EVOC: Texting, Cell Phones And the Apparatus Operator

To my loyal readers: I have been on an extended hiatus, but I’m glad to be back writing about the issues of the day confronting emergency vehicle operators. Much has happened since my last column.

First, after 31 years as a member of the New York City Fire Department, I retired early this year. I had a terrific career. I was blessed to work with some of the best structural firefighters in the world. I was assigned to, two great truck companies in the Bronx, Ladder 56 as a firefighter and chauffeur and Ladder Company 27 as a lieutenant. The experience that I gained and the friends I made I will always cherish.

As part of my career in the FDNY, my last assignment was to retrofit the FDNY fleet with Ready Reach Seat Belts, which we have written and talked about extensively. As Ready Reach Seat Belts have worked so well in the FDNY, there was an idea that perhaps we could retrofit other apparatus fleets both big and small with this life-saving technology. However, as of this writing, it appears that this is not going to happen as the seatbelt company, IMMI, has chosen to pursue the new fire apparatus market exclusively and has given up on the idea of retrofitting existing fleets.

I have also written and lectured extensively about the firefighter anthropometric study conducted under the auspices of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The study results will be made public shortly. However, two National Firefighter Protection Association (NFPA) committees, NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus and the NFPA Technical Committee on Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Clothing and Equipment, already have the information and documents are being prepared as part of an effort to change those standards to reflect the new anthropometric data. There will be more on this in the coming months as the anthropometric data makes its way through the NFPA standards-making process.


Unsafe driving

One would only have to watch the news or read about recent events to realize that highway fatalities and injuries involving drivers using cell phones or texting are occurring with frightening regularity to the point of being a national epidemic. Just as there is nothing accidental about drinking and driving, as a decision is made to do it, the same can be said about texting or talking on a cell phone driving while driving.

Being a little naive, I thought it would be unthinkable for anyone to operate an ambulance or fire apparatus while texting or talking on a cell phone. Then I went on my new favorite website, YouTube, and there are fire apparatus operators and ambulance operators being caught by onboard cameras texting while driving and talking on cell phones while driving. While neither behavior is acceptable, texting seems to be the bigger of the two distractions and the more popular particularly with younger operators.

How many times have you driven lights-and-siren only to become unglued as an inattentive driver crosses your path on the way to a fire or emergency? And yet many of us are doing the very same thing. If you are texting while driving an emergency vehicle, you run a substantially greater risk of wrecking the vehicle vs. a normal civilian operator doing the same thing. It is sad to think that we have those in our ranks who would violate the public’s trust in such a heinous way.

Some states have laws against drivers using cell phone while others do not. In New York, although we have had a law on the books for some time prohibiting cell phone use while driving, a new state law was just passed raising the first-time fine to $150 and five points on your driver’s license. I just completed an emergency vehicle operators course in Quebec and was shocked to find out that emergency vehicle operators are exempt from provincial laws governing the prohibition of cell phone use while driving.

What do your state laws say about driving motor vehicles while using a cell phone or texting in general and what do the laws say specifically about driving an emergency vehicle while using a cell phone? Those are questions that need to be answered. But more important, what do your department’s policies state about having cell phones while on duty, using them or driving while using them? Some career departments have a policy of leaving cell phones turned off in fire station lockers, other departments ban cell phones onboard apparatus at all times and still others have no written policies at all. Many of those policies were enacted when first responders were taking pictures of the victims we are sworn to protect and serve, not necessarily for texting while driving.


Enforcing the rules

What do your fire department policies state about cell phone use? What is the punishment if you are caught violating the policies? How are the policies enforced? Who enforces the policies?

In reality, cell phone use should be prohibited for any driver of any emergency vehicle, period. The punishment is easy – the individual caught talking on a cell phone or texting on a cell phone while driving an emergency vehicle should NEVER be allowed to drive an emergency vehicle again. That’s right, a lifetime ban. If you are a career engineer, that could result in you being fired or demoted for being unable to perform the functions of your job.

That may sound drastic, but it’s absolutely necessary. Enforcement should be the job of everyone in the fire department, knowing that if you do not say something and an incident occurs, you could be injured or killed. Fire departments across this country need to enact policy and procedures that will help protect the motoring public and the firefighters who ride on their apparatus.