…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.
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