What is the difference?
Those who just drive fire apparatus, hop in the cab, turn the key or push the starter button(s), engage the transmission, activate the lights/siren and mash the accelerator pedal to the floor. They often give little thought to the type of call they are responding to, because in their mind, one response mode fits all. They also give little thought to whether the crew on board is belted or even seated for that matter, little thought to what the truck is made of and what it can or cannot handle, and little thought to the community at large. They are in most cases an accident waiting to happen.
Driver/operators are clearly different individuals. The driver/operator likes, if not thoroughly enjoys, the important job of operating the fire apparatus and may pick that role over any other in the department. The person who is just driving a fire truck also enjoys the task, but for different reasons. He enjoys breaking loose from the confines of his car and the laws that govern it and crossing over into the emergency vehicle where he perceives there are no rules or laws that apply to him. He gets an adrenaline rush from the speed and power; two sirens wailing and an air horn blown until there is no air left in the auxiliary air tank to sound it. He is often so jacked up from the ride to the incident that upon arrival at a minor incident or an accidental alarm, he is somewhat dazed and not quite sure where he now fits in at the scene. The ride is over, the rush has ended.
The apparatus driver/operator is an individual who approaches his job seriously right from the beginning. This individual generally follows the vehicle and traffic laws in his/her state that apply both to his personal vehicles and emergency vehicles. From the time of the alarm this driver is constantly evaluating the type of incident, traffic conditions, weather conditions and any other situation that may factor into how he/she are going to operate the vehicle. They cautiously observe their crew to make sure they are safely seated and belted and apply the same standard to themselves. They proceed to the incident fully knowing that if they do not arrive safely, they cannot provide service to their community.
They are also keenly aware of the fact that if their apparatus is involved in an accident responding or returning that may even complicate their department’s ability to provide quality service. These driver/operators know there are limitations to their apparatus and what their rigs can safely do and handle due to its weight, length, size, tires and braking systems. While it is easy to accelerate the rig to significant speeds simply by putting some light pressure on the accelerator pedal, stopping can be a completely different story.
Recently, during one of my visits to a fire department to present a safe emergency vehicle operations workshop, I was asked by some fire department board members to visit a recent apparatus accident scene. In this particular situation, a large class-A pumper was responding to an alarm at night and was allegedly faced with a car that may have drifted into its lane. The apparatus operator steered off the road in a “run-off” style incident as he states to “avoid colliding” with the alleged oncoming vehicle. I also had the opportunity to look over the specific piece of department apparatus that was involved in this near-miss incident.
My background is clearly centered in a few disciplines when it comes to large commercial vehicles. Driver training and evaluation, the development of vehicle loss prevention policies and best practices, large fleet management and maintenance and repair. I am not an accident investigator. With that said, when you work with large commercial vehicles and fire apparatus, hundreds of drivers and respond to numerous accidents overtime, you develop some type of accident instincts that give you feelings in your gut as to what may or may not have happened.
From my visit to this particular accident site, speed may have been a contributing factor in the incident. Long skid or tire marks were clearly visible at the scene. As speed, especially on residential roadways with lower posted speed limits increases, accident avoidance techniques become much more difficult. Also, the end results such as injuries and damage of accident avoidance attempts made at higher speeds can be more severe. The time you have as a driver to make critical decisions is greatly reduced as your speed increases. Couple that with the time of day that this incident occurred (darkness) and safe apparatus operation procedures would have clearly warranted a speed only at or below the posted speed limit. At night, drivers of apparatus should always reduce speed for good visibility and ample reaction time, within the range of the apparatus headlights.
The apparatus, as presented to me, had clear signs of a run off accident (various undercarriage injuries) however the undercarriage damage was more extensive than that of a low speed run off.
I have been involved with a number of commercial vehicles (over 26,000 pounds) that have left the road surface at speeds less than 30 mph. All of these vehicles have been towed back to our repair facility, inspected, and with other than some minor exhaust system repairs, are immediately sent back out on the road. The damage to this pumper required what one would term as “collision” repairs, indicating that this was more than a simple low speed run off incident.
The most telling piece of information was from the actual driver during the morning session of my driver safety workshop.
It was quite clear that this young driver was either in denial about the seriousness of the accident, or lacked the experience as an operator to recognize the seriousness of the incident. He repeated a number of times that his actions “saved” the crew, or possibly reduced their chances for injuries. I might have bought into his comments and joined in the collective thumbs up, back slapping and all around feel good fest from his buddies that were seated around him, if I was in my first years as a driver. But the aging fire apparatus driver/operator and school district bus fleet operator that I have become over time believes the driver and crew were simply lucky this time.
They were lucky that a tree, telephone pole or light standard was not in run-off path taken by their apparatus. They were lucky nobody was ejected from the vehicle, either out a cab door/window or windshield, and lucky there was no jogger, cyclist or pedestrian dressed in dark colors out walking in the area of the run off incident, who could have been struck when the truck left the road surface.
It is my opinion that firefighters who can respond and get apparatus out on the road are a valuable asset to any fire company and their dedicated service to the community is needed. I do not wish to drive away, through disciplinary procedures, any individual who has the desire to serve. However, before individuals who have been involved in near miss incidents or accidents are returned to the road to drive apparatus again, it is my “opinion” they be required to undergo retraining as a driver. This could consist of supervised practice drives followed by actual response drives under the direct view of an officer.
Additionally once “cleared,” if cleared again they should undergo periodic evaluations of their driving skills (every six months) by an officer, safety officer or driver trainer for a period up to 24 months. The first and most important step in this improvement process is that the driver in question must be able to step back and look at all sides of the incident objectively from a defensive driving viewpoint. They must recognize factors that may have been out of their control when they had their incident, as well as factors that were under their control. They should then explore what they have to do to gain control of the factors that caused their incident or accident, and use those new found skills to prevent similar situations in the future. Then and only then can somebody transform him or herself from a person driving a fire truck to a skilled and professional apparatus driver operator.