Exemption from traffic laws doesn't exempt you from safe driving

…With Appropriate Care
Being exempt from regular traffic laws doesn’t exempt apparatus operators & company officers from ensuring safe driving

By Scott Cook

On April 9, AOL Autos published an article titled, “‘We Run Red Lights for a Living’: Inside A Fire Engine Driver’s Mind.” The article in and of itself is pretty informative, with quotes from a Boston Fire Department engineer such as: “There’s a fire there, there’s still gonna be a fire there when we get there, but if we don’t get there, then that’s gonna be a problem,” and, “We really have to stop at intersection for oncoming traffic [but] we can stop and go through a red a light if there’s not traffic."

Artistic license can be a dangerous thing. The statement included in the title of the article, “We run red lights for a living,” never actually appears in the article. But it’s easy to see how the casual reader could conclude that fire truck drivers, engineers or whatever they’re called in their area are expected to race through red lights—that it’s part of their job. In fact, in more than one place the Boston engineer makes statements such as, “We have to stop at red lights.” But that doesn’t make a good story.

But we can’t blame it all on the journalists; we’re not doing ourselves any favors either. Apparatus crashes abound lately.

Too Many Examples
You’ve all read the stories by now: A Houston Fire Department engineer may be charged in an apparatus-vs.-apparatus crash at an intersection that killed a bicyclist and injured nine firefighters while responding to a fire that ended up being smoke testing of a sewer system. That two apparatus collided was bad enough, but then the bicyclist, Leigh Boone, died. As of this writing, the driver of the ladder truck was reported to have ran a red light.

A Spotsylvania County (Va.) Volunteer Fire Department engineer is charged with failure to maintain control of his fire truck and failure to wear his seatbelt following an apparatus crash while responding to a structure. Interestingly, the company officer is charged for failure to wear his seatbelt too.

Duty of Care
Surely there are some true accidents, but the reality is they’re very few and far between. In Texas—as I’m sure in every other state—state law allows the driver of an “authorized emergency vehicle” to operate that vehicle outside of the normal/posted traffic regulations, SO LONG AS that driver operates that vehicle with appropriate regard for the safety of others. Section 546 of the Texas Transportation Code states:

Sec. 546.001. PERMISSIBLE CONDUCT. In operating an authorized emergency vehicle the operator may:
(1) park or stand, irrespective of another provision of this subtitle;
(2) proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, after slowing as necessary for safe operation;
(3) exceed a maximum speed limit, except as provided by an ordinance adopted under Section 545.365, as long as the operator does not endanger life or property; and
(4) disregard a regulation governing the direction of movement or turning in specified directions.

Sec. 546.005. DUTY OF CARE. This chapter does not relieve the operator of an authorized emergency vehicle from:
(1) the duty to operate the vehicle with appropriate regard for the safety of all persons; or
(2) the consequences of reckless disregard for the safety of others.

Notice that Sec. 546.005’s title is “Duty of Care.” If you’re the driver, it’s your responsibility. If you’re driving an apparatus in Texas and have an at-fault incident, they got you. You failed to operate that vehicle with appropriate regard for the safety of others and their property.

Further, if you’re the company officer, and your driver is driving like a maniac, do you have the intestinal fortitude shut them down? If you don’t have what it takes to tell your driver to settle down, you should go back to riding backward. You obviously don’t have the best interests and safety of your crew or the public in mind. I wonder what other basics you’re letting slide—PPE? SCBA?

There are few—very few—situations that are truly accidents. Almost every apparatus accident could have been avoided by driving with due regard for the safety of the firefighters and the public.

Design an Issue?
In some cases, apparatus design may be a factor. Are we building an overloaded or under-braked vehicle? Is it too tall for the wheelbase/apparatus width?

I’ve previously written about Riverside County firefighter Michael Arizaga, who was charged in 2006 with vehicular manslaughter for a 2005 accident that killed another firefighter. Charges were dropped against Firefighter Arizaga in 2007, as reported by the Press-Enterprise: “The DA’s office dropped charges against Arizaga after determining the accident was caused by weight-distribution factors in the truck’s design that made it fishtail and overturn, Assistant District Attorney Sara Danville said.”

I was glad to see that Firefighter Arizaga was cleared of charges, since the accident wasn’t his fault. But the fact remains that the crash was somebody’s fault. Considering the DA’s statement, we might want to start with who designed the truck.

The Role of Maintenance

How about your maintenance program? Do you have someone doing the necessary preventative maintenance, and do you have the intestinal fortitude to take unsafe to operate apparatus out of service?

