Apparatus Crash: What the Heck Happened?

by | September 8, 2021

In the fire service, it seems like we hear or read about an apparatus or personal vehicle crash every day. Crashes that occur during emergency incidents remain one of the leading causes of firefighter fatalities. An engine company blows a stop sign or red light and hits a school bus. A rig overturns—was it because of speed and hard cornering? Or was the operator inadequately trained?

According to recent estimates, firefighters and other emergency service personnel experience traffic-related fatalities 2.5 to 4.8 times greater than the national average. The most recent NFPA report estimates that in 2018 there were 14,425 crashes involving fire department emergency vehicles and 700 crashes involving the member’s vehicle that occurred while responding to an emergency or returning. Moreover, the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) has found that leading causes of a fatal apparatus crash are rollovers and overturning, collision with other moving vehicles, and collisions with fixed objects.

There is little doubt that apparatus crashes are a serious problem. The question is why? What are the factors that contribute to apparatus crashes? What are the best interventions to reduce the number of accidents?

Risk Factors in Fire Apparatus Crashes

A recent study identified risk factors involved in apparatus crashes and organized them into four major groups:

  1. Driver-related
  2. Task-related
  3. Vehicle-related
  4. Environment-related

Each of these groups includes more specific risk factors ranging from driver experience and secondary task demands (driver distraction) to vehicle characteristics and weather.

The research results are interesting. Age and sex of a driver have less of an effect on fire apparatus crashes than do aggressive driving behaviors and a record of multiple accidents (recidivism). Perhaps this has always been the case; the Houston Fire Department reported just five drivers were responsible for 88% of the accidents that occurred in 1993.

It will come as no surprise that most apparatus crashes occur at intersections. Running red lights, traffic signal control logic, and other drivers all contribute to this sobering fact. Add speeding to the mix and the recipe for a tragedy is complete.

Strategies for Reducing Fire Apparatus Crashes

Many of the articles published in the fire service trade magazines describe regulatory schemes, technologies, and engineering solutions intended to reduce apparatus crashes. The shortcoming of these articles: There is little evidence offered to support the conclusions or proposed interventions. The lack of evidence supporting conclusions makes it difficult for departments to make informed decisions concerning the allocation of resources used to improve emergency response safety.

Age and sex of a driver have less of an effect on fire apparatus crashes than does aggressive driving behaviors and a record of multiple accidents.

All is not lost. Two avenues of intervention do have supporting evidence. The first is a formal and robust driver training program that includes classroom, field training, and vehicle-specific training elements coupled with scheduled refresher training. Although such a program can seem expensive, it’s worth remembering that training is most expensive when it is not done and something goes sideways—like a fire truck. Our goal is to train out the bad habits, so that muscle memory is brought to bear during emergency responses. The same reasoning applies to refresher training, in which we seek to identify any bad habits and reinforce good habits.

The second avenue of intervention is, not surprisingly, comprehensive risk management and risk assessment. In the case of emergency response, the first step is to identify existing and potential risks. This is followed by an analysis of the risks. Choose an intervention based on the analysis and then implement the intervention. Lastly, monitor the selected intervention and continue, discontinue, or revise the intervention. Updating response policies and procedures may be more effective than spending money on a technology that does little to reduce risk. For example, you might identify backing incidents as an issue for your department, then test out a policy that requires the crew to exit the vehicle and a spotter be used every time a vehicle backs up.


There are many ways to reduce the frequency and severity of fire apparatus crashes. The question for you and your agency is which ones will be of the greatest benefit for you. After all, we will never prevent all apparatus crash events. Some things are beyond our control, such as a rig that is rear-ended while stopped at a red light. Conversely, a comprehensive driver training program, coupled with effective risk assessment and management practices, should yield positive results and reduce the frequency and the severity of crashes. Our goal, as always, is to prevent the predictable.


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MIKE VATTER has been a member of Lexipol’s Fire Content Development Team since June 2017. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration and juris doctor degree, and he graduated from the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program in 1998. Vatter has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service and local government. During his career, Vatter has served as fire chief, deputy fire chief, municipal training officer, fire prevention and investigation officer, company officer and firefighter. He also has experience in the volunteer and federal fire service.

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