Prior to the crash, the tanker was descending down a fairly steep grade that contained a horseshoe curve at the bottom of the grade. The driver/operator reported that the vehicle's brakes failed while descending the grade. In an effort to slow the apparatus the driver steered it into the shallow ditch along side the road. When the tanker reached the horseshoe curve at the bottom, it left the roadway, overturned, and slid down an embankment, nearly striking the pumper traveling ahead of the tanker that had completed the turn and was heading back towards the tanker. The water tank detached from the apparatus and slid further down the embankment (Figure 2). Both occupants were trapped in the apparatus cab. The passenger was pronounced dead at the scene and the driver/operator was airlifted to a trauma center where he recovered.
The ensuing investigation determined that the tankers brakes were slightly out of adjustment. However, it was determined that the more important causal factors were that the driver/operator was driving under the influence of alcohol and he was operating the vehicle at an unsafe speed. The driver/operator was terminated from the fire department and convicted of criminal charges. A lawsuit by the victim's estate was settled out of court, prior to the start of a trial.
Lesson to be Learned: Operating the vehicle with a clear, unimpaired mind and at a safe and controllable speed will go a long way towards making it safely to the emergency scene. Failure to do so can result in a catastrophic incident, along with criminal and civil legal ramifications.
These three cases studies offer real-life proof of the information provided in the statistical review of fire department tanker crashes. The people who were injured and/or killed in these incidents, as well as the people they left behind, are real people who will struggle with the consequences of these crashes for the rest of their lifetimes. It is crucial that we do everything on our power to avoid these crashes in the future. In the fourth and final installment of this series, we will look at easily identifiable ways to prevent becoming one of these "statistics." More information on fire department tanker crashes can be obtained from the USFA report titled Safe Vehicle Operation of Fire Tankers which can be downloaded from www.fema.gov.