Cantankerous Wisdom—You Drive It

Bill Adams

The old timer was driving the ladder truck down Main Street to a seemingly insignificant call with the young lieutenant sitting in the officer’s seat. It was three o’clock in the morning, and traffic was virtually nonexistent. Dutifully, as he was taught since day one, the old guy kept the Q rolling and hit the air horns at the intersections. The lieutenant told him to back off on the siren and horns twice but the driver ignored him. The lieutenant came unglued—to the point of screaming, “It’s three in the damn morning. Lay off the siren and horns. You’ll wake the dead.” The driver bit his tongue, wanting to say “I’m driving the rig, not you. It’s my license, not yours.” Instead, he slowed down, turned off the warning lights and started driving like Miss Daisy. The young lieutenant couldn’t handle it; he started foaming at the mouth. He reached over the engine tunnel and turned the warning lights back on and proceeded to call the driver everything but sane, rational, and the off-spring of a married woman. The driver calmly coasted over to the side of the road. He shut the warning lights off again; turned the four-way flashers on; set the parking brake; and looking at the officer said, “You drive it.” The crew cab erupted in hysterics. After the run, a very animated and interesting conversation was held in the chief’s office.

The chief ended up saying “Yes, I know there’re laws, but we have to use common sense and maintain good order and discipline in the firehouse.” The driver was suspended for 30 days. By supporting his officer, did the chief sell out the driver? If so, did his actions reinforce a belief, whether it be right or wrong, that occasionally firematic officers feel immune from being held accountable and that laws, rules, and regulations are only applicable when it is convenient to adhere to them? That should never be the case. Perhaps this diatribe may prevent something similar from happening in the future.

Know the Law
Regardless of departmental operating procedures and written guidelines, there are explicit laws and rules of the road for emergency vehicle operations promulgated by each state’s department of motor vehicles (DMV). They can vary from state to state. They aren’t guidelines or procedures—they are laws. Not adhering to them has consequences for the operator, including fines, losing your driver’s license, possibe incarceration, and being subject to civil litigation. Drivers’ licenses are issued to individuals—not to the fire department, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), or the firematic officers. In most instances, the apparatus driver (chauffer or operator) is solely responsible for the safe over-the-road operation of the apparatus. Doubt it? Ask your favorite law enforcement official.

If a firematic order is written to or given to apparatus drivers that is contrary to DMV laws, the driver, the officer, the chief, and the AHJ can be thrust into an arena where there can be no clear victor. In a perfect world, common sense, experience, and level heads should prevail. Unfortunately in the firehouse, emotions, personalities, and labor vs. management mindsets can sometimes cloud issues. It’s not right, but it happens.

Getting back to the old timer and the young Lieutenant in this fictitious example, their state DMV is very specific in stating “a fire apparatus shall have its warning light(s) illuminated and an audible device sounding when responding in an emergency mode calling for the right-of-way.” The DMV has no provision to respond with warning lights only. If you’re going “by the book,” when you’re calling for the right of way, you had better have warning lights on and be making some noise.

It doesn’t say how loud the audible device has to be when responding. Is that the operator’s decision? If a fire truck is equipped with a mechanical siren, an electronic siren, and air horns whose decision is it to use one, the other, or all of them? Is it the driver’s, the officer’s, or does a fire department’s written guidelines come into play?

Although seemingly a small, insignificant, and trivial matter, it could blow out of proportion in a heartbeat. Let’s say the ladder truck’s driver acquiesced to the lieutenant’s order and responded with warning lights only, and somebody decided to back out of a driveway in front of the rig, causing a crash with catastrophic consequences. What happens when the lawsuits start flying? Was the ladder truck operating as an emergency vehicle?

Did you ever hear of the term “contributory negligence?” Look it up. Or better yet, pose the preceding scenario to your fire chief, to the legal counsel for the AHJ, to a legal counsel for the professional association who may be representing the chauffer, or to your personal attorney. Everyone could be named in a lawsuit. Was the ladder truck responding as an emergency vehicle? Did the ladder truck’s driver violate any DMV law? Does that young lieutenant assume any liability? How about the AHJ, the fire chief, or the people who “taught” the chauffer? Is there written documentation for the training received or what was taught? Is it contrary to DMV regulations? Although violating a department procedure or guideline may have occupational repercussions within the firehouse, violating state laws can result in criminal charges and civil proceedings. Get a good lawyer.

Fire departments preplan everything from natural disasters to the lumber yard catching fire at the edge of town. Before an incident occurs, fire departments should reevaluate their emergency response protocols and ensure all DMV laws and legalities are followed and that the rights and liability exposure of all firefighters are protected. It would be ironic if the fire department which earlier chastised and punished the ladder truck’s chauffer for following written DMV regulations then claimed that by violating those same regulations the chauffer should be held responsible for causing an accident and should be personally liable for any damages a court might award. Got good insurance?

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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