CDLs: We Should All Be Ashamed — Part 2

Sept. 16, 2009
This is the second of two parts discussing the issue of the fire-rescue service and commercial driver's licenses (CDLs). Part one, in the July 2009 issue, presented information from the federal Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Information for this column comes from a variety of sources, including the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and U.S. Fire Administration (USFA).

This is the second of two parts discussing the issue of the fire-rescue service and commercial driver's licenses (CDLs). Part one, in the July 2009 issue, presented information from the federal Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Information for this column comes from a variety of sources, including the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and U.S. Fire Administration (USFA).

Endorsements & Restrictions

Drivers who operate special types of commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) must pass additional tests to obtain the following endorsements on their CDLs:

T — Double/triple trailers (knowledge test only)

P — Passenger (knowledge and skills tests)

N — Tank vehicle (knowledge test only)

H — Hazardous materials (knowledge test only)

X — Combination of tank vehicle and hazardous materials

According to the safety act, a driver who fails the air-brake component of the general-knowledge test or performs the skills test in a vehicle not equipped with air brakes is issued an air-brake restriction, barring the driver from operating a CMV equipped with air brakes.

Up to now, I do not think that the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act has asked anyone to do anything that would seem to be unreasonable. In fact, ridding the road of bad drivers is a cause that we all could and should support.

Waiver Provisions

The act says, "All active-duty military drivers were waived from the CDL requirements by the Federal Highway Administrator. A state, at its discretion, may waive firefighters, emergency response vehicle drivers, farmers, and drivers removing snow and ice in small communities from the CDL requirements, subject to certain conditions."

The creators of this piece of legislation chose to offer waivers to some groups. The first was the military. Although we do not advocate exemptions from the very safety rules meant to keep the roads safer for everyone, if you understand the amount of training that a military commercial vehicle operator must undergo, this provision is completely understandable. We have friends in the military and its driver certification for large vehicles is a model for the rest of us.

The next group who could be waived and exempted is comprised of firefighters. Two states choose not to waive firefighters: California and Connecticut. In the case of California, under a graduated CDL system, a fire apparatus operator must pass a written test and a road test. Once the tests are passed and any other requirements are met, the California Department of Motor Vehicles endorses the firefighter's car license to permit the driving of fire apparatus. A firefighter who wants to obtain a CDL in California must fulfill all of the requirements that other commercial vehicle operators must have to as part of the CDL process. Connecticut has a similar format in that a firefighter's driver's license is endorsed with a Q; hence, the Connecticut fire apparatus license is called the "Q."

These are the only two states I am aware of that have taken the driving of fire apparatus seriously and responsibly. If you have a special licensing requirement for fire apparatus in your state, please tell us. But most of you will not. Why? Because most of the states have exempted the fire service from the very safety rules put in place to make the roads safer for everyone. One may ask how can this be, since firefighters are in the business of public safety? Surely, they would not petition state legislators to exempt them from the very safety rules put in place for everyone.

But, yes, that is exactly what has happened. Most fire departments have an exemption from the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act. What other safety rules are we exempted from that other commercial vehicle operators must abide by?

  • Firefighters are exempt from wearing seatbelts
  • Fire apparatus operators do not have to submit to random alcohol and drug testing like their CDL counterparts
  • Fire apparatus operators do not have to submit to a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) annual physical examination like their CDL counterparts
  • According to a 1991 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) special investigation of eight fire truck accidents, only 19 states require fire apparatus to be inspected periodically by the state or by designated fleet-inspection stations

One of the accidents investigated occurred in Connecticut. Before the accident, the state did not require the inspection of emergency vehicles. After the accident, the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles (CDMV) initiated a voluntary, non-fee inspection program for fire service vehicles. From July 1, 1990, to Jan. 3, 1991, the CDMV inspected 559 fire apparatus from 64 cities and towns. During this period, 193, or 35%, of the fire apparatus failed the CDMV roadside inspection. Half of the deficiencies involved brakes, 18% involved steering systems, and the remaining deficiencies involved tires, suspension systems and fuel leaks. Fire apparatus are machines — as with any machine, things break, things wear out and things go wrong. How can we exempt ourselves from that?

