Response Guidelines For Private Vehicles

Often, as I go around the country, firefighters will ask me to offer recommendations on procedures and protocols that a particular department may have. Conversely, in traveling around the country, I have observed a variety of ways to do a particular task. To this end I offer to you a set of generic guidelines for the operation of firefighters' personal vehicles in responding to the fire station or to the scene of a fire or other emergency.

Photo by Michael Wilbur
One of the more unusual examples of a volunteer firefighter's private vehicle. Whether they respond to fire stations or directly to scenes, operators must be aware of their responsibilities.

Several recent events make this an important issue. In New Jersey a firefighter responding in his personal vehicle to a pull box in a school killed two civilians. This response turned out to be a false alarm. In Maryland a firefighter responding in his personal vehicle crossed a double yellow line at an estimated 80 mph and crashed head-on into a van, killing one civilian and critically injuring another.

It is not uncommon for me to receive reports of firefighters driving through red lights and stop signs in personal vehicles. Yes, I have even received a complaint about a firefighter going around a stopped school bus that had its red lights flashing. Hopefully, these generic guidelines will be a starting point for your department to develop a policy statement in regards to this driving problem.

Some of the information used here can be found in a pamphlet, Alive On Arrival, distributed by the U.S. Fire Administration. The author of the pamphlet is Bill Troupe, who did a great job in helping to address personal vehicle response safety. The pamphlet is free and is available by calling Bill at 800-238-3358. Other information used is contained in the National Emergency Vehicle Operators Guide.

Standard Operating Guidelines: Responding In Your Private, Non-Emergency Vehicle

When responding to the station or scene of an emergency in a private vehicle, all applicable motor vehicle laws must be strictly adhered to. Privately owned non-emergency vehicles are not granted any exemptions to the vehicle traffic laws that apply to authorization emergency vehicles. PRIVATE VEHICLES ARE NOT EMERGENCY VEHICLES AND THEREFORE ARE NOT AFFORDED ANY EXEMPTIONS OR SPECIAL PRIVILEGES UNDER STATE LAW.

Due to the stress that a timely response generates, you need to make an extra conscious effort to operate your vehicle in a safe manner. You should pay close attention to:

  1. Speed limits and road, weather and light conditions.
  2. Intersections with and without control devices.
  3. Passing and turning.

If you are allowed some type and color of identification light (for example, in New York State a blue or green light), you must comply with your state's vehicle and traffic laws as well as rules and regulations covering the size, type and candle power of the light.

Remember that you are representing your emergency response organization and drawing attention to yourself when you respond with a colored light operating on your vehicle. (Note: In some states a privately owned vehicle properly equipped and operated could be considered an authorized emergency vehicle; consult your state's vehicle and traffic laws.)

You can be held criminally and civilly liable if an accident were to occur while you are on duty as an emergency responder. The agency for which you work can also be brought into a lawsuit if the case can be made that you were improperly or inadequately instructed, or no effort was made to control unsafe or reckless operation when responding.

When parking at the scene, keep your vehicle as far away as reasonably possible and in a safe position; try to keep the vehicles on one side of the street and, if possible, out of the street.

Did you know that over 270 firefighters and emergency responders have died in the last two decades from accidents involving their vehicles? In 1995, 18 firefighters died in the line of duty; nine of those firefighters died in their own personal cars. Twenty-five percent of the annual firefighter fatalities occurred while responding to and returning from alarms. These figures do not include the many emergency services personnel or the people they are sworn to protect who are injured annually from vehicle-related accidents.


  1. Drive with due care. Operate a vehicle as you would if all those in your vehicle and on the road around you were your family.
  2. Slower means safer. Never exceed the posted speed limit. Drive even slower when road conditions and/or visibility is poor.
  3. At an unguarded railroad crossing or when your view is obscured at a railroad crossing, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends lowering the vehicle's window, idling the engine and turning off all radios, fans and wipers to listen for oncoming trains.
  4. Never assume that another vehicle is aware of the presence of yours. Today's vehicles have noise insulation, powerful radios and air conditioning. The same could be said for dark tinted windows with colored lights. Additionally, some colored lights may be difficult to see in daylight.
  5. Always leave a window cracked open to be able to hear and stay clear of responding emergency vehicles.
  6. Park safely. Park your vehicle away from hazardous areas such as falling debris, downed electrical lines, the fire building, exposures, flames, toxic gases and smoke. If you park on a roadway, ensure your vehicle can be seen by oncoming traffic.
  7. Park wisely. Park on the same side of the road as the fire building, at least 200 feet away. Avoid blocking the road at all costs. Blocking the road could preclude the use of apparatus, a water shuttle operation and could delay needed medical attention at the fire scene.
  8. Do not move your vehicle unless you and all passengers are safely seated and wearing seatbelts.
  9. Make sure your vehicle is completely stopped before you or anyone exits.
  10. Never operate any vehicle or equipment while fatigued or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  11. You are responsible for the safe and prudent operation of your vehicle and for the safety of all people in and around your vehicle.
  12. Always stop at all intersections. When you are unable to proceed at a red light, turn your colored light off. By turning your colored light off you will avoid confusing motorists with the green light who may stop to give you the right-of-way not knowing that you legally cannot have the right-of-way or go through a red light.
  13. Members are responsible to have their personal response vehicles inspected annually and in a state of good repair.

