Fire truck drivers: How not to get creamed at intersections

Robert Avsec

You’re driving your engine to the scene of reported structure fire as part of a multi-company response. You’re navigating traffic on a heavily traveled thoroughfare and you’re fast approaching a controlled intersection. What should you be prepared to do?

Stop! That’s the first lesson I always imparted to firefighters when I was teaching them how to drive fire apparatus.

In that situation, you are the professional driver and you have to be prepared for the unexpected to happen, I would tell them. You must consider every other driver to be an amateur, especially when they look up in their rearview mirror and it’s filled with flashing red lights.

At busy intersections, the foot should be placed on the brake pedal, so there will be no delay if a stop is necessary. This technique is often referred to as covering the brake pedal and it is widely taught in both the fire and law enforcement communities. Depending on your speed at the time, this technique can save between 30 to 60 feet of stopping distance and may be the difference between being involved in a crash or not.

Traffic intersections are where the greatest percentage of major crashes involving emergency vehicles occur. Therefore, they are the one spot in a driver’s response route where they need to be in complete control — complete control of their vehicle and control of their emotions.

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U. S. Fire Administration shows that fire apparatus crashes are the second leading cause of on-the-job deaths for firefighters. Some key findings from an analysis of NHTSA data for the period 2000-2009 shows:

  • There were roughly 31,600 crashes involving fire apparatus.
  • Forty-nine of those crashes resulted in at least one fatality to an occupant of the fire apparatus.
  • Approximately 70 percent of all fire apparatus crashes happened during emergency responses.
  • Rollover crashes account for 66 percent of all fatal fire apparatus crashes.

That last point should really catch your attention. Because most fire apparatus has a relatively high center of gravity, especially pumpers, they are extremely susceptible to rollover in a side-impact crash.

We’ve seen tremendous advances in occupant protection during a crash with better restraint belt systems (lap and shoulder belts) and increased use of air bags. However, most fire apparatus still do not provide a high level of occupant protection in the event of a rollover crash. That’s especially true if the occupants are not using their seat belts.

The best occupant protection for firefighters in the rig is not being in a crash in the first place.

Top 3 crash causes

Being the professional driver means being aware of and being prepared for the most common causes of intersection crashes involving fire apparatus. Unless you are the sole occupant of the vehicle, this is where you and the officer or second firefighter seated next to you must operate as a team.

1. Failure to yield

The most common reason that civilian vehicles collide with emergency vehicles is that the civilian driver did not to yield to the emergency vehicle. You come up to a controlled intersection (either traffic light or stop sign) and you’re required to stop — yes, even with the emergency lights and siren operating you must stop. Look to your left, look to your right and then look to your left again.

Before you proceed into the intersection, make it clear to your co-pilot that they’re responsible for ensuring that no vehicular threat is coming from the right side while you keep an eye out for the left side.

2. Unsafe operation

Intersection crashes also happen because the emergency vehicle operator disregarded safe practices, traffic laws or departmental SOGs dictating the safe manner of passing through an intersection, especially in a negative right-of-way situation. Don’t be that operator.

Your emergency lights and siren are not a license to ignore traffic laws; they are signals to other motorists asking them to yield the right-of-way to you and your vehicle. They are under no obligation to do the right thing. In fact, you must be prepared for them to do everything except the right thing.

3. Hitting each other

Too often we read of two emergency vehicles colliding with each other in the intersection. In some cases, the emergency vehicles are responding to the same incident, and in other cases they are responding to separate incidents.

This should never happen. Especially if you’re paying close attention to preventing the first two causes just discussed.

A fire apparatus operator should never proceed into the intersection until they are certain that every other driver sees the emergency vehicle and is allowing it to proceed. Slowing when approaching the intersection, then coasting through, is not an acceptable substitute for coming to a complete stop.

When proceeding through the intersection, make eye contact with each of the other drivers to ensure that they know the emergency vehicle is there and about to proceed. And still be ready to stop.

The only way to safely ensure passage through an intersection is to visually confirm that all other vehicles have come to a complete stop and that they are remaining stopped.

Roundabouts

If you don’t know much about roundabouts, you’ll likely be learning about them soon. Roundabouts and their cousin the traffic circle, are two traffic control strategies increasingly being employed by traffic engineers because they are inherently safer for managing intersecting traffic routes.

Roundabouts reduce the types of crashes where people are seriously hurt or killed by 78 to 82 percent when compared to conventional negatively controlled intersections, per the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Highway Safety Manual.

They do this by reducing the number and severity of conflict points (where vehicles can potentially collide with each other) and by keeping all vehicles navigating the roundabout moving at lower speeds.

The fundamental and essential characteristics of all roundabouts include:

  • Traffic travels counterclockwise around a center island.
  • Vehicles entering the roundabout yield to traffic already circulating.
  • The curvature results in lower vehicle speeds, generally 15-25 mph, throughout the roundabout.

So, even when a collision between two vehicles happens, the severity is greatly reduced because the vehicles will be moving in the same direction and at a lower speed. Most motorists are probably as familiar with roundabouts as you are, so be aware of that and plan appropriately.

Get out and watch daily traffic flow in those roundabouts to get a sense for what normal looks like. Just as important, get out there and drive through those roundabouts under non-emergency conditions to get the feel for what it looks from your vantage point.

When responding under emergency conditions, be even more prepared for the unexpected since many drivers will have never encountered a fire truck entering or leaving a roundabout. So, give them plenty of room and attention.

Getting back to the team approach in the cab, the driver should focus on what’s ahead what’s happening on the left side. The co-pilot officer should focus on the right side of the apparatus, keeping an eye on the blind spot and watching for vehicles entering the roundabout who may not yield the right-of-way.

Poor driving can not only injure onboard firefighters, it can delay service to the initial call. Keep these tips in mind and continue to practice them on the roadways.

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