Driving Apparatus Safely

Many fire service professionals are grappling with the high number of accidents occurring that involve emergency apparatus. We can all agree that such accidents have a significant impact on the safety of our personnel and on our budgets. What we can’t...


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Many fire service professionals are grappling with the high number of accidents occurring that involve emergency apparatus. We can all agree that such accidents have a significant impact on the safety of our personnel and on our budgets. What we can’t seem to agree on is what to do about these accidents.

For many departments across the country, the answer is being given to them by their insurance underwriters: Stop the upward accident rate spiral or lose your insurance coverage. There are too many competent and professional apparatus drivers who come to work, do their jobs and go home to allow a few “cowboys” to paint the entire cadre with the same brush. Not all apparatus drivers drink alcohol or ingest drugs before they drive. Not all apparatus drivers discount physics and push their rigs to speeds from which they cannot recover. Not all apparatus drivers put their crews at risk for little or no gain.

Too many fire chiefs jump on the training or discipline bandwagons to solve the problem, but I believe the problem is far more complex.

Anyone who has responded to an accident involving emergency apparatus will agree that when it’s bad, it’s really bad. Very rare, however, is the apparatus accident that could not have been prevented. Most often, the key factors are responding at speeds exceeding the posted limit, varying from normal traffic patterns, ignoring red lights or stop signs, driver inexperience or culture.

Must We Speed?

Many fire service stakeholders will point to training as the answer, but what kind of training do you need? I’ve received requests for skid pads to let drivers practice handling rigs at high speeds to gain confidence. The answer to that is, why do we need to speed at all? Even though water tanks on fire service tanker trucks are equipped with baffles, the effect of physics on a rig traveling at excessive speed with water inside has been proven: it’s much easier to lose control and even harder to panic stop. Research has concluded that we gain approximately 40 seconds by using lights and sirens. A test may be to send two pieces of equipment to the same address. One should respond with lights and sirens and one should proceed at normal traffic speed, and time the difference times. You may be amazed at the findings. Here’s another test: Take the pulse and blood pressure of each member of both crews. Again, you may be surprised by the findings.

Why are we responding with lights and sirens to all calls anyway? Is that eight-by-eight-foot, single-story steel structure really worth risking the lives of your crews? I think not. How about that automatic fire alarm after business hours at a high-rise building? Or that grass fire in a highway median strip? Many proactive fire departments have adopted tiered response policies. This involves assessing the need for lights and sirens on every call. It’s also known as risk management.

Apparatus drivers should be given one simple directive: “Drive as fast as you can stop.” This may seem confusing, but it’s really quite simple. The speed of a responding vehicle and its corresponding stopping distance can be correlated to the safety of the members onboard. If we look at our history for the answer, we will find that in the 18th and 19th centuries the first-arriving fire units that raised a ladder to the building or applied the first water stream were the ones paid by insurance companies. The horses were whipped and the men driven to get there first. Often, fist fights erupted between units.

I’m sure that’s not what is motivating the behaviors today – or is it? One danger associated with steadfastly clinging to tradition is that sometimes traditions outlive their usefulness or worthiness.

Another myth in apparatus driving is the right-of-way issue. Major manufacturers of cars and other personal vehicles tout their products as being soundproof. Even with the use of air horns and sirens, the other drivers may not hear your apparatus coming. This will really get ugly if you respond the wrong way down a one-way street and come upon an intersection. The other drivers will never expect you.

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