(See article on the Fire Chief Magazine website here)
Oct. 9, 2012 – Robert Raheb | Fire Chief
Operating an emergency vehicle— both in routine and emergency modes — is probably the highest form of liability a department faces every single day, several times per shift. Motor-vehicle collisions are the second-leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths and the leading cause of EMS personnel LODDs. A single collision can cripple a community and over-tax a department’s already limited resources.
All members must use due regard when operating an emergency vehicle — even a privately owned vehicle — in the performance of the department’s duties.
Laws and Regulations
Due regard usually is defined as what a reasonably careful person, performing similar duties and under similar circumstances, would do. Fire apparatus operators are subject to all traffic regulations like other drivers, unless a specific exemption is made in the state laws or local statutes. These exemptions are legal only in the emergency mode and only for the duration that the exemption is required. Even when these exemptions are met, driver/operators still can be found both criminally and/or civilly liable for their actions or inactions if involved in a collision.
What usually occurs during the investigation of a department vehicle collision is that human error (either driver) is responsible for 98% of the collisions, including failing to provide adequate notice of approach. Notice of approach is part of due regard as defined in state vehicle and traffic laws. Notice of approach requires that other vehicles must yield the right-of-way to the emergency vehicle1 when all of its warning devices are fully engaged. Remember that other vehicles can’t yield the right of way if the driver/operator doesn’t give proper notice of approach. Notice of approach requires that the driver/operator give the other vehicle the ability to recognize, process, and react (reaction time) to the vehicle’s warning devices. Studies have shown that the average person requires 1.6 seconds of reaction time when confronted with a situational variance.
Sirens and Airhorns
Sirens are a great tool in notifying the public of an emergency vehicle’s approach, but they do have limitations. Electronic sirens when activated produce a tone that travels through a frequency spectrum from high to low in an oscillating wave. Different frequencies produce different effects on various surfaces. Vehicle manufacturers are continually looking at new composites to create safer, stronger, and more noise-dampening vehicles. When sirens travel the full frequency spectrum, they are usually able to penetrate these materials. Sirens are omni-directional and travel in all directions, which often causes civilian drivers’ confusion, as they are unable to determine the direction of the approaching apparatus.
The two most-recognizable and effective siren sounds are the wail and yelp. The wail should be used when traveling down roadways and city blocks where traffic is moving in the same direction. Yelp should be used in heavy congestion, intersections, and other situations that may hinder the response or pose a higher risk.
Some departments are phasing in a newer type of siren that produces low-frequency, duplicate tones that not only let other drivers hear it but also feel it. However, the verdict on its efficacy is still out due to its newness. Before purchasing such devices consider noise abatement laws and public perception on its use — several watchdog groups are against this new form of noise pollution.
Airhorns are uni-directional and have a lower frequency range. They help the other driver pinpoint the direction of the approaching apparatus. Airhorns must be used properly. Two short bursts followed by a 3- to 5-second interval, with an additional two short bursts is more effective than continuously blasting it through an intersection. When used inappropriately (a long, steady blast), it becomes omni-directional and defeats its intended purpose.
Roadway command is the ability to direct vehicles into certain patterns that allow for safe and expedient movements through traffic. Being able to move traffic out of the way, the driver/operator needs to give clear direction to the other drivers.
When traveling on a one-way, multi-lane roadway, the driver/operator should take the middle lane and avoid the outside lanes nearest curbs and sidewalks. In urban areas, parked and double-parked cars slow the response down and require a lot of maneuvering around them. Pedestrians wanting to cross the street both at the cross-walk and jay-walking are hazards easily avoided when maintaining the middle of the road. In rural areas, soft shoulders and ditches are the main hazards.
When traveling on an express highway, the driver/operator should take the left lane or inside shoulder when traffic is flowing. If traffic is at a standstill, the middle lane may afford a faster and safer route, because on a heavily congested roadway, cars will have the ability to move to both the left and right sides of the road.
