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by Robert Avsec

What every fire officer must know about driver safety

Despite not having a steering wheel or brake pedal, the fire officer can play a vital role in getting the apparatus safely on scene here's how

By Robert Avsec

Information overload has come to the fire apparatus cab. Mobile data computers and tablets are being used by the company officer to access driving directions, building pre-fire plans, hazardous materials information and much more.

Throw in radio and intercom headsets and multiple radios and the company officer's position in the right front seat more closely resembles that of an air traffic controller.

A key job function of the company officer while responding to the scene is to function as the safety officer. Agreed, the driver has the responsibility for safely, effectively and efficiently getting the fire apparatus from station to scene.

But like the safety officer on the fire scene, the company officer's job is to ensure that those operations are being properly implemented and to take immediate corrective action when there is deviation.

A team sport
An on-scene safety officer must develop good working relationships with the division and group supervisors on the emergency scene. Each must understand and carry out their respective roles and responsibilities and have respect for the other party's roles and responsibilities.

That's why I like departments where on one incident a company officer may be assigned as a division/group supervisor and on the next job be given the role of safety officer. Helps maintain a healthy perspective.

The same holds true for the team occupying the front seats of any piece of fire apparatus. The company officer and the driver operator must form a team so that the apparatus and everyone onboard gets to the call and back every time, every day.

Officer training
Before I would clear one of my firefighters to be a driver operator — when I was a company officer — he would spend three shifts doing my job: riding in the right front seat while I drove the apparatus. It's amazing how quickly a firefighter can be taught how to talk on the radio and blow the siren. Of course, that was before technology infiltrated the apparatus cab.

Every one of them came away from that experience with a good appreciation of what it was like to be in my shoes, particularly the part about being responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle without an available steering wheel or brake pedal.

There are two key areas of responsibility for all company and safety officers: pre-response and response.

Pre-response
Ensure that your personnel understand your expectation that they properly don their personal protective clothing before they board the apparatus for response. Don't just tell them once. Conduct periodic drills to ensure competency.

Does your department monitor how long it takes for the apparatus to respond after notification, that "out of chute time?" Many do, and efficiently donning turnout gear is where you can safely make the most improvement in those times.

Ensure that daily apparatus and equipment inspections and preventative maintenance are completed according to departmental SOGs, and that they are properly documented. Periodically, review that documentation with your driver operators to ensure that it's being done 100 percent correctly.

It's not about whether you trust the driver or not. Both you and your firefighters are responsible for seeing that the job is getting done — you more than they for sure. Use these opportunities to help them improve their documentation skills and I bet they'll see it in a more positive light.

Ensure that every individual conducts a daily inspection of his or her SCBA at the beginning of the shift and that they document that as well. If your department doesn't have a documentation mechanism for the individual member to do that, give each firefighter a small notebook to document daily SCBA checks. That's going to be a key piece of documentation in the event of an SCBA malfunction — particularly one that leads to a firefighter death or injury.

Response
Make sure that everyone is seated and belted before the apparatus moves. Period. Everyone must stay seated and belted while en route to the call. That's why you want them in their personal protective clothing before they mount the apparatus.

I sincerely hope the day arrives when this does not have to be number-one on any list or even on a list at all. Come on folks, it's 2014; lap and shoulder belts for fire apparatus were not invented yesterday.

Ensure that the driver — and you — knows where to go before the apparatus moves. Once rolling, make sure the driver is operating according to departmental SOGs and road and weather conditions.

Function as the second set of eyes at all intersections, controlled and uncontrolled, railroad crossings, and any other hazardous areas. Once on scene, ensure that the apparatus is positioned so that personnel are not exposed to unmanaged hazards from traffic.

Also, make sure that any time that the apparatus has to be backed up there is at least one ground guide at the driver's rear of the apparatus; a second ground guide at the officer's front of the unit is even better. In too many departments, more damage occurs to fire apparatus when the apparatus is being backed up than during any other type of driving event — and they are 100 percent avoidable.

Flight control
You might also be thinking, "I have to trust my people to do their jobs or I'll get a reputation as a 'micro-manager.'"

Evidently the airline industry doesn't think so. Before every commercial airliner backs away from the terminal gate, the captain and co-captain complete a pre-flight check of the cockpit instruments and the craft's operating systems.

During that check, they each double-check the other's checks. The captain also does a walk-around of the aircraft's exterior to ensure that nothing is amiss.

It's their ship and as the captain they know that ultimately they are responsible for its safe operation. So how's your ship?

About the author

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his "management sciences mechanic" credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va. Contact Robert at Robert.Avsec@FireRescue1.com



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