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Driving fire trucks can be just as dangerous as a loaded gun

I’d like to start this column by asking the readers how they would handle the following situation: You arrive at the firehouse and walk into the radio room, only to find four of your co-workers sitting in their chairs like statues, afraid to move a muscle. As you look around the room, you find your engineer teetering on a pile of phone books, trying to keep his balance. In one hand he holds a cocked handgun which is pointed at your lieutenant.

What would you do? Would you simply walk into the other room, pretend that you didn’t see anything and just go about your business? Or would you slowly ease your way out of the room and call 911? To those that answered that they would call 911, I ask , “Why?” Is it because at any moment, the engineer might pull the trigger and seriously injure or maybe even kill your colleagues? I think we would all agree that this situation would result in the response of SWAT teams, hostage negotiators and scores of administrative staff from your department. Hopefully, the situation would be safely deescalated and no one will be injured.

While the scenario I presented to you is extreme, it is really no different than a scenario that repeats itself thousands of times each day across our country. Each day, fire apparatus operators regularly place their colleagues in situations that could result in death or serious injury with just one small slip of the hand. Driving a fire truck at 60 mph on a rain-slicked roadway can be just as dangerous as a loaded gun.

Yet every day, firefighters and officers across the country allow this scenario to repeat itself. It is for this reason that every year we add an average of 25 firefighters’ names to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmittsburg, Md. In addition to these 25 fatalities, hundreds of firefighters and innocent civilians are injured each year due to fire apparatus crashes. It is time that firefighters, officers and drivers throughout our country finally stand up and say enough is enough. It’s time to start saving our own.

During my time in the fire service, I have learned that there are several types of people who drive fire apparatus. There are those who take the responsibility seriously and do everything in their power to ensure that both personnel and equipment make it to the scene in a safe and timely manner. These are the drivers who sit patiently and wait for the crew to put on their seatbelts before putting the rig in drive. These drivers are skilled and knowledgeable, calmly threading the rig through heavy traffic without breaking stride.

There are also those apparatus operators who intend to give their colleagues a safe ride, but tend to succumb to the tunnel vision that results from flashing lights and screaming sirens. These drivers simply need a small reminder from the officer or a fellow firefighter telling them to slow down. Afterward, this type of operator apologizes to the crew and hopefully remembers the next time not to get caught up in the moment.

Finally, there is a third type of apparatus driver, and I can tell you that this type of driver has already stopped reading this article. This type of operator thinks he is the best driver in the world and can handle his 70,000-lb. rig under any circumstances, at any speed and under any weather conditions. These are the drivers who leave your knees shaking as you get off the truck to go investigate a fire alarm. These are the drivers who hop out, light up a smoke and say, “That was a good scrape!” referring to the harrowing ride that they just provided you. These are the drivers who don’t realize that no matter how long they have been driving, or how good they think they are, at some point, Mother Nature will take over and the vehicle they are driving will lose control.

This column is entitled “Drive to Survive,” and its purpose is to make drivers, officers and firefighters aware of the limits of driving a moving vehicle. The concepts presented in this column will explain to fire service members how easy it is for a vehicle to lose control. It is my hope that by educating everyone who steps foot on a moving fire apparatus as to the dangers of unsafe driving, fire apparatus operators everywhere will be “peer pressured” into driving in a responsible manner. Firefighters and officers must recognize when apparatus drivers are taking unnecessary risks with their lives. Often, a small shout from the back seat is enough to remind an unsafe driver that he holds several other lives in his hands.

Only by training everyone in the safe and proper operation of fire apparatus can the annual number of fatalities and injuries be reduced. “Drive to Survive” will teach you how and why fire apparatus lose control. It is my hope that this column will provide an interactive opportunity for fire service members to share their training and experience so that others may learn from our mistakes. If nothing else, it is my hope that everyone will understand the importance of the following words: SLOW DOWN, BUCKLE UP AND THINK!!

Make fire trucks safer with Chris Daly’s colum, ‘Drive to Survive.’ Daly is a safety expert who has spent years developing a curriculum to educate fire apparatus operators about the keys to staying safe on the road.