The driver/operator should use the bumper to tell them what to do — by pointing, not hitting. By facing the apparatus’ front right bumper toward the rear left bumper of the vehicle in front, a driver should understand to pull to the right. By facing the apparatus’ front left bumper toward the rear right bumper of the vehicle in front, a driver should understand to pull to the left.
When traveling down a two-way roadway, the driver/operator always should take the left lane in the same direction of travel. He should avoid using the right or middle lanes as much as possible, as most motorists will become confused as to the driver/operator’s intention, as well as the other aforementioned reasons. When necessary, crossing left of center into oncoming traffic should be performed with caution; avoid using the center turn lane, unless absolutely necessary since hazards can appear from different directions simultaneously.
When crossing left of center and entering into oncoming traffic, the driver/operator should slow his or her vehicle down to 20 mph or what roadway conditions permit. Most collisions involving emergency vehicles happen at the intersection and when left of center. By slowing down when traveling left of center and approaching oncoming traffic, the combined speed of impact is decreased and the closing distance of the two vehicles is slowed. If a collision does occur, the resulting impact will have less force.
Intersections probably are the worst nightmare for the driver/operator. Trying to control an intersection with or without a control device is problematic and each intersection holds myriad hazards. Unfortunately, 37% of all emergency-vehicle collisions occur in the intersection and such collisions on average cause 10 injuries per day and two fatalities per month. When a fatality is reported, the emergency vehicle struck the other vehicle 74% of the time.
As the driver/operator begins to approach the intersection, he should scan all four corners from left to right. Ensure that not only the intersection is clear, but that the section of roadway immediately after it also is clear. When approaching the intersection against a red light and crossing left of center, the driver/operator should observe the following steps:
- Change the siren from wail to yelp. If using low-frequency duplicate tone sirens, engage them now.
- If working alone, stay off the radio until he or she has cleared the intersection and it’s less hazardous.
- Slow the vehicle down to 20 mph or less depending on traffic conditions.
- Two short burst on the air-horn in 3- to 5-second intervals.
- Come to a complete stop at the rear bumper of the first vehicle in the left lane (that is to the right)
- Approach the crosswalk and each lane like it’s a new plane of the intersection. Observe and anticipate the unexpected.
Protecting the Scene
While approaching the scene, perform a scene survey (depending on the incident a 360° walkaround may be needed). Determine the proper tactical position for the type of incident and apparatus involved, and be sure that all personnel are in full PPE, including a high-visibility vest for roadway incidents.
While working on an incident at night, emergency personnel should be aware that depth perception and situational awareness can be hindered by the glare from scene and emergency lighting and therefore should take precautions. Scene lighting from a higher vertical angle should be increased and emergency lighting, especially from strobe lighting, should be reduced.
Flares or an alternative device should be positioned far enough upstream to give motorist ample warning of operations ahead and possible reduction in lanes; usually, a minimum of 300 feet for speeds of 50 mph. Consider extending that distance to the apex of a curve and/or the crest of a hill.
NFPA 1901 requires units to have additional striping on the back of the vehicle to increase the contrasting of the surrounding area. This helps drivers identify emergency vehicles earlier.
Most states have laws that require motorists to move over one full lane away from emergency and service vehicles operating on the scene, but laws, vests and flares do not provide protection from the wayward driver.
Vehicle placement is a large part of protecting the scene. Police, medical and fire units each have their roles while working together. The first unit on scene should protect the scene by positioning upstream and at a 45° angle at least 1.5vehicle lengths away; turn the front wheels away from the scene and set the parking brake (a 32,000-pound rig makes a good barrier). EMS should position the ambulance down-stream allowing the incident and other vehicles to protect responders. Shutting down lanes for safety is dependent on the scope of the incident and the amount of traffic flowing, in general the less traffic (increased speed), the more lanes to shut and vice versa.
Protect the scene and do not worry about inconveniencing other motorists with delays; traffic will always resume eventually, but a fatal rescuer incident never ends.
Robert Raheb, EMT/P, CIC is a retired lieutenant from the FDNY EMS. He currently is a emergency response training specialist for FAAC Inc.