But just like CDLs, a graduated CDL or verifiable third-party training may not be the total answer to apparatus training, and given recent history inspections may not be the cure-all to that problem. In January 2009, a Boston, MA, fire lieutenant was killed when the brakes on an apparatus failed. In March 2008, a Louisiana operator was killed while driving a tanker that was not fully National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) compliant and had a partially bald tire on the front axle. What makes the latter accident particularly troubling is that the apparatus had been inspected a month before and had accumulated less than 200 miles since that inspection. The bottom line here is that apparatus inspections are only as good as the mechanics who conduct them and an inspector is going to check only those components required by the licensing state. The medical exemption is also troubling, as numerous apparatus operators have suffered heart attacks or stress-induced line-of-duty deaths responding to and returning from alarms.

Exempting apparatus operators from random alcohol and drug testing is completely irresponsible. One would only have to look at our country to realize that our civilian population has a drug and alcohol abuse problem. Well, where you think fire apparatus operators come from? The fire service has had its head in the sand on this issue for too long.

Truck drivers working for commercial trucking companies, pilots, ship captains, doctors, nurses and, yes, even the public works employee driving the garbage truck in your town must submit to random alcohol and drug testing. We are in the business of providing safety and we should represent the safest group on the road, but instead of raising the safety bar, we slither under it. Yes, some firefighters — including me — are required to submit to testing as a condition of our employment, but this is the exception.

The act says, "In addition, a state may also waive the CDL knowledge and skills testing requirements for seasonal drivers in farm-related service industries and may waive certain knowledge and skills testing requirements for drivers in remote areas of Alaska. The drivers are issued restricted CDLs. A state can also waive the CDL hazardous materials endorsement test requirements for part-time drivers working for the pyrotechnics industry, subject to certain conditions."

Other Requirements

A variety of other requirements related to this legislation affect commercial drivers, their employing motor carriers and the states. The federal penalty for a driver who violates the CDL requirements is a civil penalty of up to $2,500 or, in aggravated cases, criminal penalties of up to $5,000 in fines and/or up to 90 days in prison. An employer is also subject to a penalty of up to $10,000 if he or she knowingly uses a driver to operate a CMV without a valid CDL.

States must be connected to the Commercial Driver's License Information System (CDLIS) and the National Driver Register (NDR) in order to exchange information about CMV drivers, traffic convictions and disqualifications. A state must use both the CDLIS and NDR to check a driver's record, and the CDLIS to make certain that the applicant does not already have a CDL.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has established 0.04% as the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level at or above which a CMV driver is deemed to be driving under the influence of alcohol and subject to the disqualification sanctions in the act. States maintain a BAC level between .08% and .10% for non-CMV drivers.

Within 30 days of a conviction for any traffic violation, except parking, a driver must notify his or her employer, regardless of the nature of the violation or the type of vehicle which was driven at the time. If a driver's license is suspended, revoked or canceled, or if he or she is disqualified from driving, his or her employer must be notified. The notification must be made by the end of the next business day following receipt of the notice of the suspension, revocation, cancellation, lost privilege or disqualification. Employers may not knowingly use a driver who has more than one license or whose license is suspended, revoked or canceled, or is disqualified from driving. Violation of this requirement may result in civil or criminal penalties.

