4 steps to prevent fire truck theft

Robert Avsec

When fire apparatus or ambulances are stolen it jeopardizes a department's ability to provide timely and effective public-safety services. It is critical for fire departments to educate their personnel and implement best practices to prevent the theft or other misuse of emergency response vehicles and equipment.

Beyond the negative impact on service delivery, a stolen piece of fire equipment or an ambulance can become a delivery vehicle for a terrorist. Think about that for a moment.

In the wake of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we hardened our public buildings and facilities by severely restricting vehicle access. But how many people would question the presence of a fire truck or ambulance inside the perimeter before it was too late?

The problem of stolen fire apparatus or ambulances is not a theoretical one, says Randy Smathers, president and owner at VISTA Brake Lock.

"I have a Google alert set up that sends me [news articles on apparatus and ambulances thefts]. I check the source and confirm that it is real and relevant," Smathers says. "I delete many every day that are not related or confirmed."

Smathers' stats show that in 2015, there were nine incidents in foreign countries and 47 in 25 different states the United States. So far in 2016, a piece of fire apparatus or ambulance has been stolen four times in foreign countries and 28 times in the U.S.

Why they are stolen
Overseas, terrorists in Israel and Afghanistan have used stolen or cloned emergency vehicles rigged with explosive devices to successfully carry out attacks.

Aside from the potential for these emergency vehicles to have fallen into the wrong hands, many of those stolen vehicles were subsequently involved in crashes with other vehicles or buildings. Those crashes resulted in deaths, injuries, property damage and legal liabilities for the vehicle owners for not taking appropriate steps to prevent the theft.

The primary reason why fire apparatus and ambulances are vulnerable to criminal activity and terrorist use is because we do not routinely use security technology measures involving three core aspects for vehicle security: theft prevention, authentication to specific operators (authorized use) and the ability to track and recover stolen vehicles.

In other words, we can't or don't lock the rigs, we can't control who can driving it and we haven't got the ability to track vehicles that do go missing.

Our common practice is to leave emergency vehicles running and unattended at emergency scenes, in staging areas and in apparatus bays or in front of the station. Ambulances are routinely left in a similar unsecured position at hospitals during patient transfers.

4 theft-prevention steps
Naval Postgraduate School student Michael Johansmeyer tackled this topic for his master's thesis. His thesis, "Securing Public Safety Vehicles: Reducing Vulnerabilities by Leveraging Smart Technology and Design Strategies," should be required reading for all fire and EMS leaders.

Johansmeyer developed a model he calls SERVE (Securing Emergency Response Vehicles with Engineering) that provides a framework for departments to use in preventing the theft and misuse of fire apparatus and ambulances.

Tier I: Theft prevention
Examples of these include taking keys out of the ignition, locking doors, push button activation (panic button), electronic key fob and smart keys.

These are simple measures, for sure, although in practice may be difficult to implement. For one, leaving vehicles running on the emergency scene or at the hospital is so widely practiced it is part of our culture.

Second, vehicles, particularly fire apparatus, may not have a key to remove or doors that can be locked and unlocked from the outside. Although these simple steps may prevent theft, applying practices such as removing keys may adversely affect job performance.

Tier II: Authorized use
Tier II solutions focus on ensuring that only the right person can use the vehicle through a verification process. This can include devices in Tier I, but adds user-specific information or requirements.

Tier II technology employs the capabilities of the vehicle's on-board computer (sometimes external computers) to validate user information. Examples include a user-specific smart cards, PINs or biometric ID and a password. In short, if a thief hops in the cab, there's no joy riding.

Field programmable gate array technology is used to ensure authorized changes can occur quickly in the event user privileges are revoked — if an employee loses their driving privileges or their employment is terminated.

Tier III: Tracking and recovery
Besides preventing the theft in the first place, another deficiency is locating and recovering the stolen vehicle before something bad happens.

Tier III technology solutions piggyback on Tier I and Tier II devices so that on-board vehicle systems can communicate with authorized users to provide information regarding the vehicle's speed and location.

Tier IV: Human-machine interface
The best technology in the world is useless if firefighters and EMS personnel don't use it 100 percent of the time.

Fire and EMS departments looking to implement Tier I, II, and III solutions to increase security for their emergency vehicles must consider anthropometric and design theories to ensure that smart practices are identified and disruptive security technologies do not adversely affect job performance.

The human-machine interface is warranted across Tier I, Tier II and Tier III technologies. Specifically, the authentication technologies cannot interfere with operator's ability to move the vehicle when it must be moved.

There is no single technology solution for departments looking to increase the level of security for their emergency vehicles. The SERVE model can be useful in enabling departments to identify the right vehicle-security technologies that fit their needs and budgets.

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