Spotting Apparatus For Non-Emergencies

This young mother cooperated in staging this shot to illustrate the risk potential in parking the fire truck at the front entrance of the supermarket. She was told not to walk beyond the apparatus.
This young mother cooperated in staging this shot to illustrate the risk potential in parking the fire truck at the front entrance of the supermarket. She was told not to walk beyond the apparatus.
This shot was not staged. A firefighter is positioned to ensure the safety of the elderly couple by not allowing them to walk in front of the on-coming car.
This shot was not staged. A firefighter is positioned to ensure the safety of the elderly couple by not allowing them to walk in front of the on-coming car.

Proper spotting of apparatus at an emergency scene is not emphasized nearly enough. The quickest way to screw up at the start of an incident is to park in the wrong place.

Some classic examples are command vehicles parked right behind a ladder truck, blocking the removal of ground ladders; or an engine not pulling past the building (to see three sides of the structure) and not leaving enough room for the ladder truck, rendering the aerial useless because it’s out of reach. Parking (or spotting) the first-in units for the best tactical advantage takes forethought and practice to get it right. It should be the first part of pre-incident planning.

What about parking at non-emergency incidents or just parking in general? This is starting to cause problems for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, many of the next generation fire apparatus are going to be wider to accommodate new air pollution-engine emission requirements while city streets will remain the same width. Those of us who work in high-density population areas know what I’m talking about. Tight situations are only going to get worse.

Many arterial streets have a center left-turn lane which allows us to park fire apparatus for short periods of time without obstructing traffic. Sometimes this is our only option.

Some drivers temporarily park at bus stops. They’re readily available and just the right size, right? So why not? Complaints are sure to follow. Bus drivers feel just as protective about bus stops as we do about fire lanes. First, the bus driver will call his dispatcher who in turn calls our dispatcher, who then calls the deputy chief, who calls the battalion chief. Then you’ll hear on the apparatus radio, “Ladder 6 from battalion HQ; call this office.”

If the bus driver doesn’t complain, the riders will. They’re used to stepping from the curb onto the bus. If they have to walk around the apparatus into the street to board the bus, or worse, if they miss the bus because the bus driver didn’t see them waiting, they won’t call the BC, they’ll call the fire chief’s office!

Doesn’t the community appreciate the challenge we have maneuvering these big rigs around? No! Not if it inconveniences them. Many times we are invisible to the public unless a house is on fire or a resident has severe chest pain. So where do we park?

Back in the 1990s, customer service was the buzzword in the fire service. The concept was always around, but we attached a title to it with new sub-categories – external and internal customers. Customer service became the title of books, seminars, and magazine articles.

In the 21st century, the new buzzword in the fire service is risk management. It is a concept that has been around for a long time too, except we used to call it “watch out” and “be careful.” Now it has a cool new name with sub-categories of risk assessment, risk exposure and risk benefit analysis.

Major cities like Seattle have whole departments dedicated to risk management with the sole purpose of protecting the city from getting sued by reducing its risk and exposure to liability. Within the Seattle Fire Department, we’ve changed the title of one of the assistant chiefs. I can’t remember what he used to be called, but now he’s the chief of risk management.

Ultimately, the ones who perform the risky tasks are firefighters. It’s the actions of firefighters and their company officers that will win them heroism awards or win them a front seat in a courtroom over a legal controversy based on actions they took or failed to take. I’ve been there. Trust me, it’s not a fun place to be, but it has given me a new perspective and sense of awareness regarding risk management and risk exposure.

I suspect risk management classes will be added to the annual training docket in the near future. In the meantime, it would be wise for company officers to start reading up on the subject and include that in your decision-making process.

It’s no fun learning the hard way, so let me share a specific example that presents a risk to the company every single shift. The most important ritual of the shift is shopping for and preparing the evening meal. But again, where do you park when you go shopping?

Most grocery stores have a “FIRE LANE” marked along the entire “A” side of the building. The crazy thing about the fire lane is that it’s in the collapse zone! So unless you’re there on an EMS call, I personally wouldn’t park my rig in the fire lane.

