Associations, EMS, Fire Department

How To Prevent Backing Accidents

Issue 8 and Volume 14.

A wise old chief once said the one thing he could do to significantly reduce the number of vehicle accidents would be to “take reverse out of the rigs.”  Indeed, it is believed that backing accidents are the number one type of accidents with fire apparatus.   

While backing accidents rarely cause death or make national news, they do cause considerable damage to our apparatus, our stations and personal property. When I hear about backing accidents, I’m reminded of the routine sequential phrase, “C’mon back, c’mon back, [CRASH] whoa!”

An excellent program released a couple of years ago by the International Association of Fire Fighters, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Fire Administration, stated that backing accidents are the most common involving emergency vehicles. And they are probably the most embarrassing. They are definitely among the easiest to prevent.

On occasion there is tragedy with backing accidents. Most recently, on Jan. 2, a 57-year-old, 28-year veteran Elizabeth, N.J., firefighter was killed when he was spotting for an apparatus on the scene of a working house fire. The driver of the engine that ran over him was a 25-year veteran firefighter. The engine was traveling less than five mph when the accident happened at 2:30 a.m. Certainly, lack of experience was not the cause.

On June 14, 2007, an 82-year-old man was killed in Eldon City, Mo., when a fire department rescue truck backed into him. The rescue truck was at the scene of a medical call.

On Aug. 25, 2004, a Raccoon Township (Pa.) firefighter was killed and another was injured when a new fire truck backed into them at their fire station. They were taking pictures of the recent delivery at the time of the accident.

Tailboard Riding

On Aug. 14, 2004 – just 11 days prior to the Pennsylvania fatality – a Los Angeles City firefighter was killed when she was crushed beneath the wheels of a backing apparatus. She was spotting, riding the tailboard of the apparatus as it was backing away from the scene of an extinguished structure fire when she fell. She was the first female line-of-duty death for the LAFD. 

Sadly, her actions were in accordance with standard LAFD procedures.

Almost all other fire departments have SOPS that prohibit tailboard riding at any time as required by the National Fire Protection Association’s 1500 standard on occupational safety and health. Unbelievably, LAFD officials defended their practice after the incident before eventually being pressured to change it.  

How can we minimize backing accidents? The key is to have and enforce a standard operating procedure on backing. First and foremost, an SOP should state that backing should be avoided if at all possible. Often it is better to go around the block or drive down the road a mile or so to an area large enough to turn around rather than putting the apparatus in reverse. The NFPA 1500 standard provides excellent guidance on backing procedures.  

Products That Assist

A backing SOP should outline the responsibilities of the driver, the officer and the spotters. Time and space prohibit a thorough review of backing SOPs. However, a few key points need to be stressed. When a driver loses sight of the spotter, stop. Spotters need to look up at the top of the apparatus as well as down on the ground while remaining visible to the driver. The slightest change in elevation, such as a dip in the street will have a multiplier effect on the motion of the top of the apparatus. Also, there will usually be rocking of the apparatus after the wheels have stopped rolling.

There should be at least one spotter, preferably two. Only one should communicate with the driver if both spotters are at the back. The communication should be through hand signals and the communicator should have a portable radio. Also, someone should be accountable for the movement of the officer’s side of the front of the vehicle. This spotter can be positioned either at the front or the rear of the apparatus. There are many occasions when spotters may not be available. This is especially true with volunteer organizations and for paid organizations when specialty vehicles are driven. This is where the proper equipment is most essential.  

There are products that assist in safe backing.  Even if you routinely have spotters available, the equipment described here is appropriate for any vehicle.

One product developed by a Los Angeles firefighter in response to the 2004 fatality and just introduced is called Reverse Control. It’s a simple system that uses a handheld wireless device for the spotter. The device sends an audible and visual signal to the cab. There is one button on Reverse Control. As long as it is depressed, an intermittent audible signal is transmitted to the cab indicating it is safe to back. If the spotter releases the button or drops the remote or becomes incapacitated, the remote sends a constant audible signal indicating it is unsafe to continue backing. The visible signal is an LED that is green for okay to back and red for stop. The LEDs can be mounted in the cab or on both exterior rear view mirrors. To borrow from the Geico commercial, it’s so simple, a firefighter can do it. 

Mirrors are standard equipment on any vehicle. However, do your mirrors provide optimal vision? Can they be seen and adjusted from the driver’s position? Are they heated so they eliminate frost, ice and fog? Are they designed and positioned so they provide a view of potential obstacles on the ground as well as potential obstacles at the top of the apparatus?  

Radios and Flashlights

As mentioned earlier, a portable radio should be used by spotters. During night operations, spotters should have flashlights. And all spotters should wear ANSI/ISEA 207 compliant emergency responder traffic safety vests with the breakaway feature.  

There are items you can add to your apparatus to make them safer for backing.  Rear view cameras have been used for fire apparatus for many years. Also, we are beginning to see the emergence of side view cameras. With advances in technology, the camera images have improved greatly. And, as the market for video cameras has exploded, there has been a dramatic decrease in the price of these units. Backing proximity alarms are another consideration to minimize accidents. 

Side Back-Up Lights

Departments should consider specifying back-up lights along the side of the apparatus. The lights should be activated anytime the apparatus is in reverse. In Germany, I saw an apparatus with back-up lights mounted beneath the apparatus side mirrors. The lights were covered with horizontal louvers that directed the light to the ground so the driver is not blinded. Ziamatic makes what it calls a parking light that can be recess-mounted into the body or cab to help light the path of a backing apparatus.

All accidents are preventable and backing accidents are among the easiest to prevent.  Proper equipment, solid SOPs that are enforced without exception and good training programs could eliminate the fire service’s backing problem. 

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department health and safety officer. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee and is on two other NFPA committees, the Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Ensemble Technical Committee and the Technical Correlating Committee for Fire and Emergency Services PPE.