Do we need to revisit the Boston Fire Department incident, where the brakes failed and Ladder 26 struck a building, killing the company officer, Lt. Kevin Kelley?

I know we run our rigs up and down the roads hundreds of times a day without incident, but the only time it makes front-page news is when we wreck one, or make a grab at the fire.

The bottom line: Drivers, you are responsible for the safe operation of that apparatus. Accept it and take it seriously.

Company officers, you are responsible for the actions of your crew, including the driver. Accept it and take it seriously. Do what you must to ensure the safety of your personnel, or go back to riding backward.

Scott Cook is the former chief of the Granbury (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department and a fire service instructor. He’s also a member of FireRescue’s editorial board.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comment by Scott Cook on November 1, 2009 at 10:29am
Interesting feedback.

I would like to offer additional thoughts:

R.G. Rumsey said: "...drive the vehicle like it's your family inside!" Consider that, for the most part, it IS your family inside. Many of us spend more "awake" time with our firehouse family than we do with our own family. This holds true for both career and volunteer side.

I'm not an absolute proponent of the engineer driving "all bunkered up." If that engineer can operate the vehilce safely in bunkers, all the better. However, many of us do not feel we have the freedom of movement in the boots and pants. Safety is the key here. How does the engineer feel s/he can operate the vehicle in the safest manner?

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

Comment by Steve potter on November 1, 2009 at 4:41am
of course getting to the scene as fast as possible is our job but dont put yourself in a position to become anther call we all must arrive at the scene to to anyone any good each state has reg about speed and all the other stuff but never drive above your capabilities thats just crazy were a small vol dept most our runs are several miles away from station a few extra minutes being safe is just SMART be smart the life you save may be yours and your crew.
Comment by Joey "BigShow" De Piano on October 30, 2009 at 11:38pm
Put Provisions aside and lets go one step past that and say there was no law for it..any one who blows a red light stop sign what have you full blown lights sirens so on does not stop should be automatically pulled from driving and suspended or worse ..its common sense don't need a cop to explain that one boys and girls
Comment by R. G. Rumsey on October 30, 2009 at 8:30pm
Bottom line here is... Give NO choices. Bunker-up, buckle-up, and Driver, drive the vehicle like it's your family inside! Traffic lights showing "RED" mean "STOP"...same for STOP SIGNS. A few extra moments taken to arrive safely will save you from an eternity of ill-feelings, lawsuits, and public heartache.
Comment by Paul Montpetit on October 30, 2009 at 3:56pm
Melvin....admit it....you don't have a clue do you....?? Still probie...? Paul
Comment by Melvin A. on October 30, 2009 at 12:41am
All members should bunkered up, seated, and belted in prior to turning a wheel on any fire run. Apparatus drivers are exempt from this rule. First, it would take extra time for the driver to bunker up on top of starting the apparatus, checking the position of the door, glancing out side mirrors to quickly view the status of compartment doors, and all the other “checks” a good driver makes before turning a wheel. Second, many drivers are uncomfortable operating apparatus in bunker pants and boots. Once on-scene, drivers are required to bunker up as quickly as practical. Being a fire fighter is very hard than it looks. You will not b able to receive any extra cash and your life might be at risk but you will be able to save many people.
Comment by Paul Montpetit on October 29, 2009 at 10:49pm
Mike you are correct...in NYS the law does state to slow down and proceed with caution BUT....And a big BUTT it is....NFPA states you are to STOP at those same intersections....Now if you are involved in an accident...and they have a decent lawyer...what will happen...? They will look at your equipment and turn-outs...and will ask....Is that stuff NFPA compliant..? When you answer why yes it is...you are now dead meat...you cannot pick and choose which NFPA regs you follow.....So who looses...? You do......Stay safe.....Paul
Comment by Art "ChiefReason" Goodrich on October 29, 2009 at 10:40am
Two speeding apparatus arrive at the same intersection at the same time. Both activate their OptiComs.
Who wins?
Yeah; there have been alot of fatal accidents lately. I don't know the number of civilian deaths, but I believe that firefighter deaths due to MVAs has become the second leading cause of death behind heart attacks.
You have to be able to trust the guy behind the wheel. He literally holds your life in his hands everytime he grips the steering wheel for another call.
I understand that there should be few exceptions to the traffic codes in any state for emergency vehicles, but not to the point where it endangers firefighters and the public. When we allow some to exercise their judgment and due regard, we sometimes find out the hard way that the person's judgment is poor at best.
But I also remember a time when WE owned the roads. That is, if people even heard the truck, they would pull over. Now, you might get the middle finger salute.
Good read.

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