The Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) core mission is to protect and advance the interests of the fire and emergency services community, a critical pillar of American safety and security.
Every day in the United States, firefighters, police officers, and other first responders navigate busy highways and roads to respond to car accidents, 911 calls, active fires, crime scenes, and other emergencies. While most Americans know that responders face danger as a daily part of their jobs, most aren’t aware of how much danger they face from just the other drivers around them. The danger doesn’t stop when they reach their destination, either. An average of 12,200 roadway responses occur every day in the United States, where responders are under the threat of everyday drivers hitting, clipping, or colliding with them as they drive by.1 Surprisingly, there isn’t much reliable data on just how many collisions like this occur between American drivers and emergency responders or the full-scale cost to the public. No comprehensive national study has ever been conducted to assess the total impact. But, data from existing studies and estimates paint a startling picture of a deadly, dangerous, and extremely expensive problem that our country has yet to solve.
POLICE AND FIRE COLLISIONS
Tens of thousands of collisions occur every year between regular drivers and police or fire vehicles.2 In 2017 alone, more than 15,000 fire department vehicles were involved in collisions nationwide.3 While no national data exist on the total number of police car collisions, state-level data suggest that numbers significantly exceed fire truck collisions; data from 2004 to 2006 documented an average of 27,235 crashes involving law enforcement vehicles annually.4 Fire and law enforcement crashes are uniquely frequent, accounting for nearly 50 percent of all crashes involving special purpose vehicles including taxis, school buses, city buses, military vehicles, and ambulances.5 These figures do not reflect poorly on the safety record of emergency responders. For perspective, 15,430 fire truck collisions occurred in 2017 while departments responded to a total 34.7 million incidents, putting the collision rate at a very low 0.04 percent overall. Emergency responders are trained to be extremely careful and vigilant in transport and when responding to roadside incidents, and their vehicles are equipped with lights, reflective striping, and sirens that are intended to alert other drivers to their presence. Most states even have “move-over laws” in place to encourage drivers to avoid passing near emergency vehicles they see on the side of the road. Despite these precautions, however, the rate of these collisions in recent decades has remained relatively unchanged, with fatal consequences.6
FATALITIES IN THE LINE OF DUTY
Today, fire truck accidents are so frequent and fatal that they rank as the second-leading cause of on-the-job deaths for firefighters.7 Up to 25 percent of annual line-of-duty firefighter fatalities are attributable to motor vehicle crashes and collisions.8 Traffic accidents kill more firefighters than smoke, flames, or building collapses; in fact, the only cause for more line-of-duty firefighter deaths is heart attacks from overexertion.9 Approximately 500 firefighters are involved in fatal fire truck crashes annually, and 1 out of 100 of those fire truck occupants dies as a result of the crash.10 Even as regulations have changed in recent decades to make fire vehicles safer, the average fatality rate remains relatively unchanged. These fatalities are not limited to collisions between fire trucks and other vehicles. In fact, in 2017, of the 18 firefighters who died in vehicle-related incidents, 10 were cases of firefighters being directly struck by other vehicles.11
These sorts of collisions are equally as fatal for police officers. Vehicle-related incidents are the single largest cause of law enforcement officer deaths nationally.12 From 2006 to 2016, an average of more than one police officer per week was killed on American roads, either from a vehicle crash or from being directly struck by another vehicle.13 Like firefighter deaths, this trend has remained unchanged for decades; 53 percent of law enforcement officer work-related fatalities were attributed to vehicle crashes between 2000 and 2008.14 At least 490 police officers died in car crashes or from being struck by a vehicle between 2008 and 2017.15
There is no comprehensive data available on the total cost to society of vehicle-related firefighter and police fatalities. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) calculates that the average comprehensive cost of a fatal collision involving a regular citizen is $11.2 million. This factors in the average cost of emergency services, medical services, lost wages and fringe benefits, household productivity loss, insurance processing, workplace costs, legal costs, and congestion impacts. In 2017 alone, 41 police officers and 18 firefighters died in vehicle-related incidents, which comes to $660 million using this formula. The FHA also calculates the comprehensive cost of nonfatal incidents involving regular citizens between $11,900 and $655,000 depending on the severity of the injury and crash. Using National Fire Protection Association data, this would place the cost of the 15,145 firefighter collision incidents that didn’t result in injuries at a minimum of $180.2 million. For the 1,080 incidents that resulted injuries, the cost would range between $135 million and $707 million. As for police, with an assumed annual minimum of 27,000 law enforcement collisions, the annual cost would range between $321 million and $17.6 billion depending on the severity of the collision. Altogether, using the FHA formula, the annual cost of firefighter and police collisions would calculate to between $1.29 billion and as much as $19.14 billion.
Shockingly, though, these figures are likely underestimates, because the public cost for a law enforcement officer or firefighter collision is far greater than the cost of a collision involving a regular citizen. The ripple effect of a single collision can be far reaching and remarkably expensive. Fire truck collisions are costly, even when they do not result in injuries; fire trucks alone can cost millions of dollars to repair or replace,16,17 and emergency vehicle crashes often incur lawsuits and can cost many millions of dollars to cities and municipalities.18 In addition, every time a police officer or firefighter is seriously injured, cities and other jurisdictions pay substantial costs in disability and benefits to their families while also incurring overtime costs for other officers and firefighters and training costs to replace them with new recruits. In one village alone, more than $2.1 million in disability payments were incurred for only three officers between 1999 and 2014.19
Altogether, the cost of emergency vehicle accidents in the United States is estimated to be as much as $35 billion annually between direct collision costs, medical costs, vehicle replacements and repairs, workplace and insurance costs, lawsuits, property and equipment damage, disability pay, retraining pay, and the many other expenses that can arise.20
FINDING A BETTER WAY
Professionals in firefighting and law enforcement accept that their jobs carry risk. But of all the dangers they face in the line of duty, from gunshots and illnesses to burning and collapsing buildings, the one danger that we are best positioned to reduce and potentially eliminate is the potential of being struck by another driver. Today, new technology and tools exist that can better alert drivers on the road to the presence of firefighters, police, and other emergency personnel in their vicinity. These new solutions have the potential to finally begin reducing the number of unnecessary collisions, injuries, deaths, and costs that accumulate every year from this largely unknown crisis. FAMA and its members will play a critical role in shaping the development and adoption of these tools to ensure responders receive the protection they need in the field and on the road.
FAMA is committed to the manufacture and sale of safe, efficient emergency response vehicles and equipment. FAMA urges fire departments to evaluate the full range of safety features offered by its member companies.
CORY HOHS is the CEO of HAAS Alert, a company that delivers awareness of responding emergency vehicles and other municipal fleets to connected and autonomous cars, so motorists and vehicles make safer, smarter driving decisions. He is a principal on National Fire Protection Association 950, Standard for Data Development and Exchange for the Fire Service, is a Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association member representative, and presents on the topics of connected vehicle communications and safety solutions across the country.