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Teen driver in Tenn. fire truck crash prompts age scrutiny

On her way back from a call, an 18-year-old firefighter lost control, overcorrected and crashed a 28,000 pound tanker

Editor’s note: Does age equal experience when it comes to driving a fire truck? Check out the view of our Editorial Advisor Chief Adam K. Thiel.

By Nate Morabito

UNICOI COUNTY, Tenn. — A fire tanker truck crash in Unicoi County raises questions about who is and who is not allowed to drive an emergency vehicle.

On her way back from a call last month, an 18-year-old South Side Volunteer Fire Department firefighter lost control, overcorrected and crashed a 28,000 pound tanker.

“The driver lost control of the vehicle, which caused it to slide on its side and come to rest,” South Side Board Chairman Jimmy Erwin said.

“The Tennessee Highway Patrol investigated and there were no citations. She was actually traveling below the speed limit at the time of the accident.”

According to Erwin, the teen isn’t the only one allowed to drive a fire truck

“We’ve got a couple other 18 year-olds that drive,” Erwin said. “It’s not like we just put them in a vehicle and turn them loose and let them run red lights down the road.

"[They can drive] after they’ve completed a very intense driving training and have been approved by the chief and by the training officer.”

The department’s local insurance agent has assured them in the past, he said, that if they’re approved by the fire department and are at least eighteen years of age — the firefighters do qualify to drive the emergency vehicles and are covered in case of accidents.

Before getting behind the wheel, Erwin says the department requires a firefighter to take part in road training and to be checked off by the state certified training officer and chief.

In Tennessee, firefighters are exempt from obtaining commercial driver’s licenses. The only state regulations required are that a firefighter takes part in at least two hours of annual training and passes a comprehensive examination.

In short, it’s up to each individual fire department to set its own policies. However, not all departments are willing to take a risk by putting a teenager in the driver’s seat.

The Fall Branch Volunteer Fire Department says teens can drive, but only in non-emergencies. Also, EMT Steven Lockner says there always has to be a senior firefighter in the passenger seat.

“We’d like for you to be 21 years of age and have 40 hours of non-emergency driving [training],” Lockner said. “To me, I think you ought to be 21. At the age of 18 you’ve just been driving a motor vehicle for two years. The more experience, the better.”

Since fire trucks often carry water, Lockner says the job of driving a tanker is not an easy one. The National Fire Protection Association recommends firefighters learn several skills including how to control liquid surges, the proper braking time, the roll-over potential, and the right way to negotiate intersections.

“If they come into the department at 18, we can get them trained, get them used to driving the bigger equipment that’s a whole lot different than a car,” Lockner said. "[The water is] liquefied and it’s [moving] around and it throws you backwards and forwards.”

Erwin insists the 18-year-old who wrecked last month is a ‘more than capable’ driver. In fact, he says she is a better driver than some of her older counterparts. He says she and a couple of others are qualified to drive with lights and sirens on.

“With the shortage of volunteers in the volunteer fire department these days we, along with other departments, are allowing eighteens to drive more,” Erwin said.

“You may have five or six 18-year-olds who are just out of high school and that’s who is out saving lives and protecting the people of the county.”

Republished with permission from WJHL.