By Greg Jakubowski
Published Tuesday, December 31, 2013 | From the January 2014 Issue of FireRescue
Somebody somewhere said that "getting there is half the battle." In some ways, that's very true for the emergency services. Over the years, the time it takes firefighters to respond to and return from incidents and training has been blamed for many injuries and up to 25% of annual firefighter deaths. Although that number decreased to about 15% in 2012, there are still too many accidents involving emergency apparatus.
Looking at the various tasks fire and rescue personnel perform, driving apparatus to and from incidents is one they do most often. Fortunately, there are tactics drivers can use to reduce the possibility of getting into an accident, and arrive on the emergency scene sooner to do what we do best.
Understand the Law
Driving with emergency lights and siren activated is a privilege, not a right. Photo Juan Guerra
Before you even think about getting behind the wheel of a vehicle with red lights and sirens mounted on it, you need to understand a few things related to your state or province's driving laws, both generally and specifically applying to emergency vehicles. In my state, fire apparatus and police cars are generally exempt from most regulations related to movement and parking when operating audible and visual warning devices, but ambulances have more stringent requirements. Fire apparatus and police cars are exempt from stopping at stop signs (although they need to), but ambulances are required to stop. However, there's a caveat: Emergency vehicle operators must drive with due regard for others. So while you can go the wrong way down a one-way street, the question of whether you were driving with due regard for others will be closely examined if you run into someone head-on.
Know the Area
You should have a solid understanding of how to get around your coverage area. Some departments insist that their drivers know the "local" inside and out before allowing them to respond to calls. At the very least, drivers should know the more hazardous intersections in the district as well as school zones, current construction areas, grade crossings of railroads, roads with height and/or weight limitations and other related issues that could affect response routes. Before you head to the incident location, you gotta know how to get there.
GPS helps but it isn't always accurate. Some drivers make flash cards or similar tools to help them learn the district. Districts can be broken up by limited-access highways or rivers, and there may be streets with similar sounding names. There's a development in my coverage area known as "Devonshire Estates" where the names of all of the streets end in "shire," but Devonshire Lane is almost two miles away in the same town and Devonshire Drive is about four miles away in an adjoining town. Going to the wrong location can have disastrous results.
Here is a simple "duh" that sometimes gets forgotten in the "thrill of the chase." Don't be aggressive and don't tailgate! You should be using the two- or perhaps three-second rule for following other vehicles. Specifically, look at the vehicle in front of you and take note of when they pass a telephone pole, tree or other fixed object; your vehicle shouldn't pass that same marker until two or three seconds laterâ€”otherwise you're too close.
Remember: Other drivers may not be used to seeing an emergency vehicle in their rearview mirror and some might react by simply jamming on the brakes. If you're following a vehicle that's moving at a good rate of speed, you don't have to pass them blaring the siren and horn. Keep following them leaving a clear space in front of you. You might not be able to go much faster anyhow.
On the Road
When approaching any intersection, slow down and anticipate stopped/cross traffic. If the intersection is controlled with a stop sign or traffic light, prepare to stop, even if the traffic light is green in your direction. Cross traffic may not stop and you may come across another emergency vehicle approaching. Expect that other drivers, including emergency vehicle drivers, are not driving as safely as you are and be prepared to stop to let them crossâ€”it's not a race.
As you cross an intersection, be sure to account for all lanes of cross traffic. Just because one or two lanes of traffic are stopped doesn't mean that someone in a hurry won't "shotgun" around the stopped traffic into a turning lane or onto a shoulder to pass everyone else and ultimately cross in front of or T-bone you. Expect this and drive to avoid it. Stop and verify that each lane is clear before you cross it. If you have to make a right turn at an intersection and cross in front of cars going in the same direction, then stop and account for each lane to ensure they are stopped and remain stopped while you turn. The firefighter in the officer position can help with this.
One of the most dangerous driving maneuvers for emergency vehicles is crossing into, and then driving in, the "wrong" lane against oncoming traffic. Few drivers anticipate someone coming at them the wrong way, and they may not hear your audible warning devices until suddenly confronted with a big red vehicle bearing down on them. If you must do so, do it slowly and carefully, making lots of noise and ensuring that those coming at you can see you.
Lights & Siren
Some believe that audible warning devices should be activated anytime emergency lights are activated. Check your local or state laws/regulations. Often audible devices need only be activated when you're taking advantage of the driving exemptions (speed, direction, intersections, etc.) provided in the regulations, and therefore don't need to be activated at all times.
