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Tragedy makes us revisit vehicle backing hazards

Its safest to avoid having to back a vehicle on scene; when backing is necessary have one or two spotters

Editor’s note: Chief Adam K. Thiel offers his condolences in the wake of a recent line of duty death and asks us all to use extreme caution when backing fire apparatus.

What a tragic story from Illinois. I’m sure you all join me in sending our thoughts and prayers to Firefighter Jansen’s family, colleagues, department, and especially the apparatus driver of that fateful night.

Unfortunately, we still see all too many stories about vehicle-related firefighter injuries and fatalities, which remain a leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths in the United States each year.

We often think of vehicles as being part of the external environment. But as this sad story demonstrates, heavy apparatus moving around the fireground also can be hazardous. Since we’re used to working around (and relying on) them, we don’t always consider the risks posed by our own vehicles.

Backing accidents, in particular, seem especially common — although fortunately they don’t always result in deaths/injuries. The way I was trained, I still have a deep aversion to backing apparatus on the incident scene. We always tried to spot, and deploy, so backing wouldn’t be necessary. Still, there are going to be times when the situation requires moving a vehicle, often quickly, on the fireground.

The simple answer seems to be using a backer/spotter, or two, to help ensure safe movement. Staffing levels, however, may not always provide this option; and from my experience, too, having a backer is not always a guarantee that nothing will go wrong.

What are your department’s policies for backing apparatus under emergency, and non-emergency, conditions?

Stay safe!

Adam K. Thiel is the fire commissioner and director of the Office of Emergency Management in the city of Philadelphia. Thiel previously served as a fire chief in the National Capital Region and as a state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thiel’s operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.