Hopefully, this type of incident does not happen too often in your department. However, if it has, have you listened to how the drivers have referred to the incident or what they have written on their report? Have they used the term “accident” or “scrape” or “minor incident” or “fender bender” to describe the situation? Have you also ever heard drivers involved in situations like these where a mirror is broken, or a scrape or dent is put in the rig or the always famous “tail step crunch” appears reference the lack of daylight, the rain, snow or sleet, as the reason they damaged the rig or my favorite excuse “who put that there?”
All too often in the fire service we are quick to investigate or study the major motor vehicle accidents that result in significant damage to civilian vehicles or apparatus or both and/or the incidents that result in firefighter or civilian injury or death, but make no effort to really look into, or take seriously, the incidents that may result in only a few hundred dollars damage and no injury or fatality.
I maintain that these less notable incidents can be one time isolated embarrassing moments, but at the same time I will also maintain that these can also serve as warnings that safety or training gaps, or risky driver behaviors or cultures may exist within your organization.
Why don’t we document or investigate each and every incident where our vehicles are damaged, or where our vehicles damage property or other vehicles? One of the reasons may be that we have set a certain damage threshold in our minds, or through policy for that matter, that we have accepted as the “risk of doing business” when it comes to the operations of our rigs. Maybe we have accepted the fact that throughout the course of 1000 runs, people being saved, or tens of thousands of dollars worth of property being saved, that the occasional mirror that gets torn off leaving the bay simply comes with the territory.
Maybe our department has developed a culture of not reporting situations like this to protect our brothers, our company or our “house,” or maybe the whole situation where reports are done, photographs are taken and interviews are conducted, all because a compartment door was ripped off seems like overkill. Or lastly, maybe we as fire service leaders or administrators are truly overburdened with paperwork. Setting a threshold that eliminates all of these perceived vehicle damage incidents saves us from being even more buried under a pile of clerical busy work.
As the person or committee charged with safety, driver training or risk management, the determination that the mirror that got torn off was “an isolated incident” can only be made after an investigation of some type is conducted. Failing to insure that these incidents are reported and properly investigated may cause your department to miss some key training, policy or behavior issues, and may cause you to miss the warning signs that a much more serious accident is in the future.
Hopefully after reading this article, you may take a look at how you or your department views these types of incidents and how you do your follow up in their aftermath. When using the term investigation I do not mean to indicate that every incident where one of your rigs backs into something or clips a parked car requires the exact same intense investigation that would occur when a rig is involved in a serious injury accident. You can develop tiers for your investigation that are based on the incident(s) at hand.
For instance, when your heavy rescue tears off a mirror backing into the building you do not need a full list of measurements and spray paint marks around the mirror pieces, aka “evidence,” on your new concrete apron. I do recommend one picture of the rig in the position it was in when the mirror disappeared.
When I visit fire departments for safe apparatus operation seminars, I stress driver responsibility for the safe operation of their rig at all times. Drivers need to understand that they are not only responsible for the safety of their rig and crew as they pass through an intersection heading to a call, but they are also responsible for the minor dings and scratches on the rig related to driving — no matter where they occur.
Drivers may try to provide a number of different reasons as to how the dent got there, but always try to focus to what the driver could have done to prevent it. Drivers who embrace and understand this concept will take pride in what they do and will pay much more attention to their driving from start to finish — in both emergency and non-emergency situations.
In larger organizations where there are multiple drivers developing a culture of driver responsibility, foster a level of peer pressure where the overriding tone among your apparatus operators will be that “we” as drivers of our department rigs do not tolerate our fellow drivers who try to deflect responsibility away from them for the damage that has occurred.
Never allow the driver to determine if the incident needs investigating. It is human nature in most cases to try to downplay serious issues. It would not be uncommon for a driver to simply say he “clipped a pole and it was very minor, we are back in service.” But I have personally responded to the pole incident in my own career and it turned out to be about $10,000 worth of damage to a rig. Let’s not leave this determination up to the driver involved. Get in your car or send your assistant chief or service tech out and make sure a department official determines if the accident based on your departments established tiers for investigation is truly minor.
