If the emergency vehicle you are driving is involved in an accident, you are legally exempt from prosecution under state law.
- If you can drive a pick-up or passenger car, you can drive a pumper.
- "Due regard" for the safety of others means keeping others' safety in mind when carrying out a dutiful act.
- When you use your blue lights while responding to a call in your personal car, you are considered an emergency vehicle.
The answers are below. If you responded to any of these statements incorrectly, you are not alone. Firefighters train constantly on everything from how to use SCBA gear properly to rolling hose and operating portable equipment. Ironically, they don't spend nearly as much time learning emergency vehicle response procedures - despite the fact that emergency vehicles are used much more frequently on calls than any other aspect of our work. To put it another way, in his article on Firehouse.com, Lt. Mike Wilbur of the Fire Department of New York asks, "Why is it that the tool we train with the least is the one we use the most, and the tools and skills we use less frequently are the ones we spend the majority of our training time on?"
Clearly, we need to achieve a better balance. Statistics show that on average there are 12,000 collisions involving emergency vehicles, resulting in as many as 10,000 injuries and hundreds of fatalities. Moreover the emergency services are no longer immune to prosecution - as can be seen by the number of law suits and criminal allegations against emergency vehicle operators that continues to increase.
Because of the high stress, high visibility, and high level of responsibility associated with driving an emergency vehicle, proper training is absolutely essential. And it doesn't just mean learning to drive an obstacle course. It means understanding the physical forces and laws that govern driving a 32,000-pound apparatus. It means knowing the elements of your state motor vehicle code that apply specifically to emergency vehicles and personal vehicles. It means hours of supervised behind-the-wheel driving and refresher training. It means learning appropriate response speeds and following distances. And it means being aware of other drivers at all times.
If you don't know where to turn for help in developing a proper emergency vehicle driver training program, contact your state fire academy, community college, the U.S. Fire Administration, or your local VFIS representative. In the future, we can predict with confidence that road congestion will only get worse, that our highways will continue to expand to 4, 6 or even 8 lanes of traffic and that the motoring public will become even more confused about how to react when an emergency vehicle approaches. Unless your organization has responsible, properly trained drivers, the list of injuries and fatalities will continue to grow.
- True. Whenever possible avoid backing, which is especially hazardous because the driver cannot see where he/she intends to go. Have trained spotters in place and check all around your vehicle to make sure all equipment is in place and all doors are securely closed.
- False. The old adage "Better to arrive late than never" is absolutely true.
- False. Warning devices and state laws do not guarantee right of way. It isn't realistic or practical to expect the general public to properly react every time they encounter an emergency vehicle.
- False. This formula is 4 seconds for each 10 feet at length for speeds under 40 mph. Maintaining a cushion of safety on all sides of the vehicle is essential to safe operations.
- False. That is no longer true. Ask those who are now serving time for causing deadly accidents.
- False. There is a significant difference in handling characteristics between driving a 3200 lb. passenger car and a 32,000-pound pumper. Actions that can cause you to lose control include going too fast for weather/road conditions, accelerating too quickly, braking inappropriately, changing direction too abruptly and tracking a curve at too high a speed.
- True. Knowing --and understanding -- state motor vehicle laws is important for emergency vehicle operators.
- False. Check your state motor vehicle code. Using "courtesy lights" on your personal car or truck does not make it an emergency vehicle. Therefore you must obey all applicable motor vehicle laws. Basically, courtesy lights are a request for other drivers to let you pass them. They are not a demand for right-of-way, nor can you illegally pass or speed up to overtake another vehicle.