How to keep your rigs from getting ripped off

Whether on scene or at the station, fire trucks and ambulances are targets for thieves; here's how to keep them safer

Not a day goes by, it seems, that we don't learn about fire and EMS apparatus being taken "for a ride" by unauthorized persons. From fire stations to emergency scenes to hospital parking lots, fire trucks and ambulances are not only being illegally taken, but also used to create general damage and mayhem before the perpetrators are apprehended. 

There are a variety of likely explanations for this disturbing trend including individuals with substance addictions looking for property that can be turned into cash to support their addictions or for drugs that are carried aboard ambulances (and increasingly aboard fire apparatus as well). Some have unresolved grievances who were formerly a member of the organization.

In a 2008 Applied Research Project, completed as part of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program, Neal Wineman offered another interesting perspective on why emergency services vehicles are taken.

"Play Station's Grand Theft Auto video game [has been] out in the market since 1998, with a new version released every few years," he wrote. "It is a very popular game purchased by juveniles. In this game, you can kill law enforcement officers, paramedics and firefighters and steal their vehicles to use in other crimes.…

"It [the game] suggests finding these vehicles at hospitals or fire stations or even starting fires to draw emergency resources to you so that you can car jack the vehicles. In the case of the ambulances, the player gets more points if there are patients in the back [patient care] compartment."

Protecting the station

In addition to theft of vehicles or property from fire and EMS stations, there are also a growing number of cases where stations have been the target of arson. While a portion of reported arson fires at fire and EMS stations result from outsider intrusion, there's another portion that can be attributed to insider jobs by those members with unresolved grievances or who are attempting to cover up the theft of property.

According to Leo Gonnering, a subject-matter expert in the field of physical security for the U.S. Army and the private sector, there are some simple steps that fire and EMS departments can take to reduce the risk of vehicles or equipment being stolen from their stations.

"First off, I would tell any fire chief to contact their local law enforcement agency and ask them to come do a physical security assessment of their fire station(s)," said Gonnering. "Most law enforcement agencies already provide this free service to local businesses as part of their community outreach and crime prevention activities."

Gonnering recommends reaching out to your local law enforcement agency for another reason: crime intelligence statistics.

"Particularly if you've got a number of fire stations in your city or county, you don't necessarily have the same level of risk for breaking and entering and theft across the board," Gonnering said. "Find out what the numbers are for drug-related crimes, breaking and entering, vandalism and other crimes against property for the areas around each of your stations and then use that information as part of your physical security needs assessment."

Lock it down

Law enforcement agencies are pretty much in agreement when it comes to physical security for any building be it residential or commercial: If someone really wants to get in, they will. Just don't make it easy for them.

What's the best way to keep your car from being stolen? Take your keys and lock the door, right?

Ensure that you have good doors and locks on all exterior doors. Use cipher locks (mechanical locks that require a code to be entered) or keyless locks (like those used in hotels) for all exterior doors. Change entry codes or reprogram entry cards on a regular basis and especially anytime an employee or member is involuntarily separated from the organization.

Keep the apparatus bay doors closed. In the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, increased physical security concerns led most departments to mandate keeping apparatus bay doors closed, but as with many things in life time has allowed complacency to grow in our midst. 

Make sure that your SOG requires that those doors are closed within minutes of apparatus leaving on a call if the doors are on automatic timers, which they should be. If doors must be closed manually, ensure that your SOG states that and that personnel comply.

Make it more difficult for a potential intruder to determine if anyone is present in the building. This is very important for volunteer-staffed stations that are unoccupied for long periods of time.

Property maintenance

Make sure that exterior windows can be locked and that they are locked. Ensure that window shades or drapes are closed when the station is not occupied. Use timer switches on interior lights that rotate which rooms are illuminated during the course of the evening hours.

Property maintenance goes a long way to improving physical security. Potential intruders prefer to work in the dark so ensure that the station's exterior is illuminated well. Regularly inspect your station's exterior lighting system and replace lamps as necessary.

Keep the grass cut and the building's exterior well maintained. A well-maintained building is a sign that the owners care about the property and that they've likely taken additional steps to protect their property from crime.

Consider installing a monitored security alarm system. Today's alarm system technology now includes wireless systems that can be installed in hours rather than days or weeks. The television service and Internet provider serving your stations may be able to provide monitoring of your security system for an additional fee. Security firms such as ADT or Wells Fargo are another source for the monitoring of your alarm systems.

Beyond hardening the station

A new product on the apparatus security scene is the VISTA (Vehicle Immobilization System Touch Activated) Brake Lock system and it has the potential to be a must have piece of equipment on all fire and EMS apparatus.

Inventor Randy Smathers, who recently retired as a Deputy Fire Chief with the Seminole, Florida Fire Rescue Department, was inspired by the need to prevent apparatus roll aways.

"Our newer generation of apparatus operators is coming to us with no previous experience driving big trucks that required them to set a parking brake as part of normal operations," said Smathers. "We — and other departments across the country — have operators stopping the vehicle, putting the transmission in neutral, but forgetting to engage the parking brake. So the next thing that happens, especially if it's on any type of grade, is your fire truck is taking off on its own and running into other vehicles, buildings or whatever is in the way."

The VISTA Brake Lock places an air cylinder disconnect between the parking brake valve and the parking brake valve knob. The operator simply pulls the air brake knob to activate. To disconnect the air brakes, the driver sends an air signal to the air cylinder disconnect to release the parking brakes. This air signal is controlled via the a keypad and solenoid; the driver simply enters the access codes — the system uses four- to eight-digit codes with more than 1 million code combinations.

When added to vehicles equipped with air brakes, VISTA will prevent unauthorized use and render the vehicle immobile whenever the parking brake is set. So when the apparatus is parked in the station or on scene, the only person who can disengage the VISTA and move the apparatus is someone who has the current and proper access code for that vehicle's system.

Improving the physical security for your department's stations does not have to be complicated, but like most of our operations, it requires a good SOG and 100 percent compliance on everyone's part to make it work.

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