"We Don't Think It Will Happen To Us"

Since I started writing for Firehouse®, I have learned as much as I have shared. Each month, I get letters and telephone calls offering advice, words of encouragement, details of apparatus accidents and real-life experiences.

Last May, I received a real-life experience from Lieutenant Donald Fox of the Delhi Fire Department in Holt, MI. The letter that Don wrote has to be one of the most powerful accounts of a personal vehicle response accident that I have ever received. I believe that we could all learn a lesson on the safe response of our personal vehicles from Don's experience. Here is Don's letter:

My name is Donald Fox and I am a lieutenant with Delhi Township Fire Department. I am writing to you in regard to the February 1996 issue of Firehouse® and your article entitled "Apparatus Accident." On March 28, 1994, I too was in a tragic accident involving another motorist while I was responding to an emergency call in my personal vehicle with operating emergency lights and sirens. The motorist was killed.

The Delhi Township Fire Department is in Holt, MI, a suburb of Lansing, the state capital. The department is a paid, on-call department employing approximately 50 members. We have two stations located about five to six miles from each other on opposite sides of the township. I am assigned at our Number Two Station and live about two miles from that station.

The day of the accident I was at home when we were toned out in the early afternoon for a mutual aid response to assist another department with a structure fire. Since the run was during the time of day when most everybody is at work I responded to my station just to make sure that Station One had enough people for the run. I arrived at the station as another firefighter also arrived. By this time, Engine 214 from Station One had already gone enroute as well as 201, our Chief.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported 14,670 accidents involving fire department emergency vehicles in 1995, representing one-tenth of 1 percent of total responses. About 950 firefighters were injured in the accidents. Also in 1995, the NFPA logged 1,690 accidents involving firefighters responding in personal vehicles, with 190 firefighter injuries.

I contacted Station One to see of they needed any more assistance and I was advised that they were "all set." We did, however, listen to the radio for about twenty to thirty minutes to determine if any additional resources would be needed. It sounded like everything was OK and I called back to Station One to let them know we were leaving. I arrived back home and about five minutes later we were toned out for our Air Truck to help fill SCBA bottles at the fire. The Air Truck was located at Station Two, so I proceeded to get in my vehicle to respond. I turned on my lights and siren as I was leaving my residence and proceeded northbound on my street, then turned westbound onto another two lane road. From the two-lane stretch, I had to proceed through three intersections with signal lights. At the third, I had to turn south onto a four-lane highway. I was approaching the next intersection, which is the last thing that I remember.

I woke up wondering what had happened. I knew I was in an accident but I didn't know how bad. I remember asking the paramedics if anybody else was injured but they would not tell me. As I was getting treated for my injuries a bad feeling came to me because I was asking about the other person or people in the other vehicle and nobody would tell me. As a paramedic, I knew this was not a good sign. My wife arrived at the hospital and after many times of asking she finally told me that the other driver, a 20-year-old female, was killed. This would be a day I would never forget. I was admitted overnight for observation and was released the next day, which was my son's first birthday.

An investigation had begun and the Lansing police officer doing the investigation had stopped by to interview me but my family had asked if the officer could come back later on and he was nice enough to say he would. For a while, time went by with me not knowing exactly what was going to happen in my life. However, it was obviously about to change. Following the police investigation, the county prosecutor's office issued a charge of negligent homicide. The prosecutor's office felt there was enough evidence to bring criminal charges against me and an arrest warrant was issued. I then proceeded to contact an attorney as the criminal process began.

The police investigation determined that the traffic signal at the intersection cycled as I approached. The officer stated that the light had been "red" for about three to four seconds and that there were no signs of skid marks. The speed limit on this stretch was 45 mph and it was determined that I was going between 41-43 mph. Most of the witnesses stated that the light had just turned and they also heard my siren and/or had seen my light as I approached the intersection. In the collision, I had struck the other vehicle broadside. It was estimated by the police that the other vehicle was going 13-14 mph.

I was given the opportunity to turn myself in and was arraigned and released on a personal recognizance bond until the trial. If found guilty of the charge of negligent homicide, the penalty would be two years in prison.

The trial was about two weeks away and the prosecutor's office offered a plea bargain which was a plea of negligent homicide a misdemeanor. Well, thinking about this and discussing this with my wife and attorney and not knowing what a jury would do, I chose the plea bargain. With this plea bargain I was able to keep my license as a paramedic.

On the day of the sentencing I received one year in the county jail, a restitution fee for the family's funeral expenses of $5,000 and five years of probation. Because of good behavior I only did 78 days in the county jail. The first few weeks were tough. I will never forget the look on my wife's and my child's face the first time they came to see me as I could only communicate through a phone from a glass window as my son hollered my name Daddy. That was hard.

Time had gone by and I owe my wife, her family, my family, members of my department and my friends a debt of gratitude for watching over my wife and child while I was gone and for their prayers.

I am still a lieutenant with the Delhi Township Department and since then we have moved the Air Truck to Station One and changed some policies about personal vehicle response. The civil suit was settled out of court for $500,000, although I will always wonder what a trial by jury would have resulted in. I can only pray that no other person will ever have to go through the experience that we have gone through.

Thank you for giving me the incentive to write this letter as I've needed to do this for quite some time.

I would like to thank Don Fox and the Delhi Township Fire Department for sharing this important, yet tragic event. The next time you respond in your personal vehicle, think about response safety, think about Don Fox and realize we all have one thing in common we don't think it will happen to us. This column is stark evidence that this is a firefighter's magazine, for you and about you. Our job is firefighter safety and education. One of the most frequently asked questions is can I copy and use an article to train my firefighters or use it as a handout? The answer is yes. That is what we are here for. Remember, a safe response is the best response.

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.