Who Are You Riding With? Why Fire Apparatus Safety Goes Beyond Your Department

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Fire apparatus safety, and the safety of the firefighters riding the apparatus, is more prominent than ever. That’s a good thing. But there are still some big gaps that should make us think. Hard.

Take the issue of who is driving your fire apparatus. Who are they in your fire department? What are their qualifications? How were and are they trained? What’s their driving record like? When was the last time you checked the status of their license? How experienced are they at driving anything? Are they sober? Do they know where the brake pedal is? Are they excitable? Do they spend more time watching NASCAR than attending training?

This is stuff worth thinking about. Stuff worth having policy for. Essentially, would your family, friends and loved ones trust THEM when you’re riding that apparatus?

Then, of course, is the issue of safety when we get in and on the apparatus. How much stuff in the cab will go flying around if something bad happens? Is all the equipment secure? And how about the brothers and sisters riding—will they get ejected if something goes wrong?

And then there is this issue. A recent NIOSH firefighter fatality report covers the death of a Polk County (Fla.) firefighter. Firefighter/EMT Ben Lang, 22, died while assisting the local non-fire EMS service with the transport of a patient to the hospital. He was located in the back of the non-fire department ambulance when the ambulance struck a large tree. Here’s a link to the report: Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

It is important to note that this firefighter was riding in an ambulance that at the time was operated by a third-service public EMS agency within his county, not a vehicle under the authority of the fire department. The NIOSH report identifies worn tires, speed and driver training as possible factors in the accident. This got me thinking. While the fire department, the chief and the members are clearly responsible for the maintenance of the fire department’s vehicles, shouldn’t we be concerned when firefighters are regularly assigned to ride an ambulance or related vehicle that the fire department is not responsible for—or the person driving it? In other words, chiefs should be evaluating the risk of placing firefighters in other agencies’ vehicles.

Sure, if the EMS or ambulance service you assist does have a good driver training program, a good screening program, safe vehicles, and safe and enforced policies and practices, the risk is much lower. But what if they don’t?

What if that EMS or ambulance service firefighters “ride in with” have no driver training program, no personnel screening program and a poor ambulance maintenance program?

As tough as it is for chiefs, commissioners and presidents (as well as unions, locals and volunteer associations) to keep their members safe within the fire department environment, our obligation doesn’t stop there. We also must think about all of the places outside the department where our firefighters are exposed to risk. Fire apparatus safety crosses numerous areas of policy—recruitment, background checks, training, and emergency and non-emergency operations. But this incident shows us we must also think about apparatus that aren’t even operated by our departments.

What can chiefs do about that? First make sure your own house is in order, that you have the necessary fire apparatus safety policies and procedures on the books and that your firefighters are regularly training on them. Then identify all of the agencies that your firefighters could potentially “ride in with” and what their driver recruitment and training is like. Ask to see their policies and procedures for vehicle maintenance. Ask how often driver license checks are run and driving records are reviewed. Ask what happens to a driver who gets into an accident, or who is cited for speeding.

If things are in order, then you can rest a little easier. If, as is more likely, there are one or two—or more—areas of concern, ask whoever’s responsible for that agency if you can collaborate on some changes. Offer to show them your policies and procedures. Explain your concern, and that the changes you’re proposing will benefit their employees and reduce their risk and liability too. You know, a win-win.

And if they don’t agree to the changes? Don’t give up, and remind them that they need your help. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to talk to whoever’s at the top of the organization. And if that still doesn’t work, then maybe it’s time for a little public exposure of the areas in which they’re lacking. Or maybe you can find a way not to work with them. But just looking the other way is not an option. Not when your firefighters’ safety is at stake. Certainly Ben Lang’s family didn’t think so.

Who are you and your firefighters riding with? It’s worth thinking about.

Billy Goldfeder

BILLY GOLDFEDER is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio. He’s also a member of the Board of Directors for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, a frequent contributor to fire publications and a consultant for Lexipol.

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