By Jim MacKay
There have been several stories in recent months regarding firefighters being injured or killed in either single-vehicle or multiple-vehicle mishaps. While I hesitate to throw a one-size-fits all blanket over the problem, let's at least come to an agreement that this IS a serious problem.
The motoring public has all but forgotten what to do when an emergency response vehicle is approaching. Add to that any number of distractions drivers are exposed to these days and the fundamental issue becomes "someone has got to pay attention." And that someone needs to be us.
The reason I am bringing this subject up is that I hope to have intelligent and broad discussion regarding what's working and what's not when it comes to driver operator training, EVOC training and jurisdictional policy regarding Volunteer Firefighters responding in POVs. Are VFDs conducting EVOC training for POV operation as well as apparatus operation? What is the mindset of the volunteer firefighter when he is responding Code 3? Are there some common areas of concern that can be identified so best practices can be initiated?
The pager goes off or you receive the call, "structure fire with heavy smoke showing". Your heart rate immediately increases; all other thoughts vanish as you focus like a laser beam on the "call". Gear, check. Batteries, check. Turnouts check. Almost instinctively you complete your own version of pre-incident planning and within a minute you're out the door and into your vehicle. Seconds later flashing lights and the wail of the sirenthe darkness as you rush to the scene (or station). Sound familiar? How many times have we all been there?
As you hurtle down the straight, two-lane road you take notice, if only for a second, the street signs and mailboxes and buildings as they echo the chorus of blinking colors emanating from your vehicle. As you close fast on the vehicles ahead of you they immediately hit their brakes and pull to the side of the road. "Yes," you think, "they can see me and hear me" and as you straddle the centerline for a moment you zoom past the "civilians", your pace unaffected. Your mind is racing as well.
In an instant you're in too deeply and your vehicle exits the roadway. It rolls, again, and again, things appear to be happening in slow motion. You're thrown about the cab of your vehicle because you never did fasten that seatbelt. Then, a deafening sound as the vehicle slams into the tree.
(If your own heart rate is elevated right now and your palms are just a little sweaty then you know exactly what I'm describing here.)
We've all been there. We are going through the mental checklists of what we'll need when we arrive on scene. We're listening to the radio for additional information about the scene. We're focusing on what we're going to encounter when we get there. But in that one moment of not focusing on your primary responsibility — driving. You enter a curve too fast, you fail to check both ways at the stop sign or you fail to see that person who didn't see you.
Being a volunteer responder is a very noble and valiant calling. We accept risk as an inherent part of the equation. But mitigating that risk is the responsibility of each of us and that applies to driving to and from the scene just as much as anywhere on the fireground. When driving to the scene, to the station or to your home after the flames have been extinguished, your primary focus and indeed your ONLY focus is to the task of driving. We have to be the ones who are focused on the road in front of us and the hazards around us. When responding, especially with lights and siren, you must be exceptionally vigilant to the road, your speed, the road conditions, traffic and any and all hazards you may encounter. Lights and siren will NEVER shield you from being T-boned or from broad-siding someone in an intersection. No amount of turnout gear will protect your bones from disintegrating upon impact with a tree because you weren't paying attention to how fast you were going when you entered that curve and you weren't wearing a seatbelt. And no amount of CSID will take away the pain or the guilt you'll feel for having injured or killed someone as a result of an accident.
Driving safely is YOUR responsibility. Wearing a seatbelt — every time — is your responsibility. Every single inch of the journey requires your total concentration to that task. Treat every other driver you encounter like they're blind and have no brakes, approach every intersection as though it were completely obscured. Slow down to respond faster, and safer.