General Requirements For Personal Response Vehicle Operators

  • A department of motor vehicles check will be done annually on every firefighter until the firefighter's 21st birthday. After the firefighter's 21st birthday, motor vehicle checks should take place at least every three years. This report, a driver's abstract, is secured by submitting a motor vehicle form on each firefighter for whom the abstract is required. This report should reflect not more than two Class B and NO Class A violation in a three-year period. (See Appendix A at the end of this column.)
  • A mandatory three-hour personal response safety course and "Essentials of Firemanship" must be successfully completed before personnel are to respond in their private response vehicles. Records are to be kept.
  • Firefighters must successfully complete a defensive driving course within the first year of membership. Records shall be kept.
  • All new firefighters shall be subject to periodic medical examinations which shall include drug testing. The purpose of the physical evaluation is to determine if the new member has the physical ability to adequately perform firefighting duties. The drug tests are performed to help lessen liability on the governing body.
  • Due to the lack of general driving experience and considering the amount of training and related activities of a young member of an emergency service organization, all members under the age of 18 should not be allowed to drive emergency vehicles under any circumstances. NO EXCEPTIONS.

Members between the ages of 18 and 21 who have demonstrated exceptional abilities with their personal training may become emergency vehicle operator trainees. The individual shall remain on this trainee list until his or her 21st birthday. During this time, candidates will meet the requirements of a training program established by the local emergency service organization.

The training program should include, but not be limited to, the following: Essentials of Firemanship, Initial Fire Attack I and II, Pump Operators and/or, Ladder Company Operations, Hazardous Material First Responder, Emergency Vehicle Operations course and a state-recognized Defensive Driving course.

Medical Requirements For Vehicle Operators

  • Meet all previous requirements of this policy.
  • A physical examination shall be completed by a licensed physician stating the driver is physically capable of safe driving in an emergency response situation. A signed copy of the completed physical examination must be kept in the member's file. The physical should include, but not be limited to, the following:

  1. No impairment of the use of foot, leg, hand, arm or fingertips, or any other structural defect or limitation that is likely to interfere with safe driving.
  2. Does not have diabetes mellitus to a degree presently requiring the use of insulin for control.
  3. Has no heart condition likely to cause loss of consciousness or sudden death.
  4. Has no respiratory ailment likely to interfere with safe driving.
  5. Has no arthritic, rheumatic, muscular or vascular condition which interferes with the ability to drive safely.
  6. Does not have epilepsy or any other condition likely to cause sudden loss of consciousness or loss of ability to control a vehicle.
  7. Has no mental, nervous, organic or functional disease or any psychiatric condition likely to interfere with safe driving.
  8. Must meet the following minimum vision requirements: At least 20/40 (Snellen) in each eye and in both eyes together, with or without glasses; at least 70 degrees side vision in each eye; the ability to distinguish red, green and yellow (or amber).
  9. Meet hearing requirements by perceiving a forced whisper at five feet with the better ear, or meet specified requirements as measured by a testing device, with or without a hearing aid.
  10. Evaluate medication (if taken) to determine if any chemical impairment would result and interfere with his ability to operate an emergency vehicle.
  11. Must not be diagnosed as an alcoholic.

  • A copy of this physician's certificate should be sent to the governing body's insurance carrier.

APPENDIX A: Department Of Motor Vehicles Transcription Requirements

An individual who has a Class A violation within the past three years normally receives a license suspension from the department of motor vehicles that issued the license. The position of the insurance industry with these individuals would also be required to attend an approved driver improvement program or equivalent training and be recertified to operate emergency vehicles.

Designation of Type A and Type B violations are based on a survey of state point systems. Violations receiving higher numbers of points are classed as Type A.

Type A Violations: