“For nearly a decade, Dane Smothers Jr. fixated on becoming a D.C. firefighter.
And he stuck with it, despite hurdles.
He wore that uniform only once. Mere months into the firefighting job, his dream career nearly killed him.
The injuries that sidelined him didn’t come at a burning home.
They came when Smothers Jr., in full gear, was at the rear of his stopped fire engine reaching for a hose to hustle to the house fire. He was hit by an arriving ladder truck that turned and pinned him between the two fire vehicles.
The report, released in June, said two factors contributed to Smothers Jr.’s being pinned: his limited experience at fire scenes and the placement of fire vehicles that created blind spots and pinch points and left “very little margin for human error.”
It’s that final phrase that haunts trainers like Phil Duczyminski:
very little margin for human error
Because one of the most reliable things in the world is that humans will make errors.
“People don’t know what they don’t know,” Duczyminski explains. “And they don’t know what to expect. That’s a liability for the organization, to constantly put firefighters into situations that they’ve never had any exposure to before. As a result, their first experience isn’t in the training environment, where an instructor has the ability to correct them. It’s in an environment where a very small misjudgment can have enormous negative impacts.”
The Need for More Fire Truck Driving Simulators
Duczyminski has 24 years in the fire service and has spent the past eight training firefighters for the City of Novi (Michigan) Fire Department. He points out that, in many areas, the operators driving a fire apparatus may receive far less driver training than a commercial trucker. For example, in Michigan, fire truck operators can drive after receiving a CDL exemption. That means passing an approved emergency vehicle driver’s program and clocking as few as 10 hours of supervised drive-time on an apparatus weighing more than 26,001 pounds.
Frankly, given the extremely challenging conditions, fire truck operators must confront, that isn’t much preparation.
“When they do that 10 hours of supervised drive time,” Duczyminski says, “they’re basically just driving around town. They’re not in any rush, the driving conditions are fine, it’s broad daylight. There’s not a whole lot of learning that’s going on, beyond developing their sense of how the truck feels and drives. But, at no point in time in that driver training, are they put into any of the very challenging, distracting, split-second situations that they might find themselves in while coding to a call.”
Duczyminski firmly believes that a fire truck driving simulator is a must if we want to reduce these sorts of needless tragedies. “Without a fire truck driving simulator, you can’t really create many of the situations a firefighter will face while coding to a call. With the simulator, we can put them in those scenarios and help them break out of the tunnel vision that every driver experiences as soon as they get comfortable with their vehicle.”
Breaking out of tunnel vision is the critical first step to widening the safe margin of error for fire apparatus operators.