Even if you've never served as a rig's driver, you know what it's like trying to move a car accident patient onto a backboard then onto a gurney while feeling the wind of passing cars on your back. If you have been an emergency vehicle driver, then you probably have felt the frustration of trying to maneuver an apparatus around non-yielding motorists down your town's main thoroughfare on an emergency call during lunchtime.
Non-yielding motorists make emergency calls hazardous not only to the responders but to the public as well. As emergency responders, we know that every second is precious when dealing with life-and-death situations. So how much time are we losing due to non-yielding motorists? How much attention is given to the patient when we have to keep one or both eyes on traffic coming through the emergency scene?
While riding with Bttn. Chief Hobbie Oswalt, waiting for vehicles to yield to his lights and sirens during a rush-hour emergency call, someone commented that something needed to be done to remind the public to yield to emergency vehicles. Oswalt responded, “Operation POP,” referring to “Pull Over, Please,” an idea from a National Fire Academy course he attended some years ago and the beginnings of the Operation POP Awareness Campaign in Columbus, Miss.
According to www.firechief.com.] But this problem was never brought home harder in our community than on a foggy morning in December 1997 when an Oktibbeha County, Miss., volunteer firefighter was killed., the number of firefighters killed while responding to and returning from calls has hovered around an alarming 25% of all deaths for the last several years. [Ed: See “Roadside assistance,” March 2001, available at
A dump truck driver failed to slow down and change lanes, and struck the firefighter while he was responding to a vehicle fire in Lowndes County. Highway patrol was on scene and continued to let traffic through. The firefighter parked the fire truck as far off the road as he could, and as he walked around the rig to the road side to get a tool from a compartment, the dump truck struck him, rolling him down the side of the fire truck and causing fatal injuries.
In response to incidents such as this, an October 1999 meeting at the NFA produced a white paper, made possible by a grant from the U.S. Fire Administration. Protecting Emergency Responders on the Highways identifies strategies to reduce deaths and injuries to emergency service personnel on the roadways. Some 29 contributors, representing a cross-section of interested parties, participated in the writing of this paper. Several states have enacted legislation regarding traffic rules at emergency scenes, and emergency responders have written additional protocols to protect personnel and victims at emergency scenes.
Operation POP has two basic messages: pull over to the right and stop, and use caution when passing through emergency scenes. We wanted to remind the public of these two messages through an awareness campaign for one month, then evaluate its effectiveness. Emergency vehicle drivers evaluated the campaign by observing any improvements in motorist behavior.
To reach all driving-age residents in our community, we enlisted the help of the local TV station. The story interested the news director because it was a problem he had witnessed personally.
The TV station developed a special two-part news story informing the public about the problems emergency responders encountered on emergency calls and possible solutions to kick off the awareness campaign. During the news story, fire department drivers recounted near-miss encounters with motorists at emergency scenes and informed the public what to do when meeting an emergency vehicle or passing through an emergency scene.
To show the public the extent of the problem, a TV camerman and reporter rode along while a fire truck responded to an emergency call down a main thoroughfare during lunchtime. The camera caught many motorists not pulling over to the right, trying to out-run the fire truck, moving into the turn or center lane when they saw the fire truck approaching, and shooting across intersections as the fire truck approached. The camera even caught a woman holding a child's hand looking at the fire truck as it approached and proceeding to cross the street.
In conjunction, the local newspaper highlighted facts about time delays caused by non-yielding motorists, how those delays could affect the outcome of emergency calls, and the hazards that responders working at an emergency scene can face from inattentive motorists.
The news director thought that these news-packaged service announcements probably wouldn't get very much air-time and suggested that we make our own home-grown announcement about the problem. We recruited firefighters, engineers and captains to play different parts in the public service announcement, which detailed the importance that time plays during an emergency call and that a delayed response could mean explained an outcome going from positive to negative.
After the news stories ran, the PSA played four to five times per day for about 20 days on the local TV station. After it aired for about a week, many of the firefighters received positive comments from local citizens. Also, engineers started to notice a significant change in the behavior of motorists throughout the community.
Apparently the message had an impact outside our community as well; other fire departments were benefiting from our Operation POP. Some of the comments heard from engineers included: “Traffic was parting like the Red Sea,” and “Cars were pulling over to the right and stopping to yield to the fire truck, and intersections and center lanes were being kept clear.”
The public needs to be made aware of the dangers emergency service personnel face when working an emergency scene along side roadways. They also need to be informed of the dangers of rubbernecking through emergency scenes, not using caution passing through emergency scenes and not looking out for emergency personnel. A mother driving through an emergency scene in our community rubbernecked and rear-ended the car in front of her. Her daughter suffered a fractured neck.
The first phase of Operation POP was such a success for our department, due mainly to the help of the media, that we hope for the same success during the second phase in making our responses and working at emergency scenes safer for all emergency service personnel.
In the fire service we've been trained to take care of ourselves first, our partner second, and then the victim. This is why the second phase of Operation POP will concentrate on emergency scene safety for responders.
Part of that phase will be to educate and remind emergency vehicle drivers of their responsibility to use their apparatus in a defensive manner at emergency scenes. Park the apparatus at emergency scenes to protect the scene from the traffic flow, but also park it in a manner that will allow emergency workers safe access to and from the apparatus.
Sometimes this is easier said than done.
Susan Snapp is a eight-year veteran and Carole Summerall a 12-year veteran of the Columbus (Miss.) Fire Department, where they both served as apparatus operators. The Public Fire & Life Safety Education project started in August 2001.