No Commercial Drivers License? Why Not?

By Frank R. Myers

Many people feel that a commercial driver’s license (CDL) only applies to Tractor Trailer drawn vehicles. However, a CDL also applies to many other types of vehicles. According to the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV), the classifications are Class A, B, and C.

  • Class A is any combination vehicle with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 26,001 pounds or more to include a “towed” vehicle heavier than 10,000 pounds.
  • Class B is a single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,0001 pounds or more or any vehicle that is “towing” another vehicle weighing “up to” 10,000 pounds. This applies to straight trucks and large buses, including city buses, tourist buses, school buses, segmented buses, and box trucks (delivery drivers, couriers, rurniture delivery, dump trucks with small trailers).
  • Class C is a vehicle that does not meet the criteria described for either a Class A or Class B license and is meant to transport either 16 passengers (including the driver) or hazardous material as described in the federal guidelines.

Regardless of the classifications, many fire apparatus fall into one of these categories. Tankers need to also be considered which would apply to fire department water shuttles, pumpers, and quints. The real value of acquiring a CDL is the knowledge obtained from your state’s CDL handbook that pertains to many facets of operating a commercial vehicle, including operating a fire apparatus.

Many of the same principles apply to the fire service vehicles. A brief overview, for instance, would be apparatus inspection that includes the names and descriptions of all the components (jargon), controlling the vehicle—especially in emergency situations or different weather conditions and when encountering impaired or aggressive drivers, driving at different times of the day and night, fog, and in special conditions—hot or cold/winter weather, and mountain driving.

One of the most valuable pieces of information is how to perform a CDL brake test and how to do a proper tire inspection. Knowing the parameters for the pressures and procedures as well as tread depth measurements and rim inspection are two of the most important items. You need to know if your brakes are operating properly and that the foundation of the vehicle is sound.

Most departments probably have some sort of a box truck that carries supplies for an MCI, supplies for a hazmat incident, rehab items for major fires, etc. Tillered aerial devices would fall under the Class “A” category. Know how vehicles carrying liquids (e.g., pumpers, shuttles, and quints) respond under various driving conditions that can affect the handling of the vehicle and how the “baffles” help.

Another aspect is learning to drive like a career driver by staying alert about “clearances” while driving, approaching railroad tracks, braking distances, city driving vs. highway driving, use of mirrors, etc.

At some point, drivers may need to drive a passenger vehicle such as a bus. From my personal experience of being a member of the FEMA Florida Task Force 2, the logistics group was required to get a CDL Class “A” license, including the hazmat and passenger endorsements. We had several tractor trailers, a tank truck that carried gasoline and diesel fuel, “box” trucks that carried gear and equipment needed for quick access or areas where access for the tractor trailers was not favorable, and several passenger vehicles for deploying members who were not part of the tractor trailers or box trucks.

On one deployment, the chartered bus service hired to transport deployed members, the drivers were limited to the number of hours they could drive in a 24-hour period. As a FEMA national response team, time is of the essence, and the vehicles need to continue “rolling.” There is no down time when responding to an emergency. Those Task Force members who had the passenger endorsement would drive the buses while the regular, chartered driver would get the required rest. FYI, a log needs to be kept and made available if law enforcement requests it.

That is why we had several members, CDL-licensed and with passenger endorsements, to be able to rotate to stay within the regulations of required rest vs. hours on the road and to keep the convoy rolling!

Whatever state you work in, the CDL handbook has very valuable information. Knowledge never hurts anybody. Requiring your members to become CDL-licensed can only enhance their driving skills and knowledge. Knowing the vehicle you operate day in day out maintains a safe environment for all who ride in it. It also does not look too bad at all when “legal” issues arise because of vehicular accidents. Later in court, it can be said that, “We require all members operating fire department vehicles to be licensed as a Commercial Driver.”

FRANK R. MYERS is a retired Lieutenant with the City of Miami (FL) Fire Rescue, where he served 32 years. Before his retirement, he served at the Training Center for six years as the Driver Engineer Instructor. He works as a consultant for, a technology service that helps fire departments across the country automate their apparatus, equipment and inventory checks.

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