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Driver training: Building safe apparatus drivers

Driving a fire truck is one of the most important tasks, making doing it safely and effectively all the more critical

Teaching a firefighter how to safely, effectively, and efficiently drive a piece of fire apparatus is one of the most awesome responsibilities that an instructor can undertake. That challenge becomes greater all the time as fewer firefighters come to the job having had at least some experience driving a large truck. 

Couple that lack of experience with fire apparatus that has gotten progressively larger over the years and you have a challenge that has also gotten more complex for both the student and the teacher.

Hopefully, your department has a driver-training program in place. If not, a good place to start looking for information is the LifeSafetyInitiatives.com website hosted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation as part of its national Everyone Goes Home campaign. Other good references are NFPA 1451: Standard for Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program and NFPA 1901: Standard for Motorized Fire Apparatus.

Both the art and science of apparatus driving are equally important, and the art helps us remember the science better. So let's take this concept for a spin, shall we?

Teach drivers to learn their response district. It's very easy for drivers and officers to become complacent about navigating to the scene of the emergency because of on-board computers with access to GIS digital mapping. These systems are not infallible and they're sometimes inaccurate.

It is important to learn the streets in the district along with the characteristic traffic patterns for the days of the week and times of day, so the drivers will always know where they’re going. Check with the local department of transportation or traffic engineer to see what data they already have on hand.

Obtain the street addresses for calls in your district for at least the previous six months (make it a year if you're station's run activity is not very high) and plot them on a district map or put them into a spreadsheet for analysis. It is likely that there are a large number of streets that the station responds to very frequently — those are the ones to learn first. This data, already sorted, may be available from the emergency communications center or dispatch center.

Out of the chute
The alarm sounds and it's time to go. Before the new driver even thinks of getting on the rig, make sure he knows where he is going — not just which way to turn out of the fire station, but all the way to the location of the call. 

Teach drivers to visualize the route is going to look like. The better they become at this, the less brain power they'll have to devote to thinking about how to get to the call location and the more brain power they'll be able to devote to the actual task of driving to the call.

Drivers must conduct a 360-degree walk around of the vehicle before mounting up for the ride. This is where they'll find that open compartment door or a piece of equipment that's been left on the tailboard or running board.

I followed one of my engines out of the station going to a call one night and when the driver made his first left turn the SCBA compartment — which had been left ajar — came open and three SCBA units flew out into the roadway.

Teach drivers to make sure that everyone is seated and belted before putting the vehicle in motion. Once the transmission is in drive and they head out the door they're responsible to the safety and welfare of everyone aboard; so if everyone is not seated and belted, don't move.

An emergency vehicle driver must put aside his or her ego before fastening the seatbelt because for the rest of the journey, both to and from the emergency, she is a professional driver and needs to act accordingly. 

Teach drivers to follow the speed limit laws for emergency vehicles in their state and locality. Ensure that warning lights and siren are working and make sure they are being used to request permission to have the right of way, not demanding it.

They must learn not to be aggressive drivers. Give plenty of cushion between the apparatus and the vehicles in its path; this gives the firefighter and other drivers room to react. This is especially important when the driver of the car in front suddenly realizes there's a fire truck behind him and slams on his brakes. 

The law in most states requires that drivers yield the right of way to emergency vehicles by pulling to the right shoulder and stopping until the emergency vehicle passes. Teach new drivers to keep the apparatus in the left-hand travel lane as much as possible to encourage drivers in its path to do just that. 

This gets a bit tricky at intersections with more than one lane of traffic as drivers in the left-hand lanes can't pull over to the right, but instead pull to the left. I used tell my drivers to drive straight down the middle of the road — kind of like Moses parting the Red Sea — so that the other drivers could pull off to both the left and right shoulders.

Intersections present one of the greatest hazards. Make sure drivers know to come to a complete stop at any intersection with a red light or stop sign. Even after stopping, they should proceed with caution and be prepared to jam on the brakes for that distracted driver — there are more of them on the road every day — who has the green light yet doesn't see the apparatus.

Scan the road
Teach drivers to keep their eyes moving down the road. Watch those parked cars ahead and fully expect one to pull into the path. They must be cognizant that at any time a pedestrian, animal or object can suddenly appear in the way and require evasive action. 

They must constantly scan the side mirrors and be on the lookout for those vehicles that have pulled up alongside the fire truck. They should do this religiously before moving from the left-hand lane, that they've been traveling in, as they prepare to make a right-hand turn.

This only scratches the surface of the art and science of teaching someone to drive a piece of fire apparatus. Teach good habits from the start — practice them often and correct them when they are absent and praise them when they are present.

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