A Close Call for Us, A Direct Hit for Others

July 1, 2008

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Firehouse Expo, it's hard to not look back to the wonderful past. Firehouse Expo brings back lots of great memories, great times and excellent learning opportunities from each other and the outstanding instructors from the first Firehouse Expo through today. While we remember Expo's history, I want to take some editorial privilege to look ahead. This month's column is not as much related to firefighter deaths and injuries as it is to the deaths and injuries of civilians that we cause on the roads when we are responding. As we celebrate 25 years, we look back, but we also must look forward.

When the tones go off, we are expected to become very focused on the mission, be it out of staffed fire stations whose members head to the rigs to turn out or unstaffed stations whose members jump in their cars and respond to the firehouse or to the emergency scene. The purpose of this month's column is for us to think hard about the time between you being alerted and you arriving on the scene of the fire or other emergency. What's the purpose of all that? You are responding to help people with a problem. Those who called us needed us five minutes ago, and we want to help them as fast as possible.

The reason you joined the fire department is to help people with a problem, but keep in mind that while the goal is to help those with a problem, it is also our goal to not make it worse or become a part of the problem. And that's the problem. Sometimes we do make the problem worse or cause new problems. Sometimes that isn't avoidable, but most times it is.

As we celebrate 25 years of Firehouse Expo, we can also look back at some horrific incidents. We can think about what habits we have changed in that time -- and which ones we have not. Our "habits" of responding quickly and passing through red lights and stops signs are usually for the good of those we are trying to help. I say usually because there is an element of folks who are allowed to drive emergency vehicles who are not driving for the good of those who need our help. In some cases, we have members of our service driving as fast as possible in order to try and "beat" other companies in. Nice. Let's drive a publicly owned (or paid for by the public, because they are all paid for by the public) fire apparatus as fast as possible with little regard for others so we can beat another company in. This kind of behavior is the stuff that prosecutors and lawyers drool over.

Now let's discuss intentional actions by firefighters. Intentional actions? Intentional is in the eye of the beholder (or judge or jury). While we know of no firefighter who has intentionally tried to hurt anyone, it can also be said that if firefighters driving apparatus did not stop at red lights or stop signs, that they did intentionally blow intersections. Absolutely. After all, if it was a member of your family that was struck by an apparatus that blew a controlled intersection, what would you want done? Easy answer. Tough situation.

Before we go any further, here is the fair solution:

  • Chiefs -- Ensure that all of your firefighters are fully trained and qualified on exactly how you expect them to operate your apparatus and equipment. Make sure they understand (in writing as well as through documented training) the public law, your law and the rules. Once they are trained and tested on that, document it. And make fully clear what the consequences of running a red light or stop sign (making sure it is clear before going through) will be in your fire department for any driver of any vehicle. If the consequences are a warning, state that. If the consequences are a suspension, state that. If the consequences are suspension pending termination, state that. And more importantly, enforce it fairly and across the board without exception.

    No surprises.
    No unfair treatment.
    No inappropriate treatment.
    Here are the rules.
    Here is the training.
    Here is what is expected.
    Here is how it will be enforced
    And here is what will happen if it is not followed.

  • Officers -- It is your job to enforce fire department policy. Not to interpret it, but to enforce it. Career. Volunteer. Part paid. Poorly paid. Unpaid. It doesn't matter; you accepted the position and rank. Either the driver of your rig stopped or didn't; this isn't complicated. And if the driver didn't stop, you must take action and do your job. Are you uncomfortable having to enforce the policy? You are supposed to. It isn't easy to have conflict with those in your firehouse, but it is your job. When the actions of your firefighters force you as an officer to do your job, forget who likes who. This is your job.

    For those of you who are not officers yet, think hard before you decide you want to enforce the policies. We have a significant problem with fire officers who don't want that conflict. This doesn't mean you, as an officer, have to be a jerk. It means, however, that one of your firefighters has intentionally decided to violate a policy and has placed you in a position to enforce the policy. Firefighters, you don't want your officers to enforce policy? See below.

  • Firefighters, drivers and engineers -- Do exactly what the policy says. If the policy is that you must stop at a red light, just stop. Same with a stop sign; just stop. No one is interested in your opinion on how the apparatus should be driven while you are going on a run. Drive it exactly the way you were trained to drive it. Anything beyond that, placing the rig, the crew and the public at more of a risk, should be interpreted as a willful and intentional violation of policy and the law. You may not agree, but think about it -- if you didn't intentionally follow your training, the policy or law, then you intentionally decided not to. Tough to argue.

