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Professional Apparatus Driving and Liability: The Training Program

Issue 9 and Volume 21.

By Louis Sclafani

As a fire instructor, I have a common theme in all of my classes: Be a professional. By this, I mean you should know your job, know your tools, and always do the right thing. When it comes to driving emergency vehicles, it is no different.

If you have attended FDIC International or even a regional training conference, you may have noticed some of the most well-attended seminars are those that cover driver training. This is one topic that is common to all fire departments, big or small, across the country. Training officers are tasked with either developing or enhancing their driver training programs.

The problem is that we do a lot: fire, emergency medical services (EMS), hazmat, auto extrications, technical rescue, preplans, inspections, public education. Our time is valuable, and we need training in all of these fields. But, the common denominator for all of these tasks is that we drive to each and every one. Whether it’s responding to calls or heading out to training, we get behind the wheel of our trucks for everything we do.

Driver Training Requirements

So, just how much driver training do we get? In many cases, not much. While not all states are the same, most are similar. Let’s consider my home state of Florida. Nothing-no law or statute-says that the driver of a 60,000-pound fire truck responding with lights and sirens has to have any more than a regular old driver’s license. There is no mandatory additional training required. Drive to work in your Prius, and you’re good.

The state does offer an apparatus and pump operator certification. You must attend two 40-hour classes covering apparatus operation and pump operation, and both have a classroom and practical session. After you have successfully passed both of these classes, you can take the state certification test. This is only a written test-no practical testing. Also, it’s a one-and-done certification. There is no recertification requirement. Some departments do require their drivers to obtain this certification, and that’s it-no in-house program other than someone showing you how the truck works. Then again, some departments have an extensive in-house program that complements the certification. The point is: There is no standard, and every department can do as much or as little as it wants. Sadly, many do way too little.

Interestingly, if you hold a paramedic, emergency medical technician, fire inspector, or fire instructor certification, there is a recertification requirement.

Perhaps you are wondering about an emergency vehicle operations course (EVOC) or emergency vehicle driver training (EVDT). We have to do that, right? Again, there is no mandatory requirement to drive a fire truck. If you are an EMS provider, the HRS rules governing EMS do require EVDT. So if you don’t deliver EMS, there is no requirement unless it is required by your insurance carrier.

What about the Insurance Services Office (ISO)? Surely it has a training requirement. Actually, it does. To meet ISO’s training requirement, you need 240 hours of company training. If you happen to be a driver, 12 of those hours should be driver-related. This is a broad statement. This means you could do pump training, watch a video, do a group discussion, etc. and meet the requirement. It does not give specific direction on topics to be covered. As far as it being mandatory or not, it all depends. Some departments put a lot of effort into meeting ISO requirements; some not so much.

Finally this brings us to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, suggests that departments follow the guidelines in NFPA 1451, Standard for a Fire and Emergency Service Vehicle Operations Training Program, and NFPA 1002, Standard for Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications. Unless your governing body specifically adopts these standards, these are only suggestions, and you are not required to follow them.

The truth is that there are many things mandatorily required of us. Chances are, if you look at any department’s training calendar, you will find it full of mandatory and required training, which leaves precious little time for a nonmandated topic like driver training. Few resources are therefore put into developing a nonmandated program. It’s much easier to send your members to an outside school to get that state certification, but what about your department policies or state traffic laws and working with your department vehicles? None of those are covered when you take the generic class. You need specific training on your own stuff.

The thing is, we drive at emergency speed every day. Statistically, it is the second leading cause of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) among firefighters every year. Some departments get it and have comprehensive programs. They have the resources to develop and deliver. They may even do refresher training to meet that ISO requirement, but usually they do that with pump operations as opposed to actual driver training.

Private Sector Program

Let’s take a quick look at the private sector and the commercial driver’s license (CDL). This is a Department of Transportation (DOT) mandatory license (certification) for anyone meeting certain criteria such as operating a vehicle greater than 26,000 pounds, carrying more than 16 passengers, or any vehicle that needs to be placarded. The garbage truck driver or the bus driver is required to have this license, but we are not, as we are exempt because of the firefighter exemption. According to the DOT’s Web site, it gave the fire service this exemption “because most firefighting organizations have extensive initial training and retraining requirements for their equipment operators.” Do we? Do you?

