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4 fire apparatus safety strategies you need to know

A spotter, safe speed, warning lights and backup cameras must be utilized to prevent fire apparatus-involved injury or death


Make sure to use these safety strategies at all times when you are backing up a fire vehicle of any size.


Recently, a firefighter was killed in Virginia as the result of being backed over by a moving fire truck. Firefighter Roger Johns was working as a ground guide when the vehicle backed over him. The fire truck was being moved to block off access to the scene when the incident happened.

This tragic accident occurred in broad daylight at 3:10 p.m., bringing to light the seriousness of this accident. This was not an accident at night time where no one could be seen due to the darkness – this happened in the middle of the afternoon.

So, what little dominoes were lining up to cause this tragic outcome? Use these four strategies to safely operate fire apparatus.

1. Use a spotter to back up safely while operating fire apparatus

The main issue that comes to mind is the spotter. There were no reports of a spotter being used at this moment, so we have to assume that there was no spotter. The majority of fire departments, if not all of them, have a standard operating guideline or policy that dictates the use of a spotter whenever backing up a fire department vehicle.

So why do we need a spotter? The answer to this question lies with firefighter Roger Johns. Spotters are used to prevent accidents from occurring. They are the driver’s assistant in this avoidance. The general rule is that when you cannot see your spotter, you stop. There is a good reason for using spotters no matter how far back you may be going – they are there to stop the domino effect from happening.

2. Always operate fire apparatus at a safe speed

Another little domino that we can consider is the speed of the fire department vehicle backing up. How fast was the vehicle going? Industry standard in the trucking industry is to back up at idle speed – this is done to provide a safety cushion, so to speak. The slow speed of the truck can be stopped quickly compared to a faster moving truck: it also allows other people on scene to move in time to get out of the path of the moving truck.

3. Use visual warnings to alert others on scene when moving fire apparatus

Every manufactured fire truck will have a backup warning alarm – was this alarm working when the incident occurred? Were the warning lights turned on as well as the four-way hazard lights when the truck was backing up, in accordance with industry standards? The lights allow for a visual warning just in case sound cannot be heard due to the on-scene environment.

4. Use fire apparatus backup cameras to improve situational perspective

Many fire trucks are also being equipped with a rear camera to give the driver a better situational perspective of what is going on behind them. Even though they can see, it does not guarantee that they will not hit something or someone. Like most newer vehicles on the road these days, a rear mounted camera does not replace the eyes of the driver or a spotter. Oddly enough, there has been an increase of incidents involving backing up a vehicle using a rear mounted camera than before they were introduced. Technology is great and certainly does aid us with our everyday lives, but it does not always replace the human being factor with our ability to process information and react as such.

The dominoes could have been stopped that afternoon with the use of a spotter. Make sure to use these safety strategies at all times when you are backing up a fire vehicle of any size.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.