4 types of drivers you'll encounter when driving the rig
The fire apparatus engineer must navigate around four types of motorists to get everyone safely to and from the fire
One of the most crucial functions that any firefighter is called on to perform is that of the driver. I drove full time for many years, and in my less-than-informed opinion, it is the most important position on the apparatus.
Without a competent driver, we wouldn’t even get there, let alone have any of the wet stuff.
In many departments, the position of driver is a promotion or rank, it is so important. I really enjoyed it, not just the driving, but pumping the water and helping out.
I always tried to anticipate what was going to be needed and tried to stay ahead of the curve. For example, if the attic appeared to be on fire, I would try to make sure there was a pike pole or attic ladder near the front door. I would have a salvage cover or two ready also. If it was a nighttime fire, I would get the lights strung and ready to take in, all the while monitoring the gauges and pressures.
Don’t drive as fast as the fire truck will go
Driving can be a daunting undertaking for anybody. I remember when I started driving, I made the usual mistake of trying to drive as fast as the vehicle would go. After all, it’s an emergency and we need to get there.
I drove a chief for a brief time and he used to tell me to slow down before we got off the apron. Most people, as in my case, learn temperance over time and embrace the concept that we have to arrive without killing ourselves or others to be of any use.
I still maintain that knowing where you are going is really helpful. You have a lot to think about besides knowing where you are going. Unless the information paints a picture of a five-story building with fire on the first four floors and babies being thrown from the fifth, let’s take a second or two and figure out where we are going.
That second or two might save us from wasting five minutes trying to get to the right location. This is where a good navigator comes in handy, especially when you are in a foreign area. Looking over and seeing somebody turning the map book over and over like they are closing a valve is never a good sign.
Road hazards: the motoring public
And then of course, there’s the motoring public.
My first indoctrination into the world of emergency driving came at the fire academy of course. The instructor was a state trooper complete with a genuine Smokey Bear hat and mirrored sunglasses. He started off the class with a “Look fellas, here’s the deal.”
I have never forgotten his words and they still ring true. I will paraphrase in the interest of good taste. He looked at us as he leaned forward; we of course (all green recruits) couldn’t wait for these words of knowledge.
He said, “There are people driving vehicles who’s heads are so far up their rectums (not what he said) that they can’t even see past the hood of their car, let alone you!”
Over the years, I have identified several drivers that you encounter on the highways and byways. You can see these people whenever you get behind them with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Here’s the four types of motorists you may encounter:
1. The Mario Andrettis
Insert your favorite racecar driver here, be it Dale Jr. or whomever. This is the person who tries to outrun the fire truck. They speed from intersection to intersection, trying to stay ahead of the fire apparatus.
Now you have to drive and worry about this person causing a wreck or finally jamming on the brakes in front of you.
2. The freezer
Yes this person freezes up and can’t move. Usually, the freeze point occurs at the perfect spot to block the intersection or street. They are hopelessly paralyzed and can’t get their foot off the brake. They stare up at you with a blank look as the LED lights reflect off their face and the sirens vibrate their windows, trying all the while to muster the courage to move 6 inches.
3. The cosmic driver
I say cosmic because this person is out of this world. They don’t see you, hear you or have any idea there are other vehicles on the road. The best air horns in the world are of no help. They drive along for blocks singing “Sweet Caroline” until they finally reach their destination or turn on another street.
4. The blocker
Here is the person who uses the fire apparatus as a running back would use a blocking halfback. Following right behind the apparatus, this person carefully negotiates traffic in the wake of the fire truck with a free pass, passing the law-abiding people who have yielded to the emergency vehicle.
I had one once who was so close on our tail I couldn’t even see him in the mirrors. One of the firefighters in the back glimpsed him when we changed lanes. We detained him until the police arrived but they said they didn’t see it so they couldn’t do anything.
Of course you have people at the other end of the spectrum who will do anything to get out of the way, including drive up into yards, into ditches, over esplanades and so on. Please don’t damage your car, just pull to the right and stop.
The category of responding to and returning from accounts for firefighter deaths every year, so it is serious business. Remember the words of the immortal state trooper. Let me hear from you.
This article, originally published in September 2017, has been updated.