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.
Wail, Yelp, Wail, Yelp, a little air horn here, a little air horn there, and yet the emergency services are still often confronted with the inability to safely and adequately navigate through traffic. This all too familiar theme is played out thousands of times a day across North America. Even with the many risk control technologies that exist to aid the emergency responder with safe passage, there is no guarantee of safe passage. This article takes a snap shot view of traffic preemption and its contribution to safe driving and ultimately safe passage at intersections.
Although human factors are perhaps the greatest issue surrounding many actions taken by drivers operating an emergency vehicle, intersection preemption as an engineering control has demonstrated great efficiency and effectiveness to aid pertinent safety objectives. After all, the ultimate goal is to arrive safely at the incident scene.
Traffic Preemption Systems
To preempt, according to Webster's Dictionary, is to seize upon to the exclusion of others. Thus preemption is defined as taking possession before others. Preemption in the context of this topic is simply a traffic management system. Traffic preemption systems are a form of intelligent transportation technology mounted on traffic signal devices intended to control traffic flow in the emergency vehicles direction of travel. A variety of preemption systems exist ranging from early radio based systems to strobe and sound based systems. The important point is to understand that traffic signal preemption is a communications system that allows preemption-equipped vehicles to change traffic flow through the operation of preemption-equipped traffic signals for the safe and timely passage of the emergency vehicle.
In a 1996 research project by Chief Wayne Martin of the Oviedo Florida Fire-Rescue Department, he deduced that to reduce the number of emergency vehicle related crashes at intersections, it is imperative that the use of preemption systems with a reduced light and siren response policy is needed and will save lives. Chief Martin states that of the services surveyed, 66.66% agreed that if the journey to an emergency scene could be made safer while improving or maintaining response time, they would be willing to shut off their emergency warning devices. Although this article does not address the use of lights and sirens, the results of Chief Martin's study demonstrate that such belief can promote safe vehicle operation in the emergency service organization.