Remember: Driving with emergency lights and siren activated is a privilege, not a right. Be absolutely sure you are driving with due regard for others. Road speed limits are determined by engineers, and exceeding those limits, especially around turns, may break or severely bend the fundamental laws of gravity and physics. Lights and siren don't suddenly improve the performance of the vehicle that you're driving; it can still only go so fast or make a turn so tightly without risking damage, rollover, etc. If you take the vehicle beyond that performance point, it will wreck just as easily as if it didn't have lights and sirens on.
Flip the Switch
Are there different warning devices on the apparatus for different purposes? Some warning devices are specifically designed for the "pursuit" or "responding" modeâ€”often white or clear lights and flashing headlights that should be turned off once on scene. This includes traffic light preemptors (if you are fortunate enough to have them) that can continue to confuse traffic lights in the distance if the emergency vehicle is sitting on scene with the preemption light on. Once parked at the scene, turn off your headlights as they can blind oncoming traffic and make them unable to see firefighters and other emergency workers who are working around your emergency vehicle.
Newer apparatus are typically designed with a cutoff that automatically shuts down the "pursuit" lights when the vehicle is placed in park or the brake appliedâ€”but you have to know how your vehicle is equipped. Some departments like to have all warning lights off at the scene if the roadway is closed, while others prefer to have warning lights stay on. Some emergency vehicles are equipped with a rear-facing yellow arrow-type light that's a great tool for sending a message to oncoming traffic once you're on scene. Be sure you have it set correctly, review in your standard operating guidelines (SOGs) to determine whether you will even use it while the apparatus is moving.
Is It an Emergency?
Drive in a manner that anticipates others not seeing you, paying attention to you or yielding the right-of-way to you. Photo Tina Gianos
One question your department should ask is when do we need to use lights and sirens? A large percentage of emergency calls wind up being investigation only. Do those calls deserve a full-blown lights and siren response? Does the entire assignment need to respond that way, or can the initial units respond with lights and siren and secondary units respond "normal flow of traffic." That's something that many have difficulty coming to consensus on.
My department responds to about 40% of our calls with no lights or sirens. We can always upgrade the response en route if more definitive information comes in. Our area, however, is generally devoid of major traffic problems so getting to a location only takes a minute or two less than if we use lights and sirens. We did a risk/benefit analysis and decided to limit the use of emergency warning equipment. You should think through this issue, too, and have an SOG on the use of lights and sirens so all drivers and officers clearly know what's expected of them.
If you're fortunate enough to have your vehicles equipped with traffic light preemption equipment, remember to use it for the tool that it is. As you approach an intersection with backed-up traffic, slow down to let the preemptor turn the light green in your favor and allow the traffic to clear out of your way. When approaching a busy intersection without preemption, you may be better off waiting for the light to change versus sitting behind a row of stopped cars blasting your siren and horns. Drivers normally pull to the right to get out of the way of emergency vehicles. As you approach vehicles going in your direction, anticipate that they will pull to the right, although they can also just come to a dead stop as previously mentioned, or pull to the left. Let them make the move, and give them a chance to get out of your way.
Know Your Vehicle
You need to know your vehicle ”how big it is, how it turns and operates, where the various controls are and how they operate and any particular quirks that the vehicle has. You should also have a feel for how your vehicle performs in bad weather. A 20-ton fire truck going sideways down an icy street is not a pretty sight.
Driving a big truck is one challenge, but driving it in emergency mode with lights and sirens activated is a completely different challenge. Some say, "I have a commercial driver's license, so I should be able to drive a fire truck." A CDL has some requirements that can make for excellent prerequisites for an emergency vehicle driver, but it can't end there. Drivers must understand driving a truck with the sirens going and adrenaline pumpingâ€”that isn't covered anywhere in a CDL class. Driver training programs specifically designed for emergency vehicle operators are important, and if you can get the drivers to an emergency vehicle driver training simulator that's even better. It's much better to get a feel for driving in an emergency mode on a simulator than trying it out on the street.
Having a good attitude while driving is key to arriving safely. Driving in a manner that anticipates others not seeing you, paying attention to you or yielding the right-of-way to you is a very good approach. If you are on scene, working the incident, chances are that you got there safely. That's a credit to the driver, the officer and those who trained and prepared them.
But think a bit about the ride, just like you would critique a fire. Did it go smoothly and without incident? An incident might not be an accident, but might be a near miss. Take the time to learn from your driving experience and implement SOGs related to driving to facilitate continuous improvement in your operation. Your crews' lives directly depend on it. Firefighters have to get to an incident safely before they can do their jobs.