Driving fire trucks: Does age equal experience?

Probably the most important thing is to ensure departments provide rigorous driver/operator training programs and safe SOPs

Editor’s Note:

Editor's note: With a teen driver's fire truck crash in Tenn. prompting age scrutiny, our Editorial Advisor Chief Adam K. Thiel looks at the issues of age and experience in operating apparatus.

Like many FR1 readers, I first started driving fire apparatus early in my fire and emergency services career, when I was just 19 years old. I can still vividly remember the thrill, and awesome sense of responsibility, like it was just yesterday.

In retrospect, and with the benefit of almost 20 years' hindsight, I'm not sure that was the best idea. Despite the fact that my first car, at age 16, was a 1977 Chevy Monte Carlo with a 351 big block and a 4-barrel carburetor (also not necessarily the best idea, but I survived), it's a long way from a passenger vehicle to heavy fire apparatus.

Fortunately, I've never had an accident driving fire apparatus, which I attribute to my solid initial drivers' education, a lot of "wheel-time" driving my Chevy to and from work in high school, and being forced to drive in an environment with variable weather and traffic conditions (Chicago, in my case).

Like so many things in life, our experiences (not to be confused with age) help us navigate each new challenge, and I can't help but think that, all other things being equal, having more "routine" driving experience (time behind the wheel) is a positive step toward making a safe and successful transition to fire apparatus.

It's also important that drivers have the emotional maturity and discipline to handle the responsibility for one of our most frequent, and highest-risk, tasks.

In my experience, those characteristics don't always track with increasing age, as witness the many young men and women who drive, pilot, or command military vehicles under extreme circumstances, with a high degree of safety and mission accomplishment.

Rather than focusing on age, or time on the job, it's probably more important to ensure fire departments provide rigorous driver/operator training programs, safe standard operating procedures, routine "check rides" and annual refreshers, etc.

I also think we have a long way to go in the use of simulation for enhancing new and existing drivers' skills. For instance, even the most experienced commercial pilots spend many hours in a simulator practicing their craft, but similar units for the fire-rescue service can be expensive and difficult for most departments to access.

The United States Fire Administration (USFA) has made available a number of excellent resources for fire departments of all types and sizes as part of its Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative, which you can see at www.usfa.dhs.gov/fireservice/research/safety/vehicle.shtm 

About the author

With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel — FireRescue1's editorial advisor — is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

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