Rurally Speaking: Spotters, Blockers, and the Checkered Flag

By Carl J. Haddon

With the weekend of the Indianapolis 500 race hjaving recently passed, and my background of having spent some 30 years as a Motorsports Fire Safety Chief/Director, I thought it fitting to comingle subjects.

Safety is focus number one when dealing with 200+ mph race cars. The dangers associated with being a Superspeedway firefighter are very real. We work on high banked race tracks at the same time as having super horsepowered vehicles “idle” past our firefighters at 80+ miles per hour. This kind of work (rescue/firefighting/clean-up) requires an elevated level of situational awareness and crew preservation safety practices. But, what do you think I mean when I say it “requires an elevated level….?” Elevated from what?

It is literally gut wrenching to me to hear and see the incessant notifications of line-of-duty deaths related to firefighters getting struck and killed at vehicle accident scenes. The most recent incident that comes to mind is that of a firefighter being struck and killed by another vehicle “as he stepped off of his apparatus.” This type of incident happens in urban and rural settings alike. “Fire” doesn’t care if you’re a career or volunteer firefighter. Unfortunately, neither does traffic.

In the racing business, when we roll out to a wreck or a fire, we too use our apparatus as blockers or as physical barriers between working fire crews and race traffic. We have a VERY important rule in super speedway fire/rescue: NEVER turn your back on the race track. We also have a member of each crew designated as a spotter. The spotter announces when it’s safe to exit the crash truck and gives alerts of threats or dangers. Sound kinda like a Safety officer?

Please know that I have no illusion of similarity between speedway crash trucks and large municipal engines, trucks, and aerials. Although the extrication equipment that we carry is the same, the size and scope of the apparatus is night-and-day different. But, what about the idea of blockers and spotters? In my travels to departments around the country and beyond, I regularly see and experience department policy that does NOT routinely use apparatus as blockers for calls on roads or highways (as opposed to urban freeways). Remember, “traffic”—either urban, suburban, or rural—doesn’t care. We are all getting hurt and killed at accident scenes regardless of the state or location.

My suggestion, or even question, is if we might be able to incorporate some level of superspeedway situational awareness into our highway traffic incident responses? I understand that when we spec our trucks and engines, we typically do so with specific compartments designed for specific tools and equipment. Insomuch as vehicle crashes (and now much longer scene time for vehicle fire responses) are typically the things we are dispatched to most often (EMS calls not withstanding), might we want to take another look at where we spec compartmenting for rescue tools, cribbing, airbag, and other vehicle rescue equipment so as to make accessing these tools safer for our crews while in traffic?

In the big-track racing world, we wear Nomex driver’s suits, much like the ones worn by the racers themselves. In our municipal firefighting world, we wear turnout gear with lots of reflective taping. We wear high-visibility colored vests with lots of reflective taping. We put out flares, cones, and new LED lighted flashing marker lights to warn other drivers of an incident ahead. We use our big heavy fire apparatus as blockers between us and traffic. Yet, with all of these devices that we deploy, we still have what seems like weekly notifications of someone losing their life in the line of duty at a traffic related incident.

If you don’t already, is there an opportunity for you to assign someone on your crew the duty of being that spotter or set of eyes that are dedicated to keeping crew members from getting whacked? I know, I expect lots of grief for the suggestion of this due to the limited staffing that already exists in many parts of the country. But if not this, what is the answer? I am more than open to suggestions as it benefits each and every one of us. In my long tenure in the racing industry, I am proud to say that I never lost a firefighter to a mishap on the racetrack. None of us want to be one of those departments that loses a soul to getting whacked at a vehicle rescue call. Remember too, that on the rural side of this equation, if we are on scene and have a member involved in a secondary catastrophic incident like getting hit, it typically wipes out our resources, forcing us to dispatch mutual aid (if it’s available). What I’m really trying to say is that when these things happen, it instantly turns one routine problem into three major problems. This is to say nothing of the psychological impact it can have on an entire rural community.

In racing, our job starts when the green flag waves, signaling the beginning of the race. Our job ends when the checkered flag flies, signaling the end of the race. Surely, there is more that we can do to reduce the number of black and red flags (signaling a severely dangerous/catastrophic situation) in the municipal firefighting world that fly each time a fellow firefighter is lost at a crash scene. Keep your heads on a swivel, and NEVER turn your back to the racetrack or the highway. Let’s all make it to the checkered flag when we can safely return home to our loved ones.

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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