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Here is a perfect example of how flawed the system really is. I know of a fire chief whose last official act The sirens and with no inspection or registration. If you are driving fire apparatus that does not have a DOT heavy duty truck inspection, you are putting yourself and your fellow firefighters at risk.
The lack of fire apparatus inspections in this country is a big problem that was pointed out in a 1991 National Transportation and Safety Board Special Investigative Report of eight separate fire apparatus accidents. The two leading recommendations to the fire service were the mandatory use of seatbelts and annual apparatus inspection.
The next argument from fire departments is that we do our own in-house inspections and have our own mechanics and maintenance shops, so we do not need government regulations. That attitude is of little consolation to the families of two firefighters who died in Waterbury, CT, when the pumper in which they were riding lost its brakes and ended up into a tree. That pumper had at least 14 request-for-repair tickets at the Waterbury shops, some of which included requests to fix the brakes. After the accident, Connecticut initiated a voluntary non-fee inspection program for fire apparatus. The Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles then inspected 559 fire apparatus from 64 cities and towns. Of those, 193 apparatus failed the roadside inspection. Fifty percent of the deficiencies involved brakes and 18 percent involved steering components. Ironi-cally, those two deficiencies were key factors in the fatal Waterbury crash.
The last regulation to be ignored involves mandatory random drug and alcohol testing. The DOT requires drug and alcohol testing as part of a CDL physical exam. Pilots, train engineers and bus drivers also must submit to testing. Even a local department of public works with fewer than 50 employees is mandated by a Jan. 1, 1996, federal law to institute a mandatory drug and alcohol testing and awareness program.
Most career fire departments require testing as part of a firefighter's condition of employment. However, the volunteer sector lags far behind here. It would seem we have our heads stuck in the sand on this issue. Where do firefighters come from? The answer: the general population. Does the general population of this country have an alcohol and drug problem? The answer is an overwhelming yes. The NFPA is coming out with a new standard NFPA 1451 Driving Risk Management Program for the fire service. I submitted a proposal for drug and alcohol testing to be included in that standard; it was denied. I also sent proposals on CDLs and apparatus inspections; they too were denied.
It is sad that with all the firefighter safety issues we have tackled, we ignore driving. Seeking exemptions from highway safety is no way to gain public confidence and trust with the motorists with whom we share the roads. Safety is an issue in which the fire service must be consistent. We cannot operate safely in one area of firefighting and then do a 180-degree turnabout and be unsafe in another.
Who regulates fire apparatus and their operators? Unfortunately, no one. We must change that. The life you might save may be yours or that of someone you know.
Michael Wilbur, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an FDNY ladder company driver and a training officer of the Howells, NY, Fire Department. He is a New York State Academy of Fire Science adjunct instructor and has developed and presents emergency vehicle operations courses at the Orange County Fire Training Center and at national seminars and lectures.