Why do we need to be so tough? The obvious answer is that apparatus- and driver-safety policies exist for a reason, and you are expected to follow them. Period. No democracy here. No cuddly management style here. Just do it. But the real reason is that we are looking out for you if you aren't looking out for yourself. Of course, the safety of your brothers and sisters is an issue. The safety of the public is also an issue.

But here is the big issue: You. It is about keeping you as a member of your fire department. It is about what your family would experience if you are involved in a tragic responding event. It is about you not experiencing a meeting where the fire department attorney suggests you be immediately terminated. It is about keeping you out of court. And it is about you maintaining your level of sanity because you are not in the business of hurting anyone.

This is all about you and what you do not ever want to go through. And this is about two very recent firefighter close calls that resulted in public direct hits, leading to the tragic deaths of citizens.

  • Responding Fire Apparatus Kills 3 Civilians in Maryland

    The driver of a Baltimore City fire apparatus that hit a sport utility vehicle late last year, killing its three occupants, sped through a red light at an intersection while going 47 mph, according to the police. Do you think for a second that the fire apparatus driver meant to do that? Of course not. The intent was to get to the fire as soon as possible, but that didn't happen. Instead, the resulting crash led to the deaths of the driver, Iryna Petrov, 49, along with her husband, Mikhail Petrov, 35, and friend Igor Saub, 24.

    Drivers of emergency vehicles in Baltimore are required to stop at red lights even when racing to a call and can proceed through an intersection only after determining that it is safe. That is the case anywhere. Since that horrific crash, the driver of the apparatus and the fire officer have been suspended pending further action. Remember, these are good firefighters and officers who, like you, were on their way to help people.

  • Responding Fire Apparatus Kills Grandfather and Grandchild in Ohio

    In May, a responding Massillon, OH, fire apparatus collided with a minivan, killing a man and his grandson and injuring four firefighters. Ronald Anderson, 72, and his step-grandson, Javarre Tate, 4, were killed at the intersection while Anderson was crossing an intersection in his Dodge Grand Caravan. His van pulled out directly in front of the fire apparatus in the intersection and the two occupants were killed instantly. The apparatus had its emergency lights, sirens and horns on when the truck pushed Anderson's van 240 feet -- about an entire block -- and split a utility pole. Wood splinters from the pole and shards of glass were strewn throughout the roadway. It was a nightmare that continues on for the family of those lost and the firefighters of the Massillon Fire Department and their families. The intersection has flashing red lights and stop signs.

Massillon Fire Chief Thomas Burgasser said the quint was responding to a working car fire next to a structure and was trailing another apparatus and that "our hearts go out to the families." The Massillon Fire Department's standard operating procedures for vehicle operations state, "The due regard to the safety of others shall be paramount at all times." Chief Burgasser's voice is clear that this has been a "beyond tough" situation for his members, himself and the community.

Just like at your fire department, and in Baltimore, the Massillon firefighters and officers who were on their way to help people never intended to hurt anyone. As a matter of fact, to make this tragic incident even worse, the driver of the apparatus was related to the two victims of the crash. Place yourself in the position of the officer, and especially the apparatus driver, who now has to deal with this.

As we have discussed in past tragic events, if those involved could turn back the hands of time, what would they do differently? The answers are obvious. And you have the opportunity to learn from that and not repeat this kind of history.

Be it your first time at Firehouse Expo or if you're a veteran attendee, you will have some great memories of your times in Baltimore. I absolutely look forward to seeing you there this month. My best memories of Firehouse Expo include listening to some of the best speakers in our business, from Frank Brannigan to Vincent Dunn to Leo Stapleton and so many more. It's about the old fire flea market that used to be held outside on the piers, it's about all the meals in Little Italy...and it's about learning from the past.

In the spirit of Firehouse Expo's 25th anniversary, take a few minutes to think and consider what can be learned from the past when it comes to apparatus and emergency vehicle responses. What are your fire department's procedures? Are they clear and in writing? Are they trained on? Are they enforced? If you are an apparatus operator, engineer or fire department vehicle driver, you have choices every time you get in the front seat of the rig. And so does the officer in the front seat.

We all have a great chance to enjoy the "good" history in our business while not continuously repeating the "bad" history. The choices should be pretty simple.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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