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This month, as the year draws to a close, I will update you on several incidents that were covered in previous columns.
As reported in this column, one of the year's first line-of-duty deaths occurred in San Francisco in January, when 46-year-old Firefighter Melinda Ohler, a 13-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department, fell out of the jump seat area of a spare San Francisco pumper responding to a false alarm. It was recently reported in the San Francisco Chronicle that the state levied an $18,000 penalty against the San Francisco Fire Department for failing to have rails on certain fire trucks, including the one from which Ohler fell to her death. Cal-OSHA found that the engine was one of eight used by the fire department that have open-air exterior canopy seats (jump seats), but lacked a 46-inch high rail or an enclosure on the sides and back of the vehicle to prevent falls. The department's 42 other engines and 18 trucks have fully enclosed cabs. Officials said that not providing a rail violated the state's workplace safety laws.
Evidence suggests that the firefighter had taken off her seat belt to reach for a headset to protect her ears from noise, authorities said. "An information memorandum was also issued to the city to enforce wearing of seat belts when the vehicle is in motion," the report said. The San Francisco fire chief has ordered that the engine from which Ohler fell and seven others like it be retrofitted with safety bars, a fire department spokesman said.
In an update published in the Richmond Times Dispatch, it was reported that the family of Volunteer Firefighter Bradley McNeer, who died in an apparatus accident in 1999, has reached a confidential settlement, ending an emotional out-of-court battle over his death. The settlement was reached between the family and the driver of the fire truck in which McNeer was riding when it overturned in Chesterfield County, VA. The McNeer family had filed a $5 million wrongful death lawsuit against Chesterfield County, the county fire department and the fire apparatus operator, but the county was dismissed from the suit before the settlement. A county attorney said the doctrine of sovereign immunity barred any recovery from the county through a lawsuit.
As you may recall, McNeer was riding in the front passenger seat of a rescue pumper, one of seven apparatus responding to a gas leak. While responding, the crew realized that they were lost, turned off the siren and began turning off the emergency flashing lights when the driver lost control of the fire truck. He drove into a ditch, hitting a culvert. He overcorrected, and the truck became airborne. The truck struck an approaching vehicle before slamming head-on into a tree.
It was recently reported in the Los Angeles Times that a string of accidents involving motorists who failed to yield to sirens and flashing lights has prompted the Los Angeles Fire Department to propose new guidelines for fire apparatus drivers that officials said could slow emergency response times. For the first time, there would be speed limits for fire trucks, and apparatus drivers stuck in traffic would be required to turn off their sirens and wait until the gridlock clears rather than try to maneuver around vehicles.
Fire officials drafted the rules after an internal review showed that fire vehicles had been involved in 824 accidents from 1999 through 2001. The review did not determine the cause of the accidents, but officials believe most occurred because motorists failed to yield to fire trucks. Better soundproofing and stereo systems in cars, along with cell phones and other distractions, contribute to the problem, officials said.
Many drivers seem either unwilling to yield or are not sure what to do when they hear a siren. Instead of pulling to the right and stopping, some pull to the left, some stop where they are and others just keep going. Firefighters are then forced to second-guess the drivers and weave their way around cars blocking their path, sometimes driving into oncoming traffic, said Captain Craig Nielsen, a driving coordinator for the Los Angeles Fire Department. A battalion chief was blunter: "They think where they are going is more important than where we are going."