Speak Up: Emergency Responses: Know the Rules

E veryone is sitting at the kitchen table. Suddenly, the tones go off and the radio squawks, “Box 5121 for a grass fire in the median. Route 1, south of Bethany Lane. Engine 3 respond.” The firefighters board the engine and it roars from the fire station.

The officer activates the emergency lights and siren. The engine turns right from the station apron into rush-hour traffic. As the engine approaches the intersection with Route 1, the officer steps on the floor button and the siren, on the front bumper, comes to life. The engine turns right and goes south. All of the electronic emergency equipment is continually activated.

Route 1 is a four-lane divided highway. All intersections are controlled by traffic signals. At each traffic signal is a left-turn lane. Engine 3 approaches an intersection and the through lanes have several civilian vehicles stopped for the red traffic signal. There is one vehicle in the left-turn lane and the officer instructs the apparatus driver to move to that lane. The officer, again, uses the siren to “push” the vehicle from the turn lane and to stop approaching traffic on the cross street. The vehicle in front of Engine 3 moves forward, then turns left against the red light. This lets the fire truck enter the intersection against the signal.

That situation is fictitious, but I think we need to think about how we respond and what it is that we are responding to. Are we actually responding to an emergency?

I have seen fire apparatus respond to non-emergencies such as trees down and blocking the roadway, motor vehicle crashes with an antifreeze leak only, and a pedestrian walking on the shoulder of the interstate. Neither of these incidents would be an emergency in my mind; however, after being dispatched to each situation, the emergency vehicles responded with all of the emergency equipment activated and exercised all authority that is allowed in emergency response.

State laws have exemptions for emergency vehicles in response to an “emergency.” Within these exemptions is a statement that is similar to “duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all…” This means that if there is an event such as a crash and it involves or is the result of an emergency vehicle in an emergency response, the operator will have to justify his or her actions. This justification may come from the witness stand in a court of law. Each exemption statute that I have read addresses the operator, not the officer of the emergency vehicle.

Many apparatus operators and officers fail to realize that the exceptions apply to the emergency vehicle, not other vehicles. In the above scenario, the civilian vehicle in the left-turn lane went through the red traffic signal and cleared the intersection for the engine. The civilian vehicle did not fall within the exemptions. The apparatus “pushed” the civilian vehicle through the intersection. The emergency vehicle has the privilege to bypass traffic signals, but non-emergency vehicles do not. Should a collision occur, the civilian would be at fault and the apparatus operator may create a liability personally and for the department.

It should also be noted that the use of emergency equipment does not automatically grant the privileges that are addressed in the statutes. It requests the privileges. Non-emergency vehicle operators have to notice the request (emergency equipment/vehicle) and actually yield before the emergency vehicle can take the action allowed. Nothing within the statutes releases the operator of an emergency vehicle from criminal prosecution for disregarding the safety of people and property. The statutes also fail to release the operators of emergency vehicles from civil liability for failing to use reasonable care.

Public safety agencies may want to review their response policies and state statutes with personnel before a catastrophic event occurs. Policies need to be created and enforced. The next time you operate an emergency vehicle, ask yourself if you can justify the way it is being operated if it becomes necessary to do so.

Firefighter Thomas S. Harrison

Hanover County Fire and EMS Dept.

Hanover, VA

The writer holds Virginia Department of Fire Programs certifications in Hazardous Materials Operations, Firefighter I and Firefighter II and an associate’s degree in fire science technology from Northern Virginia Community College. He is certified as an advanced-level emergency manager by the Alabama Association of Emergency Managers and as an associate emergency manager by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and Virginia Emergency Management Association. Harrison is a retired sergeant in the Virginia State Police, where he commanded responses to major emergencies. n