Back To Basics: How Big Is Your Department’s Checkbook?

Do you drive fire apparatus without any training?

Do you have any certificates for emergency vehicle driving, pumping or aerial operations?

Did you ever drive the apparatus through a stop sign without stopping?

Did you ever drive the apparatus through a red light without stopping?

If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then you had better read the review below or be ready at the very least to have your or your department's checkbook handy to pay out a big settlement!

For most of us, we will need to keep reading. Much has been learned over the last decade about emergency vehicle driving. One point that is really quite obvious but undiscovered by this author until recently was the fact that we as firefighters by our very nature are risk takers. At every fire, every emergency, every rescue and yes even every call that we respond to we take calculated risks. We as firefighters are in a high-risk occupation. In a large percentage of our calls we take these risks with everything working out in our favor and the fire or emergency is brought to a successful conclusion.

One would only have to look at recent events within the New York City Fire Department, however, to realize what can happen when risks are taken and things do not work out well at all. Then, with my interest in safe emergency vehicle operations, I decided to investigate the possibility of this risk-taking behavior being an inherent part of emergency vehicle driving. So the question is, do we drive emergency vehicles using risk-taking or high-risk behaviors?

The answer would have to been an overwhelming yes. Now, put this fact together with a young firefighter who believes that he or she is invincible and a lack of experience behind the wheel of an emergency vehicle and we have an accident waiting to happen. This could begin to explain why young firefighters driving to calls, whether in fire apparatus or their personal cars, represent such a high risk on the nation's highways and have such a high line-of-duty death rate.

With the United States becoming more crowded, which equates to more cars, more pedestrians, more red lights and stop signs, and yes more fire apparatus, going through a red light in a fire truck without due regard for other users of the highway and not stopping is high-risk behavior. There are no "Emergency Vehicle Operations Cops" watching us drive fire apparatus.

There now is another behavior at work: acceptance by deception. Let's say you blow through an intersection at 56 miles per hour. Why did I pick 56 mph? Because it comes out of a case study in Indiana, where the operator of a fire apparatus blew through a red light at 56 mph and killed a female in the car that he struck. So if you blow through an intersection at 56 mph and no one says anything to you - i.e., a chief, company officer or a fellow firefighter - then you as the driver believes it is the right thing to do, even though in your heart of hearts you know it is morally wrong.

What about the apparatus operator who increases his or her speed with each successive run until the apparatus is going five, then 10, then 15 miles per hour over the posted speed? Why are we doing this? Because we are risk takers and we have acceptance by deception. Acceptance by deception is defined as a dangerous act or high-risk behavior that is believed to be acceptable by the operator because authority figures have failed to discipline or have looked the other way as the behavior is being practiced. This in turn creates an air of deception as the operator believes through the lack of discipline or having authority figures look the other way that the behavior is now acceptable, even though the operator knows that the behavior is wrong.

By this silent acceptance, operators deceive themselves into believing that what they are doing is right when everyone knows that it is wrong. You can do the same behavior - for instance, speed - and no one says anything to you, but more importantly you don't hit anyone and you do not get in an accident. Not getting into an accident had nothing to do with your driving skills, but rather just your good fortune on that particular run.

You may be lucky for many years, but at some point in time your luck will run out in you will be involved in the big one and it has nothing to do with a fire. But rather you have now had the big accident and you have hurt or killed someone. Now the long court process has begun.

Now I will relate to you a true story that happened to me. I was at home many years ago when the phone rang; it was an attorney from Virginia. He began by introducing himself and his firm. He then asked about my availability as an expert witness in a civil liability trial.

The attorney then began to relate to me the facts of his case. He started with a 46,500-pound rescue truck going down a steep grade at 60 mph in a 45 mph zone. The rescue truck was driven by a 23-year-old operator from a volunteer department. The roadway was wet from a rain shower, but the rain had stopped. The apparatus was headed for a one-lane bridge.

The driver of the car ahead of the apparatus put his brakes on at about the same time as the driver saw the rescue truck's warning lights and heard the siren. At the same time, the engine brake on the apparatus activated at the same time as the 23-year-old operator activated the service brakes in a panic. These actions caused the rescue truck to go sideways and clean all the cars off the bridge. The driver of one of the cars, a husband and a father of three small children ages 1, 3 and 6, was killed by the rescue truck as he drove home from work.

With my allegiance to the fire department, I started to quiz the attorney as to the fire department's involvement in this mess. I was told that the 23-year-old driver had driven the rescue truck only five times prior to the accident and that the driver had never received any formal driver training. In fact, no records were kept to even verify that the operator had actually driven the rescue truck the five times prior to the accident. The operator had never been trained in the proper operation of the engine brake which figured heavily in the final fatal outcome.

It is bad enough that many apparatus operators take risks when driving and many of those risks are taken unnecessarily. But in this case the operator had little or no training at all with which to take these risks and with nothing in writing what ever occurred as far as training really did not occur in the eyes of the court. For if it is not in writing, it simply did not happen in the eyes of the law. So not only do we have a young man volunteering his time that has ruined his life, we have fellow firefighters and officers that led the driver to this fate. This is where the acceptance by deception comes into play.

The attorney's knowledge of emergency vehicle operations was astounding. As I quizzed him, the attorney was quoting chapter and verse from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1002 professional driving standard for fire apparatus, the National Transportation safety Board (NTSB) report on the eight fire apparatus accidents that it had investigated and the proper operation of the engine brake from the owner's manual. Ironically, the attorney had probably never driven fire apparatus, yet he was more knowledgeable about the task than most firefighters who do drive fire apparatus.

As the fire department and the driver involved in this accident, how do you defend yourself against an attorney who knows more than you do about the safe operation of emergency vehicles? What can the fire department and/or the firefighter-driver do or say to help defend themselves from this litigation? There was no driver training and no records were kept; in fact, there was nothing tangible that could have been presented to get the fire department or the firefighter out of this mess.

Realize that once a case like this gets to court, the chances of any positive outcome for the apparatus operator or the fire department are minimal at best - and that would only be if driver training had taken place with good records kept. In this case, the only recourse for the fire department is to go to court, open up its checkbook and ask the judge HOW MUCH?

We simply cannot defend the indefensible. We must and we do pay. And when we pay, we pay big. This payment goes way beyond the money, as you will see in the next installment of the Emergency Vehicle Operations column.

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.