Some drivers (and officers) interpret the fire lane as “Fire Department Valet Parking.” Others interpret it as “Reserved for Fire Department While Shopping.” It’s these two groups where risk exposure comes into play.

By choosing to park in front of the main entrance to the grocery store, or even just before or just beyond the main entrance, it sets up a situation where patrons who are exiting the store with a shopping cart full of groceries, often with young children in tow, have to go around the fire apparatus and enter into the path of cars. Cars entering or exiting may not see those patrons because the fire truck is blocking their line of sight. Patrons unexpectedly come out from behind a fire truck and… Do you see where the risk exposure comes into play?

If you bring this scenario to the attention of fire apparatus drivers or officers, most likely the response will be, “We have to park here because if we parked at the far end of the lot, it would delay our response in case of alarm.” On the surface this sounds good. But in a court of law, the judge and jury may not be sympathetic to that rationale.

Rest assured, any driver who hits a pedestrian in that situation is going to blame the fire department for blocking his view. His attorney will ask, “Was the fire department parked in the fire lane because there was an emergency?” No. “Isn’t the fire department supposed to follow all the rules of the road during non-emergency operations?” Yes. “Is shopping for dinner exempt?” No. “Is the fire lane intended so firefighters can shop for food?” No. “So in other words, you were illegally parked?” It only gets uglier from there.

This is not a far-fetched scenario. One county in Washington State was sued because a county-owned dump truck was legally stopped at an uncontrolled intersection (right side curb lane). A pedestrian suddenly appeared from the front of the truck and was struck by an oncoming vehicle in the center lane. The county was sued and settled out of court because the driver claimed the dump truck created an unsafe situation by blocking the driver’s view. It was cheaper for the county to settle the lawsuit than to fight it in court.

Another poor choice is parking the rig in the loading dock (except perhaps on Sundays). Undoubtedly a delivery truck will arrive and request that the fire apparatus be moved. Now you have two big rigs moving around an already crowded parking lot. Many of these delivery trucks have tight schedules. You can bet if a complaint is filed, it’s going against the fire department.

Parking lots are dangerous operating zones for everyone, including fire departments. Even though speeds are reduced, you have lots of moving hazards. You have cars pulling in and out and patrons weaving in and out; sometimes their kids are restrained, and other times they are running loose and out of control. You have elderly people with slow reflexes; some may be vision and/or hearing impaired, while others may be in wheel chairs. Then add a giant fire truck to the mix!

Unless you’re on alarm, the safest place to park the fire apparatus while shopping is at the very end or corner of the parking lot. It’s the least exposure to oncoming traffic and pedestrians. It also has the least impact on commercial operations.

Don’t worry about response times. Firefighters working a 24-hour shift have to shop and have to eat. Having firefighters receive an alarm while shopping and then run across the parking lot to the rig is a lot easier to defend in court than the scenario presented above. It’s always good to have the driver or a member of the crew who can operate the apparatus stay with the rig anyway. If an alarm is received, that member can move the apparatus with lights and siren to the entrance of the grocery store and meet the rest of the crew there.

If parking the fire apparatus at the very corner of the parking lot while shopping isn’t a department policy, consider making it a company policy in the interest of safety and risk exposure. It’s the smart thing to do. The only people who may complain will be the crew members, and as a captain, I can deal with that.

One last professional tip: If you’re a company officer with some girth (like me) and the crew can outrun you, I recommend YOU stay with the rig while the crew is shopping. If a fire alarm comes in, you can get out of the cab, bunk up, and be ready to go before the crew reaches the apparatus.

Nothing looks worse (or more embarrassing) than the whole crew waiting for the fat captain to huff and puff his way back to the rig. Besides, once you’re bunked up and buckled in, you can calmly prepare your mental size-up and plan of attack for what you’re about to encounter.

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Angulo, a veteran of the Seattle Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6, has more than 30 years in the fire service. He is on the Board of Directors for the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development and fireground strategy and accountability throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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