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Although the theme of this month's Emergency Vehicle Operations column is the future, we still must report on the present - particularly if the lessons learned will improve the future.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) just released preliminary 1998 U.S. firefighter line-of-duty death statistics (see "Hot Off The Wire…" July 1999). Firefighter on-duty deaths remained below the century mark in 1998, which is good compared to the 1970s and the early 1980s; however, there is still room for improvement, particularly in the areas of heart attacks, job-related stress and emergency vehicle driving.
Ninety-one firefighters died in the line of duty last year. Of them, 17 died while responding to or returning from alarms, which represents 32.4% of the total number of firefighters who died in the line of duty in 1998. What is really troubling about firefighter deaths that occur while units are responding to alarms or returning to quarters is that, unlike fireground fatalities, nearly all them are completely and totally preventable. Why?
When you drive a piece of fire apparatus, you have almost complete control (with the exception of another driver hitting your vehicle). As the driver you have total control of the steering wheel, the brakes and the accelerator. That is not the case on the fireground, where unforeseen events such as a collapse, backdraft or flashover can occur out of the control of the incident commander or firefighters.
With that said, let's turn to the new millennium and what it may bring for the emergency vehicle operators of the year 2025. What you are about to read may be considered a visionary or even perhaps a wish list on my part.
Looking back at the large number of firefighters who perished or were injured by falling off the backsteps of apparatus, fell out of jump seats or were thrown from apparatus, standards and manufacturers addressed this safety issue by enclosing all riding positions and dictating the number of firefighters who could safely ride the apparatus.
The mandatory use of seatbelts in the apparatus could reduce responding and returning line-of-duty deaths by 70%. In the next millennium, I expect that technology will develop - and the insurance industry will require - a seatbelt and a seat that are interfaced together with electronics that will prevent the apparatus from moving in any gear until all firefighters are seated with seatbelts around their waists.
Due to the lack of meaningful emergency vehicle driver training and the fact that 95% to 99% of all emergency vehicle operators have no knowledge of their rights and responsibilities under their states' vehicle and traffic laws, emergency vehicle driver training will be mandated. Who will mandate emergency vehicle driver training? That is unclear at this time, but the mandate could come from the insurance industry, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Perhaps it will start at the state level. But one thing is certain: parameters must be set and adhered to. I would urge a minimum of 100 hours of driver training, including an emergency vehicle operators course, for a new apparatus operator. Such training should be given by a certified instructor who is from an outside agency, not a member of the fire department; thus, that person would be able to teach sensitive subject matter without fear of political or group reprisals.
This course should also include a minimum of five hours of defensive driving instruction. There must be an annual in-house recertification conducted by a department-certified driver trainer and every three years there must be a emergency vehicle operators course refresher conducted by an outside agent.
Due to the fire service's lack of compliance with safety standards that private industry and civilians must meet, more mandates will be imposed on the fire service in general and particularly on emergency vehicle operators. Areas that will and must be addressed are commercial drivers tests and licenses, medical examinations, random drug testing, emergency vehicle driver training and an annual DOT heavy-duty truck inspection for every piece of fire apparatus in operation in this country.
Traffic control pre-emption systems will become more affordable and will be protecting many more intersections. Along the same line, safety warning systems will be integrated into motor vehicles in the next century, which will result in smart cars. This technology enables drivers to receive signals warning them of a variety of road hazards and special traffic conditions. The technology is readily available today in the newest generation of "Smart" radar detectors. When an emergency vehicle is moving with its warning lights activated, the message, the safety warning system's receiver will display "Emergency Vehicle in Transit." When the system is integrated in motor vehicles, it will sound an audible alarm, as well as provide a visual message that an emergency vehicle is within the danger zone. When embraced by vehicle manufacturers, this technology could virtually eliminate emergency apparatus accidents involving civilian vehicles.
Finally, fire apparatus into the next millennium will go full circle when the present-day attitude that "bigger apparatus must be better" will fall by the wayside. Not because we will become wiser, but rather out of necessity - the necessity of being able to drive our fire apparatus in all parts of our cities and towns in a timely and safe fashion, while negotiating through streets that are more crowded and congested than ever before. The recent resurgence of tiller apparatus will continue, as fire departments try to balance their ability to carry needed personnel and equipment with the need to get the apparatus to the fire scene quickly, yet safely.
May all of us in fire service strive to find better and safer ways to deliver our services in the war that never ends, as we travel into the next millennium.
Michael Wilbur, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an FDNY lieutenant in Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx and a firefighter in the Howells, NY, Fire Department. He is an adjunct instructor at the New York State Academy of Fire Science and the Orange County Fire Training Center. Wilbur has developed and presented emergency vehicle operator courses throughout the country and has consulted on a variety of fire apparatus issues.