Back to Basics: 10 Essentials of Emergency Response Driving


"Vision is the art of seeing things invisible," Jonathon Swift (1667 – 1745), satirist, essayist

By Dave Murphy

A fire apparatus responds somewhere in the United States every 20 seconds, according to figures from the NFPA. This translates to a great deal of in-service vehicles moving down the highway at any given time. Are they all responding in a safe manner? I think everyone can answer that one …
Almost daily, we read about a terrible mishap that has happened somewhere, to someone else. They're the key words: it's always "someone else." When this type of tragedy occurs, an innocent citizen, a firefighter, a firefighter's family or even all three is left behind to mourn what is usually determined to have been an avoidable loss.

In 2006, there were an estimated 16,020 collisions involving fire department emergency vehicles while they were responding to or returning from incidents, according to the NFPA. The days of a fire department vehicle's red lights/sirens/air horns "parting the sea" as Moses did are long gone.

The public has become somewhat immune to the myriad of big-city noises or possibly even non-caring to the point that we actually have to anticipate their apathetic attitude and navigate around them. Our only alternative is to change our way of thinking, and to remember the essentials that we where taught — always responding in a safe manner. How well do you relate to the following ten essentials?

1. Leave the station in a safe manner
Mount the apparatus quickly, be seated and belted before the apparatus moves. We've all heard, "It takes too long to dress outside," or "They want to know why it took us so long to roll out …" How about actually getting to the rig a little quicker for starters? Recent test footage clearly indicates unbelted firefighters become projectiles themselves, endangering belted firefighters in the process. So the old, "It's my butt, not yours" cliché does not fly anymore!

2. Drivers: Wait for the bay doors to fully open
This item alone has fractured many fire department budgets and delayed or cancelled countless fire department responses. Drivers: you should be the calm one here, fully in control of your emotions. Make sure that door is fully up before you pull out the door as bar lights and bay door repairs are very costly! Garage door companies love us, ask any fire chief.

3. Drive defensively and professionally at reasonable speeds
You are being watched have you checked out YouTube lately? We are constantly being observed nowadays. In this era of technology, everyone has some type of picture-taking device; mini-camcorders, cell phones, palm pilots … What's next? Pictures don't lie, do they ...?

4. Know where you are going
Blasting down the road not knowing where you are going is asinine. This should be determined before you leave the station — not after. How about a GPS device for the rig? They are relatively cheap, easily installed and easy to use. A local retailer may even be willing to donate one for a little publicity or a photo opportunity?

5. Always use all required warning devices on emergency runs
It's the law. If it is not a true emergency, respond as such. 911 tapes will definitively prove that first arriving units advised all others to disregard — why where you still responding emergency traffic when your mishap occurred? That's what the lawyer will ask you when you have been involved in a wreck after being told to disregard.

6. Don't exceed your department's maximum speed limit policy
Every seasoned veteran knows it really does not make that much difference in your arrival time. Know your policy and follow it. Significantly lower speeds as dictated by traffic, weather, darkness or a bad roadway.

7. Completely stop at all red lights and stop signs
There is no valid excuse for not doing this every time! There is no further discussion warranted here.

8. Don't drive recklessly or with due regard for other drivers
By doing so, you give the appearance of an idiot — because you are an idiot. Don't be that person!

9. Don't take any chances with negative right-of-way intersections
This is scary to think about, let alone doing it. Departmental SOPs/SOGs should address this. If not, your common sense should.

10. Don't intimidate or scare other drivers out of your way
Never attempt to plow traffic with your air-horns; refer back to number seven if needed. This type of driver projects an extremely unprofessional image, which gives the entire fire department a bad name. It is a fire officer's responsibility to deal with this behavior immediately when notified of such irresponsible and dangerous actions.

These are ten very basic commonsense items. If you have someone that cannot follow the rules, suspend their driving privileges — it's that simple. Nothing gives any emergency responder the right to kill anyone. It goes against the very heart of what we are actually supposed to be doing — helping people. Why don't we just get back to the basics?


Dave Murphy retired as assistant chief of the Richmond, Ky., Fire Department and is currently an assistant professor in the fire safety engineering technology program located at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Dave is the eastern director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association and also serves as the health and safety officer for the Harrisburg, N.C., Fire Department.

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