Life (And Death) In The Fast Lane: Part 2 – Preventing Harm

The worst day that a fire chief can have is when a member gets harmed. Our business is often referred to as a brother/sisterhood; therefore, an injury to one translates into damage to all. Chief officers - nope, make that all officers and members - must prevent avoidable harm to everyone who pins on the badge (actually everyone and everything).

Photo courtesy of the Plano Fire Department
This Plano, TX, Fire Department pumper has reflective tape and paint enhancements for all weather and lighting visibility.

During my first seven years as a fire chief with two great agencies, I had a few close calls. One incident that has been impossible to forget involved two firefighters being struck by an automobile on Interstate 64 in Norfolk, VA. Part one of this series (March 2003) described the accident, the emotions and the damage that a vehicle traveling 50 mph can do to a healthy young firefighter. This segment will take an in-depth look at our four input factors to best determine ways to prevent similar highway accidents from occurring when we are performing our duties in the street.

By way of a brief review, Firefighter Nick Nelson and the other three members of Engine 14 "A" shift responded to a report of an automobile on fire on Interstate 64 at the Norview exit. It was 2:21 A.M. on March 13, 2002, when this disaster began to unfold. Within minutes after dispatch, Engine 14 reported on location with a working auto fire on the interstate. After a tactical size-up, our members began stretching a 13/4-handline to attack the engine compartment fire. Nelson positioned his hoseline at the left front wheel well to start fire attack while the other firefighters entered the passenger compartment to unlatch the hood-release mechanism. By all indications, the plan, at first, seemed to be working well and the vehicle fire would be rapidly contained and extinguished.

Without warning, a vehicle traveling past the burning car struck Nelson at an estimated speed of 50 mph. Just before the car smashed into Nelson, the firefighter who was attempting to pull the hood-latch release lever received a glancing blow from the same car, brushing him into the passenger compartment and out of harm's way. Nelson, however, was lifted up on the hood of the passing vehicle and carried about 50 feet from point of impact.

The ever-diligent firefighter, Nelson hung onto the attack line during this wild ride. Once the hoseline was stretched out tight, he was pulled from the car's hood. It is at this point that he received the worst of the injuries as the car ran over the backs of both of his legs. The indelible tire marks on his turn out gear are a depressing and tangible reminder of this event.

When the accident was investigated, several "lessons learned or reinforced" surfaced very early into the review. The "links" in the safety-and-survival chain were breaking all around Nelson, and this allowed his injuries to occur. The contributing factors ranged from the previous evening's rain causing fog and low (poor) ground visibility, to Nelson being in an active traffic lane without barrier protection, to no warning signals for oncoming drivers. Noteworthy was that a second vehicle crashed into the still-burning car, almost striking all four members of Engine 14 as the balance of the crew provided aide to their injured brother. We were lucky that night.

As the situation concluded, one member (Firefighter Milton Odem) was treated and released within hours and Nelson, after a long hospital stay and rehabilitation process, returned to full duty. (I do worry about him though; soon after his return to full-duty status was achieved, he left the fire department to pursue a police career. Go figure.) The accident has cemented a lifetime bond between Nick Nelson and me. By now, you have realized that part two will be taking an in-depth look at how to prevent the chief's worst nightmare.

Firefighter injury and fatality statistics indicate that nearly 30% of all line-of-duty deaths occur while we are responding to, returning from and working in the street at alarms. This horrible statistic seems to remain constant from year to year, indicating that we (fire service leaders) are doing very little about this looming problem. Research has been conducted producing "Best Practice" behaviors and programs, but there does not appear to be a rush to implement even the simplest of controls to lessen the impact of this problem.

Right after the Norfolk interstate accident, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) conducted a video training teleconference. Many attended and participated, but most departments did not take advantage of this great opportunity. Further, the U.S. Fire Administration produced an excellent "white paper" on the topic, but I would submit that most department leaders are unaware of this invaluable, no-cost federal resource. (Knowing that Firehouse® readers are among the best and brightest in the business, I hope that this writing will help most departments work safely in the streets. And while I am "soap boxing," you can meet now-Police Officer Nick Nelson and see his turnout pants - with tire marks - at the July 2003 Firehouse Expo in Baltimore.)

Before I leave the background section, I want to report that police agencies incur about 50% of their line-of-duty deaths responding to, returning from and operating out in the streets. Perhaps both fire and police agencies need to work on this critical area of improvement together. With Nick becoming a cop and my namesake (Dennis, II) working for the U.S. Secret Service, I felt a fatherly need to get the PD plug in as well. Think about it, a speeding auto on the street should/must fall into the IDLH category - immediately dangerous to life and health.


