Back To Basics: The Lairdsville Guilty Verdict

Perhaps you are wondering how we are going to integrate back-to-basics ideas and breaking news out of Lairdsville, NY. Hang on. Many of you have been following the criminal trial of a volunteer assistant fire chief charged for his involvement in a tragic live-fire training exercise, covered on the Internet at For those of you who are not familiar with the case, we will go over some of the pertinent facts.

On Sept. 25, 2001 the assistant chief of Lairdsville, age 30, was allegedly the officer in charge of a live-fire training exercise for the Lairdsville Fire Company, one of three companies in the Westmoreland Fire District, located in central New York State not far from the city of Utica. The fire company had acquired a two-story wood-frame house for training and planned to use it for that purpose on that September night. In the ensuing tragedy a firefighter with no experience at all (it was his first training exercise) was killed and two other firefighters were severely burned, one of whom was the 21-year-old safety officer and the fire chief's son.

Many questions come to mind, but the one that I would ask is, where were the experienced senior firefighters who let this situation unfold? That could be the subject of another article.

Part of the defense raised by the assistant chief's attorney was the lack of knowledge by the fire department, the firefighters and the fire officers of the existence of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards in general and NFPA 1403, the live-fire training standard, in particular. I believe that this is a landmark, precedent-setting case that will impact the fire service for years to come - and not just in the area of live-fire training, but in all fire department day-to-day operations. Why? Because of the guilty verdict, the alleged lack of knowledge about NFPA standards and the attorney trying to use that as part of his defense.

How does all of this relate to operating emergency vehicles?

Let's look at a normal driving rule. It is unlawful in any state to consume a certain amount of alcohol and drive a motor vehicle. Yet most motor vehicle operators do not have a copy of their respective state vehicle and traffic laws on their nightstands at the ready for bedtime reading. However, if you drink enough alcohol, drive and get caught, you will probably go to jail, whether you have read your state's vehicle and traffic laws lately or not. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse to break that law or better yet ignore the law.

What makes the Lairdsville tragedy a landmark case is it is the first known case in which an NFPA standard was used, in part, to secure a guilty verdict in a fire department criminal case. For years, NFPA standards have been used in fire department civil court cases; in some instances, standards were used so that firefighters could sue each other.

In keeping with our back-to-basics theme, these are some of the NFPA rules that you may be obligated to follow, in regard to both civil and criminal law, as you operate emergency vehicles:

4-2. Drivers/Operators of Fire Department Vehicles.

4-2.1. Fire department vehicles shall be operated only by members who have successfully completed an approved driver training program or by student drivers who are under the supervision of a qualified driver. Driver/operators of fire apparatus shall meet the requirements specified in 3-3.3 of this standard.

4-2.2. Drivers of fire department vehicles shall have valid driver's licenses. Vehicles shall be operated in compliance with all traffic laws, including sections pertaining to emergency vehicles, and any requirements of the authority having jurisdiction.

4-2.3. Drivers of fire department vehicles shall be directly responsible for the safe and prudent operation of the vehicles under all conditions. When the driver is under the direct supervision of an officer, that officer shall also assume responsibility for the actions of the driver.

4-2.4. Drivers shall not move fire department vehicles until all persons on the vehicle are seated and secured with seatbelts or in approved riding positions, other than as specifically allowed in 4-3.1 of this chapter.

4-2.5. During non-emergency travel, drivers of fire department vehicles shall obey all traffic control signals and signs, and all laws and rules of the road of the jurisdiction for the operation of motor vehicles.

4-2.6. The fire department shall develop written standard operating procedures for safely driving fire department vehicles during non-emergency travel and emergency response and shall include specific criteria for vehicle speed, crossing intersections and traversing railroad grade crossings. Such procedures for emergency response shall emphasize that the safe arrival of fire department vehicles at the emergency scene is the first priority.

4-2.7. During emergency response, drivers of fire department vehicles shall bring the vehicle to a complete stop for any of the following:

  • a. When directed by a law enforcement officer.
  • b. Red traffic lights.
  • c. Stop signs.
  • d. Negative right-of-way intersections.
  • e. Blind intersections.
  • f. When the driver cannot account for all lanes of traffic in an intersection.
  • g. When other intersection hazards are present.
  • h. When encountering a stopped school bus with flashing warning lights.

4-2.7.1. Drivers shall proceed through intersections only when the driver can account for all lanes of traffic in the intersection.

4-2.8. During emergency response or non-emergency travel, drivers of fire department vehicles shall come to a complete stop at all unguarded railroad grade crossings. Drivers shall assure that it is safe to proceed before crossing the railroad track(s). Drivers shall also use caution when approaching and crossing any guarded grade railroad crossing.

4-2.9. The fire department shall include in the driver training program information on the potential hazards of retarders, such as engine, transmission and driveline retarders, and shall develop a written standard operating procedures pertaining to the use of such retarders.

4-2.10. The fire department shall develop written standard operating procedures requiring drivers to discontinue the use of manual brake limiting valves, frequently labeled as a "wet road/dry road" switch, and requiring that the valve/switch remains in the "dry road" position.

4-3. Persons Riding on Fire Apparatus.

4-3.1. All persons riding on fire apparatus shall be seated in approved riding positions and shall be secured to the vehicle by seatbelts at any time the vehicle is in motion other than as allowed in 4-3.1.1 4-3.1.2. and 4-3.1.3 of this section. Riding on tail steps, sidesteps, running boards or in any other exposed position shall be specifically prohibited. Standing while riding shall be specifically prohibited.

4-3.1.1. Members actively performing necessary emergency medical care while the vehicle is in motion shall be secured to the vehicle by a seatbelt or by a safety harness designed for occupant restraint, to the extent consistent with the effective provision of such emergency medical care. All other persons in the vehicle shall be seated and belted in approved riding positions while the vehicle is in motion.

4-3.1.2. Hose loading operations shall be permitted to be performed on moving fire apparatus only when all of the following conditions are complied with:

  • a. Hose loading procedures shall be specified in a written standard operating procedure that includes at least these safety conditions. All members involved in the hose loading shall have been trained in these procedures.
  • b. There shall be a member, other than those members loading hose, assigned as a safety observer. The safety observer shall have an unobstructed view of the hose loading operations and be in visual and voice contact with the apparatus operator.
  • c. Non-fire department vehicular traffic shall be excluded from the area or shall be under the control of authorized traffic control persons.
  • d. The fire apparatus shall be driven only in a forward direction at a speed of 5 mph or less.
  • e.No members shall be allowed to stand on the tail step sidesteps, running boards or any other location on the apparatus while the apparatus is in motion.
  • f. Members shall be permitted to be in the hose bed, but shall not stand while the apparatus is in motion.
  • g. Prior to the beginning of each hose loading operation, the situation shall be evaluated to ensure compliance with all the provisions of the standard operating procedure. If the standard operating procedure cannot be complied with or if there is any questions as to the safety of the operation for the specific situation then the hose shall not be loaded on moving fire apparatus.

I have touched on only a few of the rules that you need to know if you are going to operate emergency vehicles safely and stay out of jail. Boy, there sure is a lot to know about firefighting, fire training and operating emergency vehicles. How much can you really know if you are only 30 and 21 years old, respectively?

If you do not know the rules, you must learn about them before you hurt someone, perhaps even yourself, or you end up in jail. Let Lairdsville represent a new beginning, a spirit of education and learning. Don't let Lairdsville become the end to yet another tragedy.

Stay tuned, as we will have another installment of Emergency Vehicle Operations "back to basics" next time.

Michael Wilbur, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served for the past five years on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He has consulted on a variety of apparatus related issues throughout the country.