Ironically, the driver training skills covered in NFPA 1002 are almost exactly the same as those found in CDL training. This is because a 65,000-pound fire truck is the same as a 65,000-pound commercial vehicle. Since we typically drive our trucks faster and stop harder than commercial trucks, one could say that ours is more dangerous than theirs. If this is so, shouldn’t we be getting the same training?

The Court’s Point of View

It has been said that when it comes to lawsuits involving skills like driving, the courts look strongly at the employee’s training record. If you were driving the fire truck that was involved in a crash with a commercial vehicle at an intersection with a red light, they might compare training records. Can you document your hours of training and recertification like they can? For most of us, we probably couldn’t. Why? Because no one made us take that class or get that certification to begin with. No one made us recertify. Then, the other side will present NFPA 1500, 1454, and 1002 to the jury. They will talk about how these are industry standards and, for some negligent reason, your department has chosen not to follow them. They will mention the only reason you don’t have a CDL like the commercial driver is because the DOT assumed you “have extensive initial training and retraining requirements.”

Of course, your side will say you aren’t required to have any of that training, as it’s not mandatory. In fact, you present a survey that shows not many departments in your county have any sort of special training for their drivers. You’re just doing what everyone around you is doing. You may present the memo from 15 years ago from Lieutenant Smith saying that not only are you the senior guy, but Firefighter Jones checked you out in the morning and thought you would be OK to drive the truck. Perhaps you can provide a few training records showing a few hours here and there over the years. Or, perhaps the attorneys will just settle.

Personal Liability

From a personal liability point of view, you may be thinking, “What’s the big deal?” You were at work, so you were covered. After all, it was an emergency run, and your state law-and perhaps your standard operating procedure (SOP)-says emergency vehicles are allowed to go through red lights. Both are true, but you still may not be personally protected from a civil lawsuit. To begin with, that state law also says that you can only proceed through that red light with due care or due regard or some other such term. If that red light camera shows you going through the red light without slowing down to make sure the intersection is clear, then a judge or jury will likely find that you did not proceed with due care. Additionally, knowingly violating your own SOPs can be considered negligent as well. It’s not looking good for you right now.

Many states have a statutory limit on government liability. Florida, for example, has a $100,000 cap. The other side knows this, so it looks at other persons to file a claim against including the driver of the fire truck personally. You’re a 20-year member getting ready to retire soon. You have invested well, own a little vacation cabin, have some money saved, and have a pension right around the corner. Good for you; you set yourself up for retirement and as a target for a liability lawsuit. The department may have a cap on its payout, but you don’t. They can’t touch your primary home or retirement account, but everything else is fair game. If you haven’t talked to your insurance agent about an umbrella policy, you may want to.

Be Proactive

Does this discussion scare you? Does it make you question your training level and liability potential? It should. Unfortunately, there is no way to protect yourself fully. Anyone can sue anyone for anything. But, you can have a sound defense and take steps to lower your liability. First, every department should fully develop a driver training program following NFPA 1451 and NFPA 1002. These are the benchmarks that will be used against you. Second, you need to have credible refresher training. Third, become familiar with all pertinent laws, rules, and SOPs pertaining to driving and follow them. Someone wrote and published them for a reason. Fourth, talk to your insurance and investment advisors about protecting your assets from a civil liability lawsuit. Finally, be a professional and just do the right thing. Drive safe, don’t be reckless, and follow all those pesky rules and regulations that govern your vehicle while it’s on the road-emergency and nonemergency. If you do all these things, you will have done much to protect yourself in case that unfortunate accident occurs.

LOUIS SCLAFANI is a district chief (ret.) and a 30-year veteran of the Pinellas Park (FL) Fire Department and a St. Petersburg College instructor. He spent 19 years as the shift district chief and three years as the training chief. He has an associate of science degree in fire administration from St. Petersburg College.