Disqualifications include:

  • For a conviction (listed under other requirements) while driving a CMV, a driver must be disqualified and lose the privilege to drive for 60 to 120 days
  • Two or more serious traffic violations within a three-year period (these include excessive speeding, reckless driving, improper or erratic lane changes, following the vehicle ahead too closely and traffic offenses in connection with fatal traffic accidents) means a loss of privileges for 90 days to five years
  • One or more violations of an out-of-service order within a 10-year period results in a one year loss of privileges)
  • For driving under the influence of a controlled substance or alcohol; leaving the scene of an accident; or using a CMV to commit a felony, the privileges are lost for three years
  • Any of the one-year offenses while operating a CMV that is placarded for hazardous materials and the privileges are revoked for life
  • Second offense of any of the one-year or three-year offenses; or using a CMV to commit a felony involving manufacturing, distributing, or dispensing controlled substances
  • States have the option to reduce certain lifetime disqualifications to a minimum disqualification period of 10 years if the driver completes a driver rehabilitation program approved by the state
  • If a CDL holder is disqualified from operating a CMV, the state may issue him or her a license to operate non-CMVs (drivers who are disqualified from operating a CMV cannot be issued a "conditional" or "hardship" CDL or any other type of limited driving privileges to continue driving a CMV)
  • For disqualification purposes, convictions for out-of-state violations will be treated the same as convictions for violations that are committed in the home state, and the CDLIS will ensure that convictions a driver receives outside his or her home state are transmitted to the home state so that the disqualifications can be applied.

Over 8 million drivers have passed the knowledge and skills tests needed to obtain a CDL. About 11% of these CDL drivers were disqualified at least once between April 1992 and June 1996. Building on the success of the CDL program, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is exploring ways to enhance and improve the effectiveness of the CDL program. Current enhancements include:

  • Driver data exchange with Canada and Mexico
  • CDL Judicial Outreach Project (JOP)

Future enhancements being considered include:

  • Graduated commercial licenses
  • Third-party CDL knowledge testing
  • Merging medical fitness determination into the CDL process
  • Simulator validation for training and testing

One reason cited for the fire service to seek and accept the CDL exemptions are the associated costs. It is the same argument used to fight the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) back in the 1980s, when we were experiencing 130 to 170 firefighter line-of-duty deaths annually. "It will put the fire service out of business." "Volunteer firehouses will have to close." "We will go broke." These were just some of the fear tactics used to fight implementation of OSHA standards. All that occurred is that some states became OSHA states and fire service line-of-duty deaths dropped by over one-third.

Where do we stand in my state, New York? We just received our second CDL exemption from the state legislature in the past 20 years. Several years ago, the legislature changed part of the vehicle and traffic law in the state to secure federal funding, which inadvertently created a situation where fire apparatus were being driven out of class. Another exemption was not the answer, but that is exactly what was done. What was the final impetus to get the state legislature to grant the exemption in such a timely fashion? There might not have been any fire trucks in Memorial Day parades in New York State in 2009.

But I am certain that fire trucks in a Memorial Day parade are not on the mind of Jane Barker as she is busy raising five fatherless children. Her husband, Ryan, was killed in a fire apparatus crash in New York State last year. He was not wearing a seatbelt and was ejected and killed, but the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigative report on this accident notes a seatbelt exemption in the law, which the report suggested should be overturned as it represents one of many causative factors. Other causative factors listed included original tire and brakes on the 1978 apparatus, the lack of training or any training records, complaints by firefighters (including Ryan Barker) about the ill-handling apparatus at the scene of the incident just prior to returning to quarters when the accident occurred, and a new booster tank that appeared not to have been installed as per the tank manufacturer's specifications. No one can say for sure whether this line-of-duty death could have been prevented by eliminating safety exemptions, but it surely would have helped.

What can we do? I believe that there is a silent majority in the fire service that wants to do the right thing. I believe that the time to act is now. Why is time so critical? Visit and read this law firm's stance on emergency vehicle accidents to understand where we are headed. As was stated earlier, CDLs may not be the answer, but excepting everyone in the fire service from the safety rules put in place to make roads safer for everyone is not the answer. My next column will outline a plan of action. If you have any ideas, you can reach me at Firehouse® Magazine, or

As always, the comments here are those of the author and the author only.

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 on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He consults on a variety of apparatus-related issues around the country. For further information, access Wilbur's website at

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