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5 pillars of an effective fire department driving program

Applying risk management principles to reduce fire engineer driving risks


An effective driving program is one of the best risk reduction tools to help your department in preventing this.

Responding to emergencies has always been one of the greatest sources of risk for any fire department. One can only imagine how many incidents occurred involving hand-pumped wagons hitting pedestrians or scaring horses, as volunteer fire companies raced to the fire scene.

And it likely became even more treacherous when those fire department transitioned to newer means of transport, first horse-drawn steam engines and later motorized fire apparatus.

Modern-day response risks

The exposure to risk and legal liability has grown since those early days, exacerbated by more vehicles on the road, decaying roads and bridges, and an increasing number of distracted drivers who are doing many things besides paying attention to driving.

In addition to those external factors, fire departments face several internal factors that can impact incidents involving their fire apparatus:

  • Fire apparatus that has grown very large over the years is, in many cases, top-heavy and therefore vulnerable to the laws of gravity and motion and speed;
  • New members who come to the organization with no previous experience driving any sort of vehicle except a car – and typically a small one at that; and
  • Many of those new members were also distracted drivers before they came to your department, and likely still are on their off-duty time.

Gordon Graham’s Five Pillars

Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham is a former California Highway Patrol captain and noted advocate for risk management in public safety organizations. Graham identifies five pillars in a successful organization and most, if not all, of the consequences from improper behavior in an organization can be linked to a collapse of one or more of those five pillars:

  1. People
  2. Policy
  3. Training
  4. Supervision
  5. Discipline

Let’s look at how those five pillars can support your department’s driving program, and with it the safe, effective and efficiently operation of its vehicles:

Pillar #1 – People: Departments need quality people doing the task. Ensure that your department has a process for the internal hiring of new drivers of department vehicles that includes:

  • A DMV record check. This should include multiple states if the person has moved within the past 5 years.
  • A review of the individual’s personnel record with the department to ensure there’s nothing that would prohibit them from operating a departmental vehicle valued between $300K and $900K.

[Read next: Qualifying your fire apparatus drivers]

Pillar #2 – Policy: Departments need a quality policy describing how a firefighter becomes a driver/operator and how to maintain that status. I personally love the Marine Corps “Rule of 3s” because most of us can’t remember much past three things for long-term retention. With that, here’s “my three” regarding good policy:

  1. Responsibilities for the driver/operator: Clearly written job performance requirements (JPRs), which are, “A statement that describes a specific job task, lists the items necessary to complete the task, and defines measurable or observable outcomes and evaluation areas for a specific task.” (NFPA 1002: Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, 3.3.14, 2017 Edition).
  2. Authority to drive and operate departmental fire apparatus: Clearly written process for evaluation of how well a potential driver/operator has mastered the JPRs for the job. Successful completion of that evaluation should result in some form of recognition (e.g., certficate or license).
  3. Accountability for not continuing to meet the department’s JPRs for a driver/operator: There should be clear description of the range of consequences for failure to maintain job performance as a driver/operator.

Pillar #3 – Training: Departments need quality training on how to do the task correctly. My internet search for fire department driver training programs reveal a good number of sources that included two from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC): Driver Training SOG Albuquerque (New Mexico) Fire Department and the Ponderosa Volunteer Fire Department. In looking over these two programs, I noted several similarities:

  • They included expectations (like those examples above);
  • They describe the necessary learning objective and performance measures to meet those expectations; and
  • They provide the tools for proper documentation of completed training. (The Ponderosa program has a well-designed and comprehensive Excel workbook with individual spreadsheets for every part of their program. It’s also available as a download from the IAFC website.)

Another excellent resource is the Emergency Vehicle Safe Operations: For Volunteer and Small Combination Emergency Service Organizations put out by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC). Now in its third edition, this document provides a “soup to nuts” coverage of everything a fire department needs in place to develop a top-notch safe driving program or make improvements in a legacy program.

And don’t just look at information coming from fire service organizations. The Smart Trucking website offers a cornucopia of information when it comes to safer operations while driving big rigs. (After all, fire apparatus is pretty much a big truck with a powerful turbo-charged engine, right?). Here’s a sampling of what you can find there:

[Read next: Behind the wheel of a fire truck: Training needed]

Pillar #4 – Supervision: Members must exhibit quality supervision to ensure the task is done right. Not every fire apparatus driver/operator in your department will make a good driving instructor, and that’s OK. Another feature of the Ponderosa program and the NVFC program that I liked was that they provide guidance and direction for the program coordinator as well as the driver trainers within the department.

Pillar #5 – Discipline: Members must enact discipline when policies are not followed. Lack of accountability is a big potential problem in many fire department programs. Every driver/operator of fire apparatus must know and understand their responsibilities in that position and the consequences for not carrying out those responsibilities.

From my first day on the job (May 1982) with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire and EMS Department, I was well-aware of two things: You don’t breathe smoke, and you don’t run red lights or stops signs while driving any department vehicle, big or small.

For the latter, everyone knew the potential consequences before they ever got behind the wheel for the first time: The first offense was a three-day suspension without pay; second offense was a loss of driver/operator status and 10% reduction in pay; and third offense was termination of employment.

Those were the standard guidelines. The policy also stated that if the driver’s actions resulted in serious injury or death for other fire department employees or civilians, the fire chief had the prerogative to terminate an employee for a first or second offense.

Regulating risk

Responding to emergencies will always be one of the greatest sources of risk for any fire department. Several years ago, at a fire service conference, I attended a session on reducing risk in fire departments.

The presenter made a statement that really stuck with me: “You cannot manage or eliminate risk in this business, but you can regulate it.” He went on to explain that regulating meant making sure that everyone in the department had the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) to recognize daily risks and take the appropriate actions to avoid those risks.

And shouldn’t that be the endgame for your fire department’s driver/operator training program?

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.