January 21, 2010:
Today was an absolute BLAST! We enjoyed a field trip to the Dakota County Technical College campus in Rosemount, Minnesota to attend an Emergency Vehicle Operators Course. We arrived at Saint Paul Fire Training Center early, and fired up a few of the reserve fire engines from the fleet (after shoveling snow and ice from the rigs – we REALLY have to get a heated storage garage for this equipment. These reserve rigs sit outside in all seasons, yet we rely on them to replace our front line equipment when they have to go in to the shop for maintenance or repairs). The Fire Academy recruits and instructors drove quite a caravan for the trip to Rosemount: 3 old engines, a reserve ambulance, and two passenger vans we borrowed from our partners, the Saint Paul Police Department.
We bumped and rattled and shimmied our way to the college campus. Then we sat in a classroom for presentations about defensive driving techniques, handling characteristics of large vehicles, legal implications of using sirens and emergency lights, and the challenges of driving on ice and snow. The lead instructor was Harvey Biron, a former West Saint Paul Police Officer and supervisor, and the former Police Chief and EMS Director for Cannon Falls, MN. I had not met Harvey before, but we had mutual friends in public safety. Harvey is also well known by my sister’s family, who are all members of the Cannon Falls Rescue Service (EMS).
Following a short lunch (we took our old fire engine in to Rosemount for a Subway sandwich), we returned for the FUN part of the day: a series of emergency driving courses set up on the college grounds. Throughout the afternoon, my classmates and I took turns driving fire engines and ambulances through 4 different emergency driving scenarios (we did not use the Police van, out of respect for our brothers and sisters in blue!). The 4 scenarios were:
- The Serpentine Course: you drive the engine or ambulance down a straight road, weaving in between orange traffic cones. Object: don’t knock over the cones as you weave between them! It sounds easy, and it is.......as long as you’re going slowly enough. Each student had the opportunity to go through the course a half dozen times or so, gradually increasing the speed of the vehicle. The distance between the cones remained constant.
- The “Skid Pad” was a straight course followed by a quick dog-leg turn at the end. The surface of the pad was pure ice! A student would drive down the straight course and “hit the brakes” just before the dog-leg course. Students rotated between vehicles equipped with Antilock Braking Systems (ABS) and those without. The object was to experience the difference between the two braking systems. For those vehicles without ABS, students had the opportunity to practice “threshold braking” techniques: braking “hard” until just before the wheels locked up into a skid, then easing off the brakes momentarily to make the dogleg turn, then squeezing down on the brakes again until just before the wheels started to skid again.
- The Backing Course allowed students to practice backing rigs through a serpentine course and around a circular course. The object was to learn how to use the mirrors effectively and to judge the pivot point of the vehicle (the rear wheels! When the rear wheels reached the object you wanted to steer around, you turned the steering wheel to begin your turn).
- Finally, the Decision Course. Students approached a traffic light that indicated whether you needed to steer sharply to the left or right in order to avoid a simulated road obstacle. Again, students went through the course a number of times, increasing speed from about 20 mph to 35 mph. Decision making and reaction time were critical factors in avoiding the “obstacle.”