When a firefighter or civilian is injured in a motor vehicle crash (MVC) involving a responding public safety unit, we take it harder than we do “regular” MVCs.
Many of these accidents are not the result of any firefighter wrongdoing. But some are. As an industry responsible for responding as expeditiously as possible to emergencies where life and death often hangs in the balance, just where does a response cross over the line to negligible liability? The answer can often be found right in front of us in plain view—the speedometer.
How fast we respond to a call is the first critical decision in an incident and the first recorded and measurable data we and the public employ to gauge our success.
These rapid response expectations combine with the body’s reaction when the alarm sounds. The “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system kicks in, releasing a stream of adrenalin that increases our heart and breathing rates and in general makes us more excited. The mind says “Go!” and for some, “Go fast—as fast as you can!”
There’s nothing wrong with the excitement or energy that comes when the bell rings. I still get it when I hear a working fire come in. That boost of energy helps the body perform at an optimum level.
The excitement becomes a liability, however, when it’s unbridled, unsupervised, undisciplined and improperly channeled. Unchecked emotion can lead to disaster, whether manifested in overly aggressive fireground operations or, in the case of MVCs involving fire apparatus, stomping on the gas pedal.
Some recent highly publicized fire department MVCs include:
- In October, an FDNY engine headed west—and reported by one witness to be “flying” down the road—hit a ladder truck headed north in an intersection. Both were responding with lights and siren—to a gas leak. Twelve firefighters were injured, two seriously.
- In September, a fire truck responding to a call in Hunterdon County (Pa.) illegally passed an ambulance on the way to the same call, forcing it and a vehicle in the oncoming lane off the road. Both ambulance attendants were injured.
- In March 2009, two Houston fire trucks collided, reportedly “racing” to what later turned out to be a false alarm. The ladder unit rolled, crushing a civilian bicyclist who later died. Police statements said the ladder truck ran a stop sign.
For company officers who usually find themselves in the passenger seat of responding emergency vehicles, I’ve got news for you: The fact that you’re not behind the wheel doesn’t discharge you from the overall responsibility for your driver’s action.
In 2007 in Baltimore, a fire truck sped through a red light at 47 mph. It struck an SUV, killing its three passengers. A Baltimore Sun article at the time correctly noted that as a ranking officer on the truck, the lieutenant was responsible for the driver’s actions.
Ultimately, when you allow your crewmembers to do something, you approve of their actions. Responsibility for their overall safety lies dead center with you, whether on the fireground or in the cab of your rig.
We’ll Still Get There
Like most of you, I can recall drivers from my department who achieved legendary status because of their aggressive “never last-in” driving mentality. Fortunately, those days are long gone (hopefully for your department as well). Today, by following state and local laws and NFPA 1451, we can still respond quickly as well as safely to the emergency scene—without creating one ourselves.
My intent here isn’t to criticize the individuals or organizations unfortunate to have been involved in these incidents, but rather to learn from them. In Shreveport, we’ve had our share of fire unit MVCs. These are difficult situations that sometimes arise through no fault of our own.
However, there’s absolutely no reason to play Russian roulette with your crew and the citizens you serve by busting through a stop sign or a red light. Stopping at intersections is one simple way we as an industry can minimize these tragic incidents. After all, isn’t minimizing tragedy what we’re all about?