Do fire departments need small, specialty vehicles?
Once the department decides it needs them, training on how to safely use them in the environment where they'll be deployed is critical
By Frank R. Myers
If you work for a department in a major municipality or one that has any type of concert and sports venue or annual festivals, then you probably will need specialty scooters. With large crowds, tight areas and long walking distances to an exit, they are a good choice.
Here in Miami we have all these types of structures and events. Our scooters go back to the early 1960s and have evolved in design and types of fuel.
Our earlier scooters were bought with the now-demolished Orange Bowl Stadium in mind. They had three wheels, handlebars and an open cab; making tight-radius turns was not an issue.
Our newer four-wheel scooters did not have the same tight turning radius. Before the Orange Bowl was demolished, we did a test run with the newer scooters.
Although we were able to navigate them through the ramps at the Orange Bowl, it required practice. A different line and approach was needed to turn at the end of the ramps when the direction changed. As a result, we trained any personnel who would work there during events so they could maneuver and navigate those areas.
When Marlins Stadium was built we had a walkthrough to become familiar with the layout, travel paths, exits, etc. We ran the scooters through the structure to assure that we were able to maneuver without any complications.
It is important to practice driving through any new structure where the scooters will be used. It accomplishes two tasks.
One, it improves responders ability to get to a patient quickly. Two, being familiar with the structure assures they know the most expedient way to move the patient outside to meet the transport unit.
A neighboring fire department, Miami-Dade County, uses two motorcycles staffed with paramedics. Once again, this provides easy navigation to reach and remove patients through dense crowds at large events.
One good way to work out all the bugs is to plan a drill such as a mass casualty incident or a structural collapse drill. These drills help address issues before problems occur in real-life situations.
A post-event critique can help relay and communicate any snags to the right personnel. These valuable lessons may impact current operating procedures.
Speccing it out
When specifying or fabricating an EMS scooters, it is important to figure out how all of the medical kits, boxes, splints, defibrillators, patient stretcher, etc., are going to fit. Height is also important so the patient stretcher can be loaded and unloaded easily — you may need air shocks to raise and lower the rear of the scooter.
Try placing all items in the compartments to figure out what configuration works best and provides easy access. Consider what is essentials; a scooter cannot carry everything that would be on a full-size ALS transport apparatus.
Fuel type is another important consideration. If you work in an enclosed environment, propane or LP gas is the preferred choice for its reduced exhaust emissions.
Electric also may be feasible. Remember, it will have to haul a crew of two or three personnel plus a patient and equipment — so make sure the unit has enough power and endurance to handle ramps and other inclines.
At times, very large or multiple overlapping events may lead to a scooter shortage. The solution may be asking neighboring departments for their scooters, which may have different designs, handling capabilities and compartment configurations. Make sure to receive instruction on their operation from those respective departments.
Another area meriting special attention is operating these vehicles on public streets. Handling characteristics, visibility from the scooter, other vehicles and their ability to see you are different than your average fire department or civilian vehicle. It is especially important to have side mirrors and be accustomed to using them while driving.
Miami has a tunnel that serviced the Port of Miami. Our department purchased two ATVs for use in tunnel responses — one for the hazardous materials team and one for our technical rescue team.
These vehicles carried four crew members along with an attached trailer for tools, rope and extrication and firefighting equipment to address the type of incident. The trailer also doubled as a patient litter.
This required more training. A pick-up truck equipped with emergency-response lights, sirens and radio would tow the ATV on a trailer to the tunnel. Therefore, we had to train firefighters assigned to those stations who were unfamiliar about how to drive a vehicle towing a trailer.
Remember, we are talking about left turns, right turns, backing in a straight line, pulling up in front of the station and then backing into the apparatus bay, etc. It required practice, a certain skill set and knowing how to use the mirrors.
Who can handle it?
We required they pass a written test that covered things like safe operating procedures, load limits and terminology used in trailering vehicles. Not everyone has the skills to drive a vehicle with a trailer.
Those who could not pass the practical driving portion of the exam were not qualified to drive the pick-up truck and trailer.
Once a crew arrived on scene, the ATV would be off-loaded from the trailer. The trailer would then be unhitched from the pick-up truck and hitched onto the ATV.
Further training was needed for handling the ATV with a trailer; it is not as easy as you may think. Like with the pickup, the driver must be able to back up with trailer attached.
Some of you may already know it is easier to maneuver a tandem-axle trailer than a single-axle trailer. You soon learn that not everyone can accomplish this task and cannot be qualified to drive the ATVs with the trailer attached.
Be aware that these smaller vehicles are not necessarily easier to drive than the vehicles the department operates day to day.
Although they are fun, we need to remain safe and know our limitations since they do have different handling characteristics, especially at higher speeds when driving with street traffic.
They also have a higher tendency for rollover. Driving these vehicles on a regular basis keeps everyone in-tune to remain safe.
About the author
Frank R. Myers is a retired lieutenant with Miami Fire Rescue, where he served for 32 years. Before his retirement, he served at the training center for six years as the driver engineer instructor. He works as a consultant for PSTrax.com, a technology service that helps fire departments across the country automate their apparatus, equipment and inventory checks.