Driver-training programs are essential for every department, regardless of size and scope. Here's how to put one together.
I have asked numerous chiefs over the years what they believe is the most important component of a driver training program. Almost without fail they answer that such programs should: ensure that state laws are met; educate drivers on the operating characteristics of the vehicles; and comply with the NFPA standards. Indeed, these are the essential items.
Any effective emergency vehicle driver-training program will have as its foundation in NFPA 1002, Qualifications for Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator. However, how the application of NFPA 1002 will vary based on the nuances of local departments and the jurisdictions they serve. For instance, one type of program would be created for a department that has numerous stations and apparatus, while an entirely different program would be applied for a one-station, two-vehicle department. But while there may be different requirements for trainees of the larger agency, the core components of the program should not change.
In many driver-training programs it should be pointed out that a personal vehicle is different than a fire engine. "One of the major elements of a driver program that I look for is plenty of emphasis on the fact that the apparatus is not your family sedan," said Ted Lowden, chief of the Evesham (N.J.) Fire Department. "A good driver training program should provide plenty of healthy doses of respect for the emergency vehicle."
The difference between personal vehicles and emergency vehicles is a great starting point for any local program. Ingrain into the operator's mind that when he gets behind the wheel of a fire apparatus, he has the lives of others — as well as an asset worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — in his hands. Drivers have the responsibility and ability to influence the situations they face traveling from the station to the incident and back again. This focus on personal accountability and responsibility is a huge step in developing high-performing fire-apparatus operators.
A fundamental driver-training program should educate the trainee on the data regarding fatalities, injuries, collisions and near misses; specific case studies of vehicle accidents; the impact of vehicle collisions upon the individuals involved and the organization; and the criminal and civil consequences of such events. These topics drive home the serious consequences of emergency-vehicle collisions and the resultant effects upon all concerned.
A focus on the driver is another essential factor. The program should examine the importance of driver selection, the human aspects of driving, the required abilities, and related certification and documentation. This aspect is as important to the agency's administrators as it is the apparatus operators. It enables administrators to select drivers who have the necessary physical and mental attributes needed to effectively operate the vehicle safely and successfully, and to certify and re-certify drivers based on the agency's standard operating guidelines.
Once the driver-selection component is completed, there is a need to review local guidelines and policies regarding emergency vehicles. Such a review will enable operators to understand the expectations for their performance and the consequences that they will face should they fail to properly perform their driving tasks.
The next step in the training process is to review state and national requirements. Specifically, an understanding of the legal ramifications of emergency vehicle operations and a review of relevant state laws are essential.
A need also exists to study the various vehicle characteristics and how they affect both the physical forces acting on the vehicle and the manner in which the vehicle handles. This includes features such as friction, velocity, momentum and inertia, and centrifugal force. These are the forces that govern braking, acceleration, stopping, tire/road friction, weight transfer, roll, weight distribution (center of gravity), the baffling system and more.
The mental and physical requirements to implement defensive driving techniques also are important elements in emergency-vehicle driver training. These discussions involve avoiding excessive speed, maintaining a safe following distance, rates of closure, blind spots, overhead clearance and other related items. Among the topics to consider at this point are lighting, sirens and emergency dispatch protocol. This is a great time to discuss the driving safety components raised by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's 16 Life-Safety Initiatives. The three driving-related components include:
- Travel at a safe speed — always under control.
- Ensure clear passage at any controlled intersection.
- Remain seated and belted while in motion.
To operate a vehicle safely, the vehicle must be inspected and maintained on a regular basis. Whether departmental inspection and maintenance programs are in place, or manufacturer-recommended inspection and maintenance schedules are used, the vehicle operator has the responsibility to assure that inspections and maintenance are performed by qualified individuals in a timely fashion.
The final step is the competency course, which is designed to assist in the training of new drivers, qualify candidates for the street and highway portion, examine the proficiency of existing drivers and verify their competency. Nothing takes the place of behind-the-wheel experience. However, the involvement of a mentor the training of new fire apparatus operators provides additional wisdom from which the operator can learn.
"A good driver-training program must stress cognitive development first, then manipulative skills development," said Boone Gardiner, chief (retired) of the Fairfield (Conn.) Fire Department." Firefighters must realize that the easy part of being an apparatus driver is starting up the vehicle and going in a straight direction on a level road."
Typically, each state establishes programs for training emergency service vehicle operators that are compliant with state and NFPA requirements. You should contact your state fire academies or regional academies for approved programs. In addition, your insurer may suggest programs that will meet these training levels, which also will address specific causation factors of vehicle accidents. Reach out to these agencies to ensure that your program meets your needs.
William F. Jenaway, Ph.D, CFPS, CFOD, CSP, is vice president of VFIS, which offers insurance, education and consulting services to emergency-service organizations. Jenaway was named FIRE CHIEF's 2001 Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year while chief of the King of Prussia (Pa.) Volunteer Fire Company. He has worked his entire career in the field of safety and fire protection, and served 10 years as chair of the NFPA Committee on Emergency Service Risk Management. Jenaway also is an adjunct professor of risk analysis in the public-safety program of St. Joseph's University Graduate School in Philadelphia.