Perhaps the best way to discuss "best practice" guidelines is to use the four categories that actually cause accidents. The four major causes of accidents are:

  • 1. Engineering controls
  • 2. Administrative controls
  • 3. Environmental conditions
  • 4. Human action and performance

Accident investigators are usually able to identify one or more of these factors as the direct cause of accidents. In most cases a series of factor failures will precede a negative consequence (firefighter death or injury). A recent LODD review of 50 fatalities revealed that the fewest number of factors that occurred prior to the mortal firefighter injury was four. The average number of factors involved in these 50 untimely deaths was seven. Finally, some cases took 11 "links" of the safety chain to fail before the members lost their lives.

Incidents involving a single causative factor do happen, but they are rare. An example of a single factor (not necessarily ending in disaster) might be a firefighter failing to wear a seatbelt when the vehicle is underway. Just because a poor behavior (actually stupid) was applied, it does not necessarily spell out death or even injury. However, when the rig gets intimate with Mr. Telephone Pole, the poorly behaved and trained member could become a statistic, even though the injury could have been easily prevented by clicking the seatbelt.


Engineering controls deal with design and maintenance of all of the mechanical items. An example of an engineering control would be the application of an anti-lock brake system. By design, ABS will not allow a wheel to "lock-up," but will rhythmically impulse to slow and slightly rotate the tire to prevent the loss of steering control.

There are many engineering controls that must be included at every alarm to avoid accidents and injuries. Once the apparatus is properly spotted and tactically placed (a very big deal), the drive wheels must be chocked. The driver should be assigned this duty and the chocks are now being stored (by design) near the rear wheels for very easy and rapid application.

Next, don't get off of the truck without a reflective turnout coat or traffic vest. The fire-rescue service has the neatest dark-blue T-shirts in existence. However, when these are coupled with dark-blue pants or shorts, we become nearly invisible to the motoring public who are focusing on the overturned car or the smoke-covered Cape Cod. Wear reflective outer garments on every call, not just the ones unfolding out in the street. If your department always follows this rule, this safety behavior will become second nature and a habit (which chiefs will love). Perhaps one of the best incident safety officers that I have ever met, Chief Donald Grant of Norfolk, visualized a time in the future when the entire turnout gear ensemble would be reflective. I think Grant may be on to something with this idea.

The next engineer control factor is to set up traffic cones all around your apparatus every time it is parked anywhere outside of the fire station bay. Cones are being carried on the front, side and rear running boards, making this task simple. Having the cones in such an obvious location serves as an ever-present reminder to establish your "force field" all around the truck.

Along with the cones, fire-rescue apparatus must have plenty of reflective striping and proper lighting. Most manufacturers offer a wide variety of lighting packages. Of course, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1901 must be followed as a minimum, but the amber light directional sticks are gaining popularity as a safety option. Simply put, add the lights and reflective tape that will cause you to be noticed by oncoming traffic the earliest. The photo on page 88 was provided by Chief Bill Peterson of the Plano, TX, Fire Department. Plano's rigs are highly visible when they are out on the street, regardless of the lighting.

A major factor in protecting our most precious resource, our members, is to provide and maintain physical barriers between the firefighters at work and vehicles. A great start to this process is to use our response equipment to develop a restricted (cold zone) area. Various police (local, state, etc.) could fill this task nicely most of the time. However, if passenger vehicles are selected for firefighter shielding where high speeds or large vehicles are possibly going to cause human damage, make sure that they are positioned in three or four "layers" to absorb the energy transfer at the point of impact long before the work zone area is affected. The notion is to completely block out the injury potential, not just to add more sheet metal to harm us.

Along with the mandatory physical protection barriers, consider roadside signage for early warning to the motorists. Most departments have quick access to public works or street departments that are generally great at marking (and unmarking) roadways. When we call out these supporting departments, it is usually for a long-duration, big-deal alarm. Some fire-rescue organizations have a limited selection of informational signs aboard the big red trucks. These could be very useful as well to notify oncoming traffic to slow down and move over.


Administrative controls are all of the procedural "stuff" that lets fire-rescue operations go smoothly. One of the most important administrative controls that comes to mind would be the incident command system. ICS gives structure (by policy) to properly control operations and beyond. Perhaps a practical example of safety administrative control would be a posted speed limit. The theory is that if a vehicle is correctly operated at the proper speed, then there should not be an accident or an accident where the vehicle speed was a contributing factor.

