In August 2004 Jamie Foster, a rookie firefighter in Los Angeles, hopped up on the tailboard of a ladder truck to help it back safely out of a cul-de-sac. After it started moving, she fell off and was crushed to death.
Her death stunned the department and caused officials to rethink the policy of allowing spotters to stand on tailboards. Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Christopher Oelrich was as shocked as the rest of his colleagues. But as he started to work through his grief, he also started to think.
“I went home, and I was devastated,” Oelrich said. “A few days later I went to a get-together at my brother Curt’s house. He and I talked, and we started to think about ways her death could have been prevented.”
And a new company, Reverse Control, was conceived.
It’s generally recognized that the safest way to back a vehicle is with a spotter. The National Fire Protection Association 1500 standard on occupational safety and health requires a spotter for all fire apparatus moving in reverse.
“The problem is,” said Oelrich, a 32-year veteran of the LAFD, “too often the spotter gets knocked off his feet, stumbles and falls.” Or, he said, the engineer loses sight of the spotter in the mirror due to weather conditions or other factors.
So he dreamed up a backing system that allows the spotter to hold a small remote control device. It works on a simple premise: the spotter presses a button on the remote when it’s safe for the apparatus to back up, and lets go of the button when the apparatus should stop.
A Deadman Switch
When the button is pressed, a light glows green and an audible signal plays in the cab. The light can be mounted in any number of places. When the button is released, the light turns red, signaling the engineer to stop. It’s a so-called “deadman” switch – meaning that whether the spotter lets the button go on purpose, or drops the remote in a fall or stumble, the stop signal is sent.
The driver doesn’t have to worry about keeping the spotter in his mirror view at all times. And the spotter doesn’t have to worry about the vehicle continuing to move if danger is imminent.
“Our system is engineered to fail with a default signal to stop,” Oelrich explained. “In other words, loss of a transmitter signal to the receiver for any reason – spotter becomes incapacitated, technical failure, radio frequency interference, whatever – all will signal the driver to come to an immediate stop.”
Oelrich and his brother, a civilian, named the device Reverse Control and took their idea to a Pennsylvania manufacturing company, which designed a prototype that would be rugged, waterproof and withstand the rigors of the fire service. All of the individual components are Federal Communications Commission approved, he said.
Creating a Buffer Zone
The Reverse Control system allows a spotter to stay farther away from the backing vehicle. Jamie Foster had been standing on the back of the ladder truck in order to press buttons that activated a back-up buzzer in the truck’s cab. When she fell, authorities said she was unable to press the button that signified “stop.”
But with the Reverse Control system, firefighters don’t have to be anywhere near the vehicle as long as they can see it. “This space creates a safety buffer zone and gives the driver more than ample time to stop when signaled to do so,” Oelrich said.
Statistics regarding backing accidents are hard to find, but an examination of data from the U.S. Fire Administration and other sources shows at least nine firefighters have been killed by backing fire apparatus in this country since 2000. In the first month and a half of this year, a firefighter died in a backing collision in Elizabeth, N.J., and a captain in Marin County, Calif., nearly had both legs taken off when he was pinched between a backing rig and a parked rig on the apparatus floor.
In addition, the International Association of Firefighters reports that the most common type of apparatus crash is the backing collision, while the Emergency Services Insurance Program states that 16 percent of all reported emergency vehicle accidents involve backing the apparatus.
Given those statistics, Oelrich said it isn’t hard to imagine the amount of damage and the number of injuries caused by backing collisions each year that go unreported to state and federal agencies. Not to mention all the crushed trees, cars, fence poles and damaged station walls that backing apparatus have left in their wake.
“Backing accidents account for an enormous loss of revenue each year in property damage, injury and legal issues associated with accidents,” Oelrich asserted. “The lawsuit in Los Angeles over the death of Jamie Foster will no doubt cost the city millions.”
He said it’s those numbers that make Reverse Control a “no-brainer” for departments, even those that are suffering under economic constraints. With a retail price of $1,799 per unit, he said, “the Reverse Control system will potentially eliminate the need for other very costly systems such as cameras and bumper sensors.”
Oelrich is quick to point out that he has nothing against back-up cameras. But he’s uneasy with the idea of a driver taking his eyes off the spotter in the mirror in order to look at the screen.
Oelrich said Reverse Control was designed by firefighters for firefighters from scratch – and there is nothing else like it on the market today. The price tag for Reverse Control includes the remote control, lights, an audible signal for the cab, and a complete after-market installation kit.
“If you have any large rig that suffers from the inherent problem of a large blind spot in the rear, then our system will be good for it,” Oelrich said. “[Reverse Control] does not interfere with any part of the vehicle’s systems or void any warranties.” It plugs into the cab’s existing dashboard intercom system and headsets, he said, or departments can purchase an optional headset for the driver.
A Reverse Control Convert
Jack Donahue is a fourth generation retired firefighter in New Jersey. He attended a Fire Department Safety Officers Association symposium in January in Orlando, where the Oelrich brothers presented the Reverse Control backing system for the first time.
Donahue was so impressed he offered to become a distributor and is now selling the Reverse Control system on the East Coast. “The response to Reverse Control has been outstanding,” he said. “It is being received as a practical solution to a problem that has plagued us for many years.”
Looking to the Future
Reverse Control’s first order – from Freewood Acres Fire Company in Howell Township, N.J. – is in the pipeline. Freewood Acres Fire Captain Bernard Barnes said after his members heard about the death in Elizabeth, N.J., they decided it was time to make sure it didn’t happen to them.
“We have had incidents where the driver didn’t see something or wasn’t paying attention and caught another vehicle or tree or telephone pole,” Barnes said. He pointed out that the Reverse Control system could play a big role with laying and dropping hose in places that are visually-limited.
Freewood Acres is a one-station department with a limited budget. But Barnes considers the cost of the four units they purchased well worth the cost. “A firefighter’s life is worth everything,” he said.
The Oelrich brothers, along with Donahue, are working to turn more than a dozen other inquiries into sales. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Fire Department is helping out by testing out the device with one of its engine companies.
Oelrich and Donahue said many more inquiries have come in from around the country. Company representatives plan to show the product at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis in April, as well as many other fire conferences and symposiums throughout 2009.
Oelrich said as they consider tweaks and improvements to the device, he is mindful of the new “black box” requirement for vehicle data recorders in the revised NFPA 1901 apparatus standard that took effect Jan. 1.
“Our system would very easily interject data about backing, giving you a complete picture of an accident,” he said. “Not only are you insured that the guys are using it, but also you would have a record of when the spotter signaled to go, when to stop, and when the driver responded.”
Reverse Control is also working on non-fire applications. “We’re working on similar devices for the RV industry,” Oelrich said. “That would be less expensive and less robust because it won’t get the wear and tear.”
But Oelrich said his young company will never forget its roots. “Our primary industry will always be on the fire side,” he said, “because this was spawned out of tragedy in the fire service.”