Highway to Hell. Are you on it?

CarolinaFireJournal - Dave Murphy
Dave Murphy
04/29/2011 -

“No stop signs, speed limit; Nobody’s gonna slow me down. Like a wheel, gonna spin it; Nobody’s gonna mess me round.”

Lyrics from AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”


According to the National Fire Protection Association, a fire apparatus responds somewhere in the United States every 23 seconds. At any given time, this translates to a great deal of in-service vehicles screaming down the highway. Are they always responding in the safest possible manner? We can all answer that one can’t we? Almost daily, we read about a terrible mishap that has happened somewhere, to someone else — key word here — someone else. In the aftermath, it is an innocent citizen, a firefighter, the department and their respective families left behind to mourn what is usually determined to have been an avoidable accident. When this type of tragedy occurs with you at the wheel, your preceding actions could truly be remembered as the on-ramp to your personal highway to hell.

In 2009, there were an estimated 15,100 collisions involving fire department emergency vehicles, while departments were responding to or returning from incidents (NFPA). The days of fire department red lights/sirens/air horns “parting the sea” as Moses did are long gone. The public has become somewhat immune to the myriad of “big city” noises, or possibly even non-caring to the point we simply must anticipate their apathetic attitude and navigate around them.

Cameras are everywhere and the lawyers love them as it is nearly impossible to defend against blatant ignorance or obvious negligence. Negligence is defined as a failure to act as an ordinary, prudent and reasonable person would act under like circumstances. As a first responder at the wheel, how would you fare if judged per the preceding criteria? If in need of a good example of the definition opposite, just click on YouTube for the latest video of most any topic-specific village idiot.

Our only sensible alternative is to change our individual way of thinking and subsequent behaviors. When behind the wheel, one should constantly strive to utilize good common sense, education, training and experience, in order to minimize avoidable occurrences. Do you remember the driving essentials that you were originally taught? Remember what they told you in rookie school — “You can’t help anyone if you never make it there.”

Do you always respond in a safe manner? When was the last time the fire department asked you to break the law? The answer is hopefully never. As matter of fact, they most likely have a document on file showing that you were properly trained per all applicable laws and department policies. As you read the following bullets, could your current driving habits possibly lead you — and many others — down this most undesirable highway? Let’s begin with the initial dispatch.

  1. Leave the station in a timely, but safe manner.
    All members should mount the apparatus quickly, be seated and belted before the apparatus moves. Ever heard these statements? “It takes too long to dress outside.” “They want to know why it took us so long to roll out.” How about actually getting to the rig a little quicker for starters?
  2. Wear your seatbelt and secure loose objects.
    Recent test footage clearly indicates unbelted firefighters themselves becoming projectiles endangering the policy compliant belted firefighters in the process. Conversely, the old “it’s my butt — not yours” cliché simply does not fly anymore!
  3. Drivers — wait for the bay doors to fully open!
    This item alone has fractured many fire department budgets and delayed or cancelled countless fire department responses. Drivers, you should be the calm one here, fully aware of your surroundings and always in control of your emotions. Make sure that door is fully up before you leave out the door, bar lights and bay door repairs are very costly! Garage door companies love us, ask any fire chief.
  4. Drive defensively and professionally at reasonable speeds.
    You are being watched. Cameras are everywhere! We are constantly being observed. In this era of technology, everyone has some type of picture/movie recording device on their phone. Pictures don’t lie do they?
  5. Know where you are going.
    Blasting down the road not knowing where you are going is asinine. This should be determined before you leave the station — not after. How about a GPS device for the rig? They are relatively cheap, easily installed and easy to use. A local retailer may even be willing to donate one for a little free advertising/photo opportunity?
  6. Always use all required warning devices on emergency runs. It’s the law.
    If it is not a true emergency, respond as such. As 911 tapes will definitively prove, that first arriving units advised all others to disregard, why where you still responding emergency traffic when your mishap occurred? That’s what the lawyer will ask you when you have been involved in a wreck after being told to disregard.
  7. Don’t exceed your department’s maximum speed limit policy.
    Every seasoned veteran knows it really does not make that much difference in your arrival time. Significantly lower speeds are further dictated by traffic, weather, darkness or a bad roadway. Know and adhere to your laws and policies.
  8. Completely stop at all red lights and stop signs.
    There is no valid excuse for not doing this every time! There will be no contest in court when death or injury occurs from a fire truck blowing an intersection or a stop sign. The driver will most likely lose his/her job, be criminally charged, and most likely be subject to a civil suit.
  9. Don’t drive recklessly or without due regard for other drivers.
    You give the appearance of an idiot because you are an idiot when this occurs. Think of a fire department response that you have witnessed, or worse, ridden with. Once again, the fire department has never asked you to break the law and they never will (at least on record). When laws and policies have been blatantly broken, you will be on your own when it “hits the fan.”
  10. Don’t intimidate or scare other drivers out of your way.
    For example, attempt to plow traffic with your air-horns; refer back to number nine if needed. This type of driver projects an extremely unprofessional image which gives the entire fire department a bad name. Fire chiefs and other community officials routinely field irate citizen-generated calls proclaiming “your damn fire truck just ran me out of the road,” and then someone in the department has to follow up on this. It is an avoidable waste of time that puts all involved in a bad situation. It is a fire officer’s immediate responsibility to deal with this unsafe behavior when an event is witnessed or they are notified of such irresponsible and dangerous actions.

These are 10 very basic common sense items. Everything is alright until something goes wrong. One should always drive as though your family may be approaching the next intersection. Do your current behind the wheel actions have you on a potential highway to hell? If you have someone that cannot follow the rules, suspend their driving privileges. It’s that simple. Nothing gives any emergency responder the right to kill anyone. It goes against the very heart of what we actually are supposed to be doing — helping people.

In summary, retired Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini simply advises the following common sense approach regarding a safe emergency response:

Safe Driving Mission Statement

Be nice.

Survive (return to the station after the call).

Prevent harm (don’t hit / get hit / tip over / or cause others to).

Dave Murphy retired as Assistant Chief of the Richmond (KY) fire department and is currently an Associate Professor in the Fire Safety Engineering Technology program located at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Dave is a past Eastern Director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association and currently serves on NFPA committee 610 which deals with safety at motorsports venues.
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