You crashed the fire truck: Now what?
Nobody wants to crash the department rig, but it happens; here's a plan for what to do before and after a crash
Stop me if you've heard this: A small town can't support one lawyer, but it can two. We live in a litigious society.
We also live in a society where today the actions of fire departments and other public safety agencies take place under the 24/7/365 scrutiny of the general public due to the explosion of social media and smartphone-camera technology. Everyone is a potential reporter.
No fire department expects a crash involving any of its fire apparatus. That's understandable. But a fire department that hasn't prepared its personnel for such an event — that's unforgivable.
Every fire department should have a policy, procedure and training in place to begin a post-crash investigation immediately following the crash.
Reducing the likelihood and severity of vehicle crashes, and minimizing the consequences of crashes that do occur, should be the objective of any crash-prevention program.
The pre-planning phase of crash investigation should be to prepare members of the organization for a crash. VFIS recommends that this phase include these five elements.
- Ensure that members know how to complete the crash report forms.
- Ensure that report forms and crash-scene instructions are readily available in each vehicle.
- Develop a strategy for firefighters and officers to use to discuss any crash with an investigator. This includes preparing employees to use a crash-scene checklist.
- Ensure that members know what to do when involved in a crash. Outline how crashes are reported to the dispatch center and insurance carrier; stress prompt reporting of any crash.
- Establish procedures outlining who from fire department management must respond to a crash.
When a piece of fire apparatus is involved in a crash, it should immediately be reported to the dispatch center. All dispatch centers have recording equipment that records all telephone and radio traffic, so this step begins the documentation process.
The Phoenix Fire Department recommends that radio report should include the unit number, crash location, extent and nature of injuries, if medical assistance is required, if a cover-up apparatus assignment is needed and if the wrecked vehicle is drivable.
Different levels of management may be called upon to respond depending on the severity of the crash. At a minimum, in volunteer departments, the fire chief or an assistant chief should respond. In career departments, at least the shift supervisor and safety officer should respond.
VFIS says that for crashes with serious consequences (or potential for serious consequences), it is wise to include several layers of the management structure as well as legal counsel in the investigation process. It is important to recognize these needs early and involve these other officials in the process.
Provide the dispatch center with a clear procedure and process that should be followed when a crew reports any vehicle crash.
That procedure and process should include dispatch of EMS resources as requested, of cover-up apparatus as needed, of local law enforcement and notifying the apparatus maintenance supervisor (if the department has one).
In addition to the above, Phoenix Fire says the procedure should include a section for required actions for a crash where a serious injury or death has occurred. Below are four examples.
- Notification of members of senior fire service leadership, particularly chief officers with non-line responsibilities, such as logistics, support services or training.
- Chaplain services or critical incident stress response team if available.
- Fleet management.
- Liaison personnel with senior local government leadership.
At the scene
The involved crew, if able, should initiate appropriate medical assistance as needed. Those crew members should not discuss the crash with anyone other than fire and police representatives.
Once the involved crew members have rendered any necessary medical treatment to involved civilians, they should be isolated from the general public, the other parties involved in the crash and the news media.
Unless the crew members have suffered injuries that require transport to a medical facility, they should remain at the scene until police and fire officials have completed their investigations.
Do not move the vehicle unless it is creating a traffic hazard. If the crew must move the vehicle, photograph or sketch the position of all vehicles prior to moving. Obtain the names, addresses and phone numbers of all witnesses.
In the event of a crash involving deaths or serious injuries, the crew members should be taken to the command van (if onsite) or to a nearby fire station.
Fire official's responsibilities
The lead fire department official for the initial crash investigation should be responsible for ensuring that all activities comply with the department's crash investigation policy and procedures.
That official must ensure that the initial crash documentation, through written notes or video recording, includes separate interviews with the driver of the fire department vehicles and all involved crew members. Those interviews should contain three description: what was going on in the truck right before impact, where was the fire apparatus going and what happened during the crash.
If a member of the involved crew must be transported to a medical facility, ensure that statements about the crash have been documented or send a fire department official to the hospital with the member so that a statement can be obtained as soon as it is practical.
The official must ensure that interviews have been completed and documented, through written notes or video recording, for all other witnesses, including names and addresses for those witnesses.
All of these reports and statements must be collected before fire department personnel involved in the crash or civilian witnesses are released from the scene.
A department will only have a small window of opportunity to gather the necessary post-crash information to answer the questions that will be on everyone's mind.
Why did the crash happen?
- How did the crash happen?
- Who's at fault?
- What will happen to prevent crashes of a similar nature?
The information collected and analyzed following a fire apparatus crash should enable the department's crash investigators to answer those questions.
Sonoma County (Calif.) Emergency Services achieves this by determining the facts surrounding the crash, its principal causes, who's responsible and any mitigating factors which may have contributed to it. Sonoma County also recommends changes to department policies, procedures and equipment to prevent future crashes of a similar nature. And they promptly and accurately reporting the findings of the investigation.
Prompt investigation of a crash involving fire apparatus is no longer just a good risk-management practice for vehicle operations anymore. It should also be an important part of your department's reputation risk management.
This article, originally published June 16, 2016, has been updated.