A Parade, The Fire Chief Or The Good Ole' Boys

It's that time of year when firefighters and fire departments conduct fund-raisers and participate in musters and parades.

This is also that time of year when some firefighters exhibit two behaviors: drinking alcohol while driving fire apparatus and/or drinking alcohol while riding on the outside of apparatus. Each behavior could lead to tragedy; putting the two behaviors together could be devastating for the firefighters, their families and the fire department.

Photo by Michael Wilbur
Riding on the outside of fire apparatus can have dangerous consequences. A fire chief must always be concerned with the safety of members, even if it means making unpopular decisions.

Why should I write about this topic? First, it is timely. But more important, a fire parade/DWI (driving while intoxicated) wreck has already occurred in 1998.

Notice that I called it a wreck and not an accident. Why? Here are the definitions of the word "accident" as they appear in Webster's Dictionary:

Accident - (1) An unexpected and undesirable event. (2) Something that occurs unexpectedly or unintentionally. (3) A nonessential circumstance or attribute. (4) Fortune or chance.

As you can see, nothing involving alcohol and driving or riding on fire apparatus is accidental.

This is the first of several columns based on different aspects of this wreck. The wreck occurred in March of this year following a St. Patrick's Day parade. The apparatus involved was a 1970s-vintage mid-mount ladder truck, one of only three in the county and the only ladder truck in this town. The ladder was being driven by Driver X, to participate in a parade several towns away. What occurred next is almost beyond belief.

As I tell my students in class, "You can't make this stuff up." After the parade ended, Driver X drove the ladder truck to several locations with no fewer than 30 people riding in, riding in between the beams of the ladder, on top of the apparatus and hanging off the apparatus.

After several hours of making the rounds, it was decided to drive the ladder truck back to quarters. Driver X was going to drive the ladder back to town along with one passenger, also a driver who will be identified as Driver Y. During the drive back to quarters, Driver X and Driver Y decided to switch positions while the ladder truck was in motion. The fire truck went off the right side of the road and into a ditch before striking a telephone pole.

The police charged the driver with driving while intoxicated, operating a motor vehicle with a blood-alcohol content greater than .10 percent and making an unsafe lane change. What is even more bizarre is that Driver Y is now allegedly suing Driver X, contending Driver X should not have been drinking and should have been able to safely drive the apparatus back to quarters, thus preventing Driver Y from being charged with DWI.

It was reported in a newspaper article that the ladder truck sustained superficial damage - mostly mud from being stuck in the ditch. The reality is that the vehicle incurred over $60,000 worth of damage. The vehicle was insured for $500,000 or full replacement value. In my investigation, I uncovered a number of fire apparatus insurance issues, which will be discussed in must-read columns that will appear in the emergency vehicle column before year's end.

Many questions arise from a wreck of this nature. Where was the fire chief or some fire department leadership? Was this the first time the fire department became aware of a potential alcohol problem? Was this the first time that the driver had driven the apparatus under the influence of alcohol? If there was a problem, why didn't someone do something before the apparatus was wrecked? These are complex questions with no easy answers. There is the problem of drinking and driving, with two distinct solutions. Who has to decide which solution to implement? You, the fire chief, or you, the good ole' boy?

The fire chief meets the problem head on, offering help in the form of consulting with the firefighter and providing professional therapy or medical intervention to help solve the problem. If these measures are rejected or fail to work, the next step should be some form of disciplinary action. If the fire chief follows this course of action, he stands a good chance of alienating some members, including perhaps some family members, which could ultimately unseat the fire chief in the next election.

The next solution, we call the good ole' boy solution. The action for this solution is no action at all. The fire chief sticks his head in the sand and holds his breath every time certain drivers get behind the wheel of his fire department's apparatus. This fire chief is hoping with all hope that nothing tragic happens while he is fire chief. This good ole' boy fire chief is more interested in being a member of the club than he is with the safety of his firefighters, the apparatus and oh, yes, the people we are sworn to protect: the public.

Which fire chief are you? Now would be a great time to do a self-inspection. Perhaps you could prevent a tragedy this summer.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has released preliminary 1997 firefighter fatality statistics. The second-leading cause of firefighter fatalities in 1997 was involvement in emergency vehicle/ motor vehicle incidents, with 18 killed in motor vehicle crashes and four struck by vehicles. Twelve of the 18 firefighters killed in motor vehicle collisions or rollovers were responding to alarms when the crashes occurred - five of those 12 were driving or were passengers in personal vehicles; the other seven were killed in six crashes involving fire department apparatus. The most commonly reported factors in these road crashes were speeding (including driving too fast for road conditions), failure to use seat belts, and failure to yield at intersections. (I would like to thank the NFPA for providing this information.)

If you noticed, one of the contributing factors in apparatus accident fatalities was failure to yield at intersections. My emergency vehicle operations seminar at Firehouse Emergency Services Expo '98 will deal with intersection safety. Hope to see you in Baltimore.

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.