July 1, 2004
I cannot believe that in the year 2004 I must write about this problem – and it is a problem. How can mayors, politicians, fire chiefs, fire officers, driver/operators or anybody else with any brains let firefighters ride on the outside of apparatus?

What about the firefighters themselves? What are they thinking (or not)? I am not a big disciplinarian, nor do I want to hurt any firefighters or their families. Heck, I love the fire service. But the reality is that something needs to be done. Should we put mayors, fire chiefs, fire officers, driver/operators and firefighters in jail for allowing this behavior to occur or in some cases to promote it? If we sued mayors, fire chiefs, fire officers, driver/operators and firefighters, would that hold them accountable for the safety of their people or themselves?

Who is in charge of your personal safety? As a firefighter, you are. Yes, you are in charge of your own personal safety. Here is a recap of the latest accidents that resulted in firefighter fatalities and injuries.

In Pittsburgh, PA, the fire department forced members to ride on the tailboards of reserve apparatus. One firefighter fell off and was hurt. Who is at fault? The mayor? The fire chief? The city has fallen on hard financial times; in fact, firefighter positions may be lost. But that is no excuse for this unsafe act.

In New Jersey on May 22, a firefighter fell off the back step of the pumper on which she was riding on the way to a “wet down” in a neighboring town. Witnesses said that as she was changing hands, the apparatus made a turn and she lost her grip. She was wearing a helmet, which at least prevented more serious injuries and at best saved her life. An article in a local newspaper quoted a civilian as suggesting that firefighters should not have been riding outside of the apparatus and that firefighters should always be mindful of caution and safety. The local resident figured out it was a problem – why couldn’t the fire department?

On May 2, a 74-year-old fire captain in Henderson County, TN, fell from the back of a pickup truck enroute to training exercise. The captain was riding in the pickup to attend departmental training about 100 yards away. When he fell from the truck, he hit the back of his head and died. The incident was described in a local newspaper article as a freak accident. There is nothing accidental about this incident. If you ride on the outside of a vehicle, you could fall off and get hurt or worse.

In Brookline, MA, on April 30, a firefighter stood up in the cab of a fire truck leaving the station, responding to a gas leak. When the truck turned sharply, the firefighter fell and suffered serious injuries, which ultimately proved to be fatal. The firefighter was not wearing a seatbelt, but he was wearing his helmet. However, the helmet’s chin strap was not fastened and proved to be of little value, having not been worn properly. The 36-year veteran of the fire department fell from the rear-facing jump seat on the driver’s side of the cab, hitting his head. The police report states that the firefighter was standing facing forward in the driver’s-side jump-seat area, looking left as the truck made a right. He fell from the truck through the unlocked rear passenger door. The apparatus that the firefighter fell out of was a 1976 Peter Pirsch pumper that appears to have been retrofitted with jump-seat doors.

There is an old saying that if we do not learn from history, history is doomed to repeat itself. That is the case here, as in 1982 another Brookline firefighter fell from the jump-seat area of a Peter Pirsch pumper. The firefighter who fell off the truck 22 years ago was permanently disabled, as he struck his head on the street and, after a subsequent seizure, he functioned at the level of a child, according to his family. He died in large part due to his injuries in 2002 and was considered a line-of-duty death. The firefighter and his family sued Peter Pirsch in 1985 and won the largest line-of-duty injury settlement, $4.8 million, which in turn helped put Peter Pirsch out of business.

The lawsuit and subsequent award prompted apparatus manufacturers to redesign fire apparatus to prevent future incidents of this nature. So why then do firefighters continue to fall off of fire apparatus? No leadership? Firefighters who cannot or will not follow the rules? Firefighters are suicidal? The Superman Syndrome? As we went to press, a lawyer was retained by the family of the fallen firefighter from Brookline – the same lawyer retained in the case 22 years ago. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The biggest questions I have are why was the firefighter standing up and why didn’t the firefighter have a seatbelt on? An older apparatus may not be equipped with seatbelts, but if it is equipped, with seatbelts must be worn?

One other note: as we go to press, if emergency vehicle operations is not at the forefront of your training schedule for the remainder of the year, it should be. Why? The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) just released the preliminary line-of-duty-death statistics for 2003 and, for the first time, more firefighters died in vehicle accidents than were killed fighting fires. Thirty-three firefighters died in line-of-duty crashes and 29 firefighters died battling blazes. The number of vehicle-related deaths was the most in any year since 1977, when the NFPA began to keep records. It was also reported 24 of the accidents involved collisions or rollovers. Eight of the firefighters killed were not wearing seatbelts and at least six drivers were speeding. More ignorance?

Michael Wilbur will present “Emergency Vehicle Operations” at Firehouse Expo 2004 in Baltimore, July 13-18.Michael Wilbur, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served for the past five years on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He has consulted on a variety of apparatus related issues throughout the country. For further information access his website at www.emergencyvehicleresponse.com.

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