The Code 3 Distraction: Quick Tips for Safer Emergency Vehicle Operations

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The call comes in as a structure fire. As personnel are suiting up, you fire up the rig and get the lights activated. In moments you’re rolling Code 3 with the siren wailing, radio communication blaring, the captain relaying information to the crew. The car ahead of you stops abruptly in your path, but you manage to navigate around it. As you barrel toward the congested intersection, the light turns red. Off to the distance in your peripheral vision, you see a header. Your mind is racing with excitement and a bit of anxiety.

There’s no shortage of distractions when you’re driving Code 3 behind the wheel of a fire department vehicle.

Lexipol - Emergency Vehicle Operations

Emergency vehicle operations have always been dangerous, but it’s more of a threat today than ever before. Congested roads, distracted drivers, cars built to keep drivers from hearing the very noise we make to alert them to our presence, and technology within our vehicles all make the simple task of driving a complex and stressful one. Pressures to improve response times add to the stress. Fire department responses to and from emergency incidents, as well as emergency operations on roadways, present a high level of risk to both the public and to firefighter safety.

Lexipol’s Emergency Response Policy provides this guidance about fire apparatus response: “Responding with emergency lights and siren does not relieve personnel of the duty to continue to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons.” In other words, you don’t automatically have the right-of-way just because you’re running lights and sirens or driving an emergency vehicle. You are simply requesting the right-of-way from other drivers. You don’t have the right-of-way until those other drivers are aware of your presence and have yielded to you. That’s why you need to try to make your presence and intended actions known to other drivers, and drive defensively so when other drivers do something unexpected, you have time to react.

Let’s review a few best practice policies for Code 3 emergency vehicle operations :

• All personnel must be seated and belted while the apparatus is in motion.

• Warning lights and sirens must be activated.

• Come to a complete stop at all red lights, stop signs or flashing red lights, or in blind intersections.

• Your department may also specify some guidance on speed, such as: Do not exceed 10 mph over the posted speed limit. When traveling in center or oncoming traffic lanes, do not exceed 20 mph. Observe the posted speed limit when entering intersections with a green light.

• The apparatus operator must not write, send or read texts or other electronic messages while driving when the vehicle is in motion (check your applicable state law for additional guidance).

• Use extra caution when more than one apparatus is responding to an emergency, and remember that traffic yielding to one emergency vehicle may not expect other emergency vehicles to follow.

What are your department’s policies on emergency response driving? Are they up to date? Do they reflect the latest laws about texting while driving? Maybe it’s time for a refresher with the members on your shift or for your entire department.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. While we can’t stop distracted drivers from being on the road, we can take steps to ensure we are not distracted!

Sam DiGiovanna

SAM DIGIOVANNA is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. He also is a consultant for Lexipol Fire Services.

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