Our Most Dangerous Activity and Firefighter Visibility

Robert Tutterow

Operational visibility has three key focus areas: the firefighter, the apparatus, and the scene. These areas overlap each other from several perspectives. In this column, I will discuss the firefighter.

As I continue to read about firefighters and apparatus being struck while working at roadway emergency scenes, I am of the opinion that the roadway is the place we are most likely to get injured or killed. Whether it is an incident that is occurring in the roadway or off the roadway, we almost always place our our apparatus on the roadway to mitigate the incident. In turn, firefighters are almost always performing one or more duties in the roadway.

As I researched this column, I was surprised that it has already been 13 years since the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association (CVVFA) produced its white paper titled “Protecting Emergency Responders on the Highways.” In March 1999, more than 125 representatives from fire, police, EMS, and other organizations met in Halfway, Maryland, to identify the scope of the problem. This led to a meeting at the National Fire Academy of 29 subject matter experts in October 1999 to produce the white paper. Produced by a grant from the United States Fire Administration (USFA), the paper became the cornerstone of the knowledge base we have today.

Without a doubt, there are several firefighters alive today because of their diligent work. The fruits of their labor can be found at www.respondersafety.com. They are perhaps best known for their efforts in creating the responder safety vests. However, they have also developed outstanding training and educational materials.

Has anything changed since the paper was produced? Absolutely-more driver distractions and a compromised driver skillset. Although the paper was produced by experts, I doubt they had any idea of the many driver distractions that would emerge by today. Cell phones were just starting to become commonplace, global positioning systems had yet to emerge, and texting wasn’t even a concept. The growing risk is accelerated by a growing immigrant population not familiar with the “ways of the road” and the diminished senses of a growing senior citizen population. These factors create what can arguably be the most dangerous work environment in the fire service.

Additionally, to underscore the on-going risks of highway visibility, the USFA recently announced, “The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Fire Administration, supported by the U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Justice (NIJ), and in partnership with the CVVFA Emergency Responder Safety Institute, has initiated a study of emergency vehicle markings, lighting, and design to recommend best practices for increased visibility to approaching motorists.”

Still Work to Do

What is the work to be done? Very simply, the fire service needs to follow the recommendations found on respondersafety.com-no exceptions for anyone or any incident. That bears repeating-no exceptions! And every department needs to inject the recommendations into its core values. I recall when the first requirements for the ANSI/ISEA 207 public safety vests were published in December 2006, a fire department procurement officer called me with a litany of questions about the standard. It quickly became apparent the officer had been instructed to purchase the cheapest vests that would meet the requirements and, if possible, see if there were loopholes that would allow the department to buy cheaper “construction” vests. I told this person that having compliant responder safety vests was just part of meeting the overall objective. The second part was to get the firefighters to wear the vests.

Purchasing the cheapest vests will likely result in the vests getting lost, being improperly stored, and seldom worn. With no disrespect to construction workers, firefighters do not want to look like construction workers. That premise is an elephant in the room for many firefighters. Fire departments should work their commitment to safety by purchasing high-quality vests with the fire department’s name on the back. There should be a standard place for storing the vests so they are protected and readily accessible.

And, the “breakaway option” for the vests should not be an option-it should be the standard. I am familiar with at least one incident where a firefighter was helping manage traffic when the garment he was wearing got caught by an overhanging wood truss being transported on a flatbed truck. The truck was traveling about five miles per hour when the firefighter was pulled to the ground just in front of the rear dual wheels. Fortunately, the company officer was standing beside the firefighter and was able to quickly pull the firefighter out of the path of the truck’s wheels.

As I travel around, I still observe emergency responders operating in roadways without vests. I often wonder if the department does not have the vests, if they purchased vests the firefighters do not like and will not wear, if they lack enforcement, or some combination of the above. The bottom line is that if you are in the roadway or along the roadway, you should be wearing either an SCBA or a responder safety vest-no exceptions.

In next month’s column, I’ll cover vehicle and scene visibility.

ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment.He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).

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