Third One That Year
OK. I’ll admit it. I drove a rescue rig through a bay door once. There I said it! About 20 years ago, the power was out at our main station and we did not have generator back up. We had recently taken delivery of a larger rescue with a higher box. Since the power was out we released the bay door from the automatic opener track and raised it by hand. Myself and the other firefighter who showed up for this 2:00 a.m. EMS call knew about the height difference between the old rig and the new rig, so he held the door all the way up as high as it would go with a pike pole and I slowly drove the truck out onto the apron. The problem was that the hook shaped arm that connected the door to the opener track/chain drive hung down from the door when it was in the fully raised, overhead position and as the rig crept out onto the ramp the hook got caught on the new “taller” rescue box and the truck closed the door on itself resulting in two bay door panels being destroyed and the new rig getting the paint scraped. As a result of that incident lessons were learned about our bay doors, our new rig and power failures and I went on to have a career basically free of vehicle related incidents.
If a driver were to have two or three more similar situations like my bay door incident in a 12 to 24 month period with no follow up, you take the chance that a high-risk driver would not be identified until it is too late. Speaking about the bay door situation that I referenced, if we failed to investigate that situation or did not make any attempt to find out exactly what happened, we may have missed key equipment issues, and we also could miss out on identifying operations deficiencies or training gaps within our fire departments.
Fair Treatment of All Drivers
When it comes down to managing groups of individuals, fair is fair. What I mean is that if firefighter Smith, who is one of your best and brightest, has one of those pesky scrape in the paint incidents and we quickly chalk it up to a “once in a lifetime” incident and then one of your less than professional or less conscientious members has a similar incident that gets fully investigated your perceived “bad apple” may immediately cry foul and say that he is being singled out or picked on because you do not like him. To take things even farther, if your department decides to drop him he may us the incident as his defense by saying you were looking for a way to get rid of him and firefighter Smith had the exact same incident and only received a slap on the wrist.
By documenting and investigating/evaluating all vehicle damage incidents you can protect yourself and your department against claims of inconsistent handing of these incidents and ultimately of dealing inconsistently with your firefighters.
I’ll be short and sweet with this one. In the world we live in a minor scrape or fender bender can lead to major liability and litigation issues. Most good citizens out there are not sue happy and looking for the big payoff, however there is a group of individuals who view government or municipal vehicles as a potential cash cow that can lead to a huge payday in the event of an incident. Any situation where your rigs scrape or clip a car sitting at a light, cause a pedestrian to fall off their bicycle, or other scenarios like this, can lead to huge legal issues for your department and your insurance carrier, even if they appear non-existent or minor.
Having a practice of documenting and investigating all incidents will cause your staff to be more on their toes when driving your rigs, will allow you to key in on training initiatives to deal with these potential issues and may help you prove in a court of law that your department has not “looked the other way” regarding driver safety issues and the general public.
Keep Your Accident Management Skills Honed
Lastly, while it may seem like overkill to document and investigate each and every vehicle damage situation that occurs in your department, there is a tremendous educational benefit to you as an officer in your organization in doing so. That benefit is keeping your skills sharp when it comes to dealing with accidents. If you are in the habit of taking statements, drawing a sketch or taking some photographs, your skills will get better and better. When the day comes (and hopefully it never does) when one of your rigs is involved in a serious incident, you will be prepared to take an organized approach to the management of the incident and the subsequent investigation and follow up due to the amount of smaller practice investigations you have done.
In closing, fire departments should take note of vehicle damage that has been caused through the course of vehicle operations and change the culture from one that may accept “battle scars” on its rolling stock, to a fire department that views these scars as learning tools and warning signs that may help prevent a larger incident where the “scars” are not limited only to the rig.