University of Arizona Fire Service Vehicle Crash Study Yields Preliminary Results

By Alan M. Petrillo

Three years ago, the University of Arizona’s Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health was awarded a $1.4 million federal research grant to study vehicular accidents in fire departments around the country and to find cost-effective, efficient methods to limit driving accidents when responding to fire calls. Preliminary data, says the study’s chief researcher, indicate that reductions in vehicle accidents can be achieved, depending on the interventions chosen by the fire department.

Jefferey Burgess, MD, MS, MPH, associate dean for research and a professor at the College, says the objective of the study was to use a risk management approach to reduce the number of fire service vehicle crashes for four participating fire departments, representing urban, suburban and rural geographies across the United States.

“Each of the departments had formed risk management teams from different parts of their departments,” Burgess points out. “We worked with the teams to review all their previous crash data, determine the frequency and severity of previous events, create a risk matrix, look at existing controls (standard operating procedures and driving instruction), and identify new controls to put in place,” Burgess says. “The individual departments selected the controls they wanted to implement, and we helped them measure the effectiveness of the interventions they chose over time.”

Burgess notes that while one department started with no crashes, and thus would have no changes during the study, he and his research assistant, David Bui, a PhD candidate and the study program manager, are still reviewing the outcome data and tracking the effectiveness of the interventions. Bui notes that “we expect to finalize that information some time in 2018.”

Preliminary results, however, Bui says, indicate that two out of three fire departments that had crash data saw reductions in their vehicular crashes because of the interventions that the departments chose to implement over the study period. “One department did a lot of interventions, like installing side and rearview cameras on ambulances, changing lights and siren SOPs for noncritical calls, and participating in a train-the-trainer driver enhancement course,” he says. “The department also sent daily messages to personnel about safety, and eliminated garage door closers from fire vehicles. The department showed a moderate reduction in vehicle crashes as a result of their various interventions.”

Another department also participated in the enhanced training through the train-the-trainer course, and applied that information to its personnel, Bui notes. “Within a year, they retrained all their drivers to the enhanced training standard and also used telematics technology to collect driver driving data remotely,” he says. “Using those interventions, the department was successful in reducing crashes and changing driver behavior, and was found to have some initial reduction in vehicle crashes over the study period, but we are still collecting data from this department.”

A third department had no reduction in accidents to date, Bui noted. “The interventions the department chose have not been associated with any reductions based on the data we have received from them thus far,” he says.

Burgess notes that two driver behaviors have surfaced in the preliminary information as risky driving behavior. The first, he says, is harsh braking, both in emergency and non-emergency situations. The second is speeding, which was found to be associated with a two- to three-fold increase in crashes that were examined in the study. “We created a risk index based on the telematics data in order to get information back to the drivers so they can compare where they are in driving risk, especially compared to other drivers in their department,” he says.

Steve Crothers, a truck company lieutenant at Seattle (WA) Fire Department, and consultant to the University of Arizona study, conducted the train-the-trainer program for two of the participating departments. “Two departments brought their instructors to the program, and we did the trainer curriculum, which includes classroom work on driver training concepts and the fundamentals of driving habits, as well as hands-on driving work in purpose-built rodeo areas,” Crothers says.

When Crothers brought the drivers out to the rodeos, he had them apply classroom principals in actual driving situations. These included straight line braking, understanding pivot points, front end and tail end swings, speed, the friction of tires, and the physics of how a fire apparatus operates. Training lasted for a week. “We took them through slow speed rodeos with clearance issues, showing them how to take turns while using mirrors correctly, and understanding pivot points in turns,” he says. “Then they went through a high speed rodeo where they had to make quick decisions at higher speeds.”

The final part of the training was where the drivers had to teach back to their instructors what they had learned. “After we left them, they had to practice a lot to develop the skill sets as instructors for their departments,” Crothers notes. “So lastly we took them back to the classroom where they taught the curriculum back to us to verify that they had assimilated it.”

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.


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