Firefighters Get Safety Vests in California

Bright-colored vests and orange traffic cones are designed more for safety than as fashion statements for area firefighters.

They're use is part of new guidelines adopted in May by the Monterey County Fire Training Officers Association to help ensure firefighters' safety when they are working on freeways.

The change to highway safety means a lot to Soledad Fire Capt. Jesse Casillas, whose department lost a firefighter in an accident last year. Mario Cunha was killed in March 2004 while fighting a fire on Highway 101 in Soledad. During a car fire on the highway, an unlicensed driver came through the smoke and struck Cunha, throwing him over the truck. Driver Oreina Alvarez Zarco pleaded no contest to a felony charge of hit-and-run and a misdemeanor charge of driving without a license. She was sentenced to two years in state prison in March.

Casillas estimates that the Soledad Fire Department gets a freeway call once a day.

Now, the vests worn by his firefighters will increase visibility and hopefully reduce accidents involving those working an accident scene.

"They have made a tremendous impact" so far, he added.

Another addition will be a 4-foot sign to be placed near emergency incidents as a caution to motorists to stay alert.

"The program builds a safe environment for public safety to work in," said Michael Urquides, division chief at Salinas Rural Fire Department. "We can create a safe zone."

That safe zone will help drivers be more aware of accidents and fires on freeways and city streets.

Although the guidelines were already set at federal and state levels, it wasn't until a few months ago that the county Fire Training Officers Association approved them locally.

"The guidelines would have happened eventually," said Salinas firefighter Marvin Minor.

Minor is part of a team of Salinas firefighters in charge of conducting freeway safety training.

The Salinas City Fire Department, along with Salinas Rural, Seaside and Soledad fire departments, were among those participating in safety classes over the past few weeks.

Seaside Battalion Chief Dan Gearhart said when firefighters and other safety workers blend in, "it is hard for a motorist to see you."

"If all the fire and law enforcement workers are wearing vests, the margin of safety will increase greatly," he said.

While Soledad and Salinas Rural and Seaside have already bought the vests, other departments are waiting for grant funds to arrive to pay for their equipment.

Distributed by the Associated Press