Our Most Dangerous Activity and Vehicle/Scene Visibility

By Robert Tutterow

In last month’s column, I discussed what perhaps our most dangerous work situations are: roadway incidents. For almost all of our responses, we are mitigating a roadway incident or we position our apparatus in the roadway to mitigate an incident just off the roadway.

Operational visibility has three key focus areas: the firefighter, the apparatus, and the scene. These areas overlap each other in various ways. In this column, I will cover the apparatus and scene visibility.

Chevron Striping

Since January 1, 2009, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, has required that 50 percent of the rear vertical surface area of fire apparatus be covered with a red and yellow chevron pattern made of retroreflective striping material. This requirement met with some opposition in the fire service, especially the specificity of the colors. For aesthetic reasons, fire departments did not want the striping or, more than likely, they wanted to pick their own colors. The NFPA Apparatus Technical Committee acknowledged this concern but realized its objective was to improve safety, not aesthetics. Moreover, fluorescent yellow is easily the most visible color in all ambient lighting conditions. And, contrasting colors in a chevron pattern are the most effective.

Yet some fire departments continue to rebel against the standard. In my area, the local EMS agency is putting blue and white chevrons on the fleet. For years, its trucks have been white with a wide blue stripe along the side. They are frequently parked beside the fire department vehicles with the red and yellow stripes. The fire apparatus are far more visible.

Keep in mind that standard means standard. When we are parked in the roadway, we are obligated to warn other motorists. This needs to be done in a standard, consistent way all across the nation. Could you imagine each community deciding what colors should be used on its traffic signals or what shape and color the stop signs should be? When you take a road trip, think about how many different fire department response districts you will be crossing. You expect (and hopefully want) all traffic control warning signs and lights to be standard.

Controlling Traffic

Yet there is more to apparatus visibility and incident scene safety than retroreflective chevron striping. Traffic control is the objective. For many years, directional signals have been on the market. Often these are integrated into the light bar. If used properly, they are reasonably effective on police cruisers. However, their effectiveness on fire apparatus is marginal. They tend to get lost in the other warning lights. Another popular place for placing arrow bars is just below the hosebed. But this is not high enough-the higher, the better.

A far more effective device is something that meets the requirements of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), Section 6F.61, Temporary Traffic Control-arrow boards. The manual prescribes three different size boards: a 48- by 24-inch board with visibility for one half mile, a 60- by 30-inch board with visibility of ¾ mile, and a 96- by 48-inch board with visibility for one mile. The MUTCD also states that the minimum height for the bottom of the arrow board be seven feet and that the background be a nonreflective black finish.

If your department has any type of traffic directional arrow bars or boards, it is important that they are never activated until the apparatus is positioned on the scene. If they are used as part of the emergency response warning system, it sends the wrong message to other motorists.

As an aside from scene visibility, the black background as prescribed by the MUTCD is instructional for how we mount the DOT turn signals on apparatus. A flat black background will help other motorists notice if the turn signal is activated. With an apparatus in response mode, motorists seldom recognize if a turn signal has been activated. This is a contributing factor in many apparatus collisions. An arrow bar should never be tied into the directional DOT turn signal. We do not want to direct traffic into our path of travel.

Light the Scene

Another aspect of scene safety is scene lighting. Major improvements have been made in lighting in recent years. New technology and new designs have provided the fire service with several options for scene lighting. In addition to the obvious safety benefits of a well-lit emergency scene, there are other benefits for roadway incidents. I recently came upon a nighttime highway incident scene and knew well in advance there was an incident. There was enough light for a nighttime softball game. The scene lighting provided very early advance warning that caused motorists to really slow down. The traffic lane through the incident was clearly defined and very visible. The emergency responders were very conspicuous with their responder safety vests. And, the lighting was positioned so that it did not blind other motorists. I’ve often wished I had my camera with me so I could capture the scene to use for instructional purposes.

On a personal note, as I completed this column I was made aware that my former volunteer fire department’s quick response vehicle (QRV), a four-door pickup truck, was hit by a tractor-trailer while positioning for another MVA on an interstate highway. The QRV was flipped four times and the two onboard firefighters escaped serious injury-only one broken collarbone. The use of seat belts/shoulder straps saved their lives. Three years ago, this same department had a new pumper-tanker struck while operating at a scene on the same interstate. Both accidents were hard hits involving the other motorist driving at a speed in excess of 60 mph.

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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