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Apparatus and Personal Vehicle Response Safety

From dispatch to return to station at the conclusion of the incident, one must maintain a constant vigilance relative to a safe response, be it on apparatus or ones personal vehicle. Each year firefighter/EMS personnel are killed in motor vehicle crashes with slightly under half of these deaths occurring while responding. I mention only deaths, but how many more were injured? How many civilian injuries and deaths? What was the loss in apparatus and operating expenses? How was the local responding departments insurance impacted? Response can be very deadly and very expensive.

Responding to the scene of an emergency, whether driving your personal vehicle or driving an emergency vehicle, requires careful thought and control in order to complete a safe response. In either response mode, you are of no value if you don’t arrive safely. You may further complicate the initial response if you are involved in your own emergency and will now require assistance!

The response begins with your size-up, the day of the week, time of day, weather conditions, and vehicle conditions. Is an alternate response route suggested due to prevailing conditions? Do you know where you are going? If not, find out before starting out as you will have other responsibilities and concerns, and the added anxiety that comes with not being sure of your destination will detract you from those responsibilities.

When responding in your personal vehicle remember you are not an Emergency Vehicle, rather just another vehicle sharing the road with no special privileges. You must comply with all traffic regulations whether responding to the fire station or directly to the scene of the emergency. The blue light identifies you as a volunteer member of the Fire/EMS
department responding to an emergency call. If the driver in front of you is kind enough to yield the right of way, be thankful, the next one may not. Be patient, no matter how important you think you are.

Responding with your personal vehicle or driving apparatus, do not pass through red traffic lights, stop signs, do not cross traffic lines or pass unsuspecting motorists, and do not exceed the speed limit. Yield at all yield signs and yield whenever the other driver fails to do so. Should there be a crash, you will be judged by what action you took to avoid the crash, even if you had the right of way. I am oft reminded of an old verse “ Here lies the body of Robert Gray, He died maintaining his right of way, He is dead, just as dead, As if he had been wrong!” Reckless driving of your personal vehicle or an emergency vehicle can lead to accidents, and accidents can lead to injury and death. No matter the consequences of injury and/or death, ultimately there will be lawsuits and trials and it is always more difficult than you think to exonerate yourself in a court of law.

Responding while driving an emergency vehicle includes all of the above, and requires additional considerations, skill, and proper mental attitude. Emergency apparatus drivers should be selected upon satisfactory completion of an emergency vehicle operators training program. Just because someone drives a truck for a living does not qualify him or her for a position as an emergency vehicle driver. Mental attitude is as equally important as mastering the driving skills. Some drivers get behind the wheel of an emergency vehicle and think they “own the road,” driving to out race the speed of the siren. They are asking for trouble, an accident waiting to happen, a seat behind the steering wheel is not for them.

Emergency vehicle response requires maintaining the apparatus in good mechanical condition, all equipment secured and stored properly, and warning lights and audible sounding devices operating properly. The response begins with dispatch, ensuring all personnel are onboard, in full protective gear, and all secured with seat belts, including you. A slow, cautious exit from the station, which may require personnel to stop vehicular traffic in the street and if so, stopping for them to board and fasten seat belts. Now as you begin your response with your valuable cargo, being alert and driving with caution will be your major concerns. Red warning lights must be on and you must be sounding an audible warning device to be in an Emergency Vehicle mode. Should the response not warrant “lights and siren” then, you are not considered an emergency vehicle and are required to comply with all traffic laws and regulations. When responding as an Emergency Vehicle with “lights and siren” you may cautiously violate some traffic regulations. You may cross traffic lines and lanes, pass through red traffic signals, and exceed the posted speed limit. My recommendation is DON’T. Never exceed the speed limit while responding; should you be involved in a crash, it will be used against you. Excessive speed does not help to reduce response time; it only increases the risk for crashes, resulting in injury and death. Always stop for red traffic lights and stop signs, looking in all directions before continuing ahead. Look twice! Anticipate vehicles passing vehicles that have stopped to yield you the right of way. Be alert for children playing and their increased excitement as you pass and the potential for them to do the unexpected. Scan all sides of the street for vehicles that may be entering the roadway from residential driveways, shopping malls, etc. Almost everyone is in a hurry today with the radio blasting, preoccupied while they eat, drink, do their hair, read, talk on a cell phone or a myriad of other things. The one thing they may not be doing is paying attention to their driving, adding to your responsibilities for a safe response.

Upon your safe arrival at the scene of the emergency (turn your siren and unnecessary lights off!), locate your emergency vehicle according to need, department SOP’s, or as directed by an officer. If at all possible, try not to block the road unless that is the intent. Additional apparatus/ambulances may be required and the closer to the scene they can locate, the more efficient. All apparatus should be chocked once at its final destination. Should you have responded to the scene in your personal vehicle; park it out of the way, preferably a half-block or more away.

Returning to quarters is done in full compliance with the traffic laws. No lights, no sirens, and no needless haste, with all passengers riding with their seat belts fastened. When approaching quarters you may wish to turn your warning lights on, come to a complete step and permit personnel to disembark and control street traffic to facilitate your backing into quarters. Once the apparatus/ambulance is safely in quarters, it is time to prepare for another safe dispatch.

One final subject is BACKING UP. Extreme caution and a guide are required when backing up. Never back up if it can be avoided, many fender bender type crashes occur when backing up, some resulting in injuries and deaths.

Remember, whether driving for pleasure or driving an emergency vehicle, driving is a full time chore, requiring your full attention.

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HENRY CAMPBELLSenior Correspondent

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