Standard operating guidelines (SOGs) are the bases for all administrative controls. All fire-rescue departments must be "guided" by written procedures to ensure efficiency and effectiveness and to provide for member safety. Operations should be structured in such a way that standard (expected) outcomes are forecasted early into the alarm and that the forecast becomes a reasonable reality. When I get to "hang out" with a department, and each shift (or even each battalion) operates like a different department (even though it is interesting), I get nervous for that chief, because disaster is usually looming like a dark cloud.

Another critical component of successfully applying administrative controls is ensuring that they are consistently used. Most departments do not have a structured training program for SOGs. This becomes a very big mistake and often costs a dear price in life, property and monetary losses. I have asked hundreds of firefighters about the development of their organizations' SOGs. About 90% of the time, the response is that someone screwed up and the chief had a deputy or battalion chief write a policy to prevent it in the future.

A follow-up question is, "When does the SOG book hit the kitchen table or desktop?" By far, the number-one answer is, "When the next person screws up and the Chief wants to write 'em up." The last policy-related question I ask is, "How often does the department formally train on the SOGs?" A few people will mention that the book is out for individual promotional study, but their departments never hold formal training on the policies. These responses always seem to put a knot in my stomach thinking about the potential negative outcomes that such an approach may cause.

Training is a critical element of the SOG process - no ifs, ands or buts! One very effective system that I employed was to discuss SOGs during monthly officers meetings. Using overhead transparencies, I would turn the SOG book into a visual presentation and review about five per month in detail. I tried to schedule the review in such a way that a complete review cycle took one calendar year. With the beginning of a new year, we would start over with SOG No. 1 and repeating this never-ending cycle. Most interesting, the officers would catch all of my errors such as spelling, various changes and the like. A great byproduct was a thorough annual updating of the SOG book. SOGs were used extensively in the development of promotional assessment center test measurements, which made the reviews more palatable for the collection of fire-rescue bosses.

A few critical guidelines that must be included in traffic-related operations include dispatching companies from both directions to incidents on limited-access highways. When a company is faced with the tough decision of either violating or not violating a safety procedure to "speed up" reaching the customers, the stark reality is that they will take the risk. Why should the department cause them to make this unwise decision in the first place? If a company is responding in the lane that is not reasonably accessible by the first-arriving fire truck, the pressure is "off" knowing that it is only a short time until help arrives from the correct direction while the first company goes to the proper turnaround point.

Worth mentioning here is to use the ICS all of the time. Don't go it alone. Call for help early and often. The police are experts at stopping and blocking traffic lanes, so invite them to be a part of the party as well. I would suggest a policy to limit the "human" resource exposure to street traffic whenever you can. Handle the incident and get out of the hazard zone as soon as it is reasonable.

The factor of human action and/or performance is a very simple concept to explain, understand and even write about in articles. However, without a doubt, human error is our "Achilles heel" when it comes to firefighter death and injury. Simply put, members must follow their policies, procedures and training all of the time. Firehouse® allowed me the opportunity to publish a seven-part series on Crew Resource Management. I would strongly suggest that if you are interested in improving your operations tenfold or more, then look into, develop and use a CRM program in your agency.

The other major element that comes to mind with human action/ performance is proper attitude. It is amazing to me just how powerful having and keeping a positive attitude can be for a successful outcome in just about any activity.


Working at incidents that add the IDLH element of moving traffic must take on a lot more importance if we are going to lower our horrible accident rate. The statistics are crying out for us to make major changes in how we fundamentally do business on the streets in our community.

Every fire-rescue department must take on the task of developing and implementing a "Best Practice" policy. This policy must be the program's foundation. It must be valued throughout the organization, from the five-trumpet person to the "booter." Knowing that about 30 brothers and sisters are going to die in the streets this year as fire-rescue line-of-duty deaths is motivation enough that should cause us to fundamentally change how we deliver our services.

Keep the "safety chain" in mind as you go about your day-to-day operations. We must focus a lot of energy on controlling the four primary causes of accidents - engineering failures, administrative breakdowns, environmental factors and human error - as best we can to avoid accidents.

There is no need to go through your policy and "Best Practice" development process alone. Take advantage of the already developed materials and presentations that are out there to help "jump start" your program. Learn more about Crew Resource Management and always make sure your operations start under control, stay under control and end under control. Until next time, stay safe out there!

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the city manager and public safety director for the City of Dothan, AL. He is a 30-year fire-rescue veteran, serving in many capacities and with several departments. Rubin holds an associate's degree in fire science from Northern Virginia Community College and a bachelor's degree in fire science from the University of Maryland, and he is enrolled in the Oklahoma State University Graduate School Fire Administration Program. Rubin is a 1993 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and holds the national Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification and the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He serves on several IAFC committees, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. Rubin can be reached at