Studying the Right Places?

Chris Mc Loone   Chris Mc Loone

The University of Arizona College of Public Health is set to receive $1 million to study fire apparatus accidents.

The university plans to examine four fire departments and is using the Tucson (AZ) Fire Department as its control because of its very low accident rate. Researchers plan to suggest the most cost-effective ways to reduce accidents involving fire apparatus after learning what is causing them.

On one hand, this is great news. An independent entity has taken a leadership role in helping to reduce injuries and line-of-duty deaths caused by accidents occurring during emergency responses. On the other hand, is this study going to conclude with anything that the fire service doesn’t already know?

During 2014, we have seen accidents involving rollovers, civilians running into staged fire apparatus, and just recently an apparatus crossed a bridge that gave way underneath it. Is that infrastructure or an operator forgetting to check the weight rating of the bridge before crossing it? Some accidents have involved fire apparatus beginning to leave the roadway and the operator overcompensating to get back on the road, resulting in loss of control. The causes of the accidents are more often than not clear, and the actions that could have been taken to avoid them are also clear. So, what will this study do for the fire service?

According to Arizona University representatives, the study will look at four “major” fire departments. But, is this really where we need researchers to be looking?

Speed, training, and age seem to be three major issues when apparatus accidents occur. If the men and women “riding the seat” are unafraid to tell the driver to slow down, then it should be pretty easy for us to correct speed problems. However, training and age are two areas where looking at “major” fire departments is not going to yield the best data.

We have a crisis in the fire service in our rural fire departments. Often apparatus is up to 30 years old or even older. Personnel are hard to come by. So out of necessity, it is more than likely that the average age of apparatus operators in these areas is going to much younger than in “major” fire departments. It is impossible for anyone to say with a blanket statement that our apparatus operators need to be older. It is inevitable that a 19- or 20-year-old “kid” is going to be behind the wheel at times. Maturity levels will vary, and so will the speed at which 19- or 20-year-olds drive. Often these members have only driven their personal vehicles for two or maybe three years before they start driving million-dollar apparatus weighing in excess of 20 tons. The answer is not so easy for these departments.

Rural roads not built for 96-inch-wide, 20-foot-long vehicles are where many accidents occur. Training to drive these vehicles often is on the job. There aren’t resources available to send drivers through full-blown EVOC classes where drivers in training get to drive in controlled environments to truly learn the feel of these vehicles and how they react at certain times. So, training or lack of it is not something that will be easily fixed.

A Tucson Fire Department spokesperson wisely mentions that we also must look at the public. Their distractions have gone from changing a radio station to texting, dialing phone numbers, and then talking on the phone. They just aren’t watching out for us. Sometimes it isn’t even these distractions. Civilians operate vehicles at too great a speed as well at times. Their vehicles are built to keep out the ambient noise around them. Because of these facts, there are simply times when all the defensive driving in the world is not going to avoid an accident.

A study like this allows the fire service to get a view of itself from the outside. Although the study’s conclusions may already be obvious to firefighters, they become one more tool department leadership can use to work to change the behavior of its apparatus operators. Like many things, we must get this information down to the company officers. The men and women riding the seat are the ones who have direct influence over apparatus operators. They must not be afraid to tell their chauffeurs to slow down. But, a study like this also must look at a broader fire service cross section. Looking at “major” fire departments is not the answer because these areas are not where many of our accidents occur.

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