Qualified Apparatus Drivers Need More Than A CDL

Issue 3 and Volume 12.

Driver training must be an on-going function of every fire department.
Driver training must be an on-going function of every fire department. Operators should be given the opportunity practice with department apparatus in none emergency situations to learn skills like safe backing operations.

All fire departments look forward to purchasing a new apparatus. We endeavor to outfit our trucks with the best equipment and options, limited only by our budgets.

Today’s apparatus are outfitted with numerous state-of-the-art safety devices. Equipment such as anti-lock brakes, load-managers and LED lighting have contributed to firefighter and civilian safety.

In my career, I have seen fire chiefs and department members work diligently and expend hundreds of hours and dollars in the hopes of acquiring that new truck. If your department is preparing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new apparatus, how much is your department spending on driver training? Yes, I did say driver training.

The driver is the one common denominator in fire apparatus accidents. According to U.S Fire Administration statistics, the second leading cause of fatal injury for firefighters in 2005 was vehicle crashes.

Firefighters Killed

Twenty-five firefighters were killed in 2005, due to vehicle crashes. In the event of an accident, I will guarantee that one of the first questions an attorney will ask you is: “Does your department have a comprehensive driver-training program?” I am not talking about the commercial drivers’ license (CDL) class or the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1002 course. I am speaking of a comprehensive department training program that goes beyond the CDL or NFPA requirement.

I am amazed that some fire departments allow members to drive the apparatus to an incident by the virtue of a paper certificate. Fire chiefs rely on CDL or NFPA driver training programs to set the departmental standard and qualify an apparatus driver.

Shouldn’t those standards be our minimum and a prerequisite to enter into the department driver-training program? Shouldn’t the department’s program go beyond the minimum standards?

I fully understand what I am advocating will involve expending time, money and personnel resources. Excuse me if I am wrong, but isn’t the fire service in the risk reduction business? So why wouldn’t we want to raise the bar when it comes to driving and operating a fire apparatus?

An in-service training program prerequisite should include a complete motor vehicle administration (MVA) background check as well as requiring the firefighter to obtain a CDL.

NFPA Driving Class

The prerequisite should also include the successful completion of an accredited NFPA driving class. Once the prerequisites are satisfied, the firefighter can now move on to fulfill other department requirements.

Department requirements should contain two training phases. The first phase starts with a thorough understanding of all departmental driving protocols and operating procedures. This phase should include the trainee becoming familiar with vehicle control systems, electrical systems, safety systems, emergency overrides and other critical equipment.

Next, the firefighter should drive the apparatus. I suggest initially training in non-emergency conditions. During the driving segment, be sure that the trainee experiences all types of roads found within his or her jurisdiction.

Nighttime Training

I highly suggest that you include nighttime training sessions. The view from the truck’s cab is different during the night than during the day. Once the trainee has acquired the competencies and skills to drive, move on to the second phase of the driver-training program. Depending on the apparatus type, phase two involves training the driver to operate the fire pump or aerial ladder. Also included in phase two should be a segment on apparatus placement. I suggest that a second phase prerequisite requires the trainee to attend accredited pump operation and aerial training classes. Classes can be found at your State Fire Academy or State College.

Your driver-training program should also include quarterly refresher training. Many times we are quick to train drivers only to have them experience long gaps between driving experiences. It would be beneficial during the refresher training to have the driver operate the pump or aerial.

Let’s face it, if not practiced on a daily or weekly basis, we all get rusty and forget critical skills when performing tasks. Drivers are no different.

For example, you drive your vehicle everyday, several times a day. You are confident and extremely proficient, know the locations of the controls and have a good understanding of how the vehicle will react under certain road conditions or during inclement weather.

Now take the apparatus driver who hasn’t driven the fire truck for several months. How proficient or confident do you think that person will be operating the vehicle?

Unless you are experiencing a large call volume, I guarantee that skills will erode. Until now, you might be saying that an in-service training program will take too much time and money to implement in your department.

You may also be saying that you do not have the resources to train drivers, but for now, you will accept the paper certification and let the chips fall where they may.

‘It Won’t Happen’

In other words, you may be using the “This will never happen to us” management decision model. Before you become comfortable with that notion, I have a story for you.

Earlier in my career, there was a horrific accident involving a fire apparatus and a car full of teenagers. The accident occurred during the day and caused the death of several of the car’s occupants.

The incident devastated the department as well as the community. The media wrote many reports on the accident until they determined the story was no longer newsworthy.

What was never reported was what happened to the firefighters who were involved in that accident. The psychological trauma for them and their loved ones was unbearable. The department never fully recovered from the event and the families of those lost suffer every day.

In closing, sending a department member to CDL or other driver training classes is not enough. Your department should have a comprehensive driver-training program that is specific to your apparatus and needs.

We are in the public safety business. The public deserves the best and it is your job to ensure that the person behind that wheel is the most qualified for the job.

Stay safe.

Editor’s Note: Joe Mercieri is the Fire Chief serving with Littleton Fire Rescue in Littleton, NH. He has served 27 years in the fire service, is an active fire service instructor and holds numerous college degrees and certifications.

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