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Apparatus backing LODD offers lessons we must learn

A ‘perfect storm’ of oversight all came together and killed a Kansas fire chief

By Tom Kiurski
Livonia, Mich., Fire & Rescue Training Coordinator

Earlier this month, FireRescue1 reported on the fire chief who was killed by a fire apparatus that was backing into his fire station. We must mourn the passing of a firefighter, but let’s honor him by learning from this tragic incident.

In the fire service generally, when firefighter safety is not considered a high priority, the results can be predictable. It isn’t a question of “if,” it is a question of “when.”

The first part of this equation highlighted in the NIOSH report into the death of Kanas Fire Chief Stanley L. Giles is that the reverse lights did not work on the apparatus. The bright, white reverse lights are intended to be a visible beacon to anyone nearby, warning them that the large apparatus is going in the reverse direction. We all know that many apparatus incidents happen in the reverse gear, and the lights are one visible warning that should not be ignored.

The second startling equipment problem is that the backup audible alarm was also not working. Again, one of two devices that signal those individuals behind an apparatus to watch out, which is just as important as the lights, was inoperable. This “one-two punch” is intended to grab the attention of anyone nearby, alerting them to the possible hazards of a backing apparatus. And they didn’t work.

The next piece of the puzzle is that there were three fire trucks parking in an apparatus bay intended for two, according to the NIOSH report. This overcrowding gives little space to work around. It also gives little space to move if you see an apparatus coming at you. Over time, this overcrowding in the bay can become the norm at fire departments. This dangerous situation exists, and if it cannot be corrected, there must be extra vigilance in trying to control the hazards associated with it.

The fire department also did not have a policy on backing up apparatus. I believe that most fire departments have had backing policies for well over two decades now. Many of the SOPs/SOGs regarding this are online and on fire websites, so they can be put into action quickly if you don’t have one.

The fire department also had no provisions for the regular inspection of apparatus, where problems can be noted and arrangements can be made for repairs. This is another common item that is available from most fire departments, and can be tailored to your specific needs in about an hour.

While older apparatus are still on the front lines of the American fire service, this truck had mirrors that were obstructed by the frame of a window vent, and the mirrors were not adjustable. After-market replacement mirrors are available, and the ingenuity of firefighters can come up with a solution to the window vent issue when put to the task.

This “perfect storm” of oversight all came together and killed a member of a fire department. There are fire departments out there today operating like this one. Someone, maybe you, are working for one of those departments. If so, honor the passing of Valley Lakes Fire Department Chief Giles and correct those deficiencies in your department.

If you are in the lower ranks, talk over the issue with other firefighters and do some research. Come up with possible solutions and present them to your officers. Many of us can find problems within the organization, but when a solution is offered, it tends to get the attention of the officers. It shows them you are concerned, and you have given thought to overcoming the problem with a plan of action.

If you are an officer, and you have the authority to correct the oversights, then do so. If you make up an equipment check sheet that needs weekly inspection items, like reverse lights and backup alarms, it won’t take long before members get used to the idea of filling them out. Once that is in place, make a reporting procedure that sets out to fix the problems as they are noted.

If you are the chief, listen to your officers and firefighters. Ultimately, firefighter safety is your responsibility. If your firefighters have a concern and a proposed solution, give them the authority and resources needed to go ahead and fix the problem, making the organization a better one.