Safety Message With A Parental Advisory

Repeat after me: "It will all be okay." Breathe deeply.

That got your attention, didn’t it?  However, I strive to maintain a “G” rating on FHZ, and the language is not that bad.  I’m not interested in pushing any of your buttons; I just want to get this safety message across.

So let’s just jump right into it.  Depending on where my shift falls, I drive my youngest daughter to school three or four times a week.  Without fail, there is one dumbass who every morning, manages to tie up the carpool line for an extra five minutes while she yaks incessantly to one or another of the other parents waiting in line.

When she finally decides to pull up her tricked-out Escalade and discharge her whiny little brats, she ties up those exiting by stopping and talking to someone else.  Thus far, I have not succumbed to the (strong) urge to walk up and pull her out through the partially open window of her status machine.  But even as I originally contemplated this post, she ran a stop sign, swerved across three lanes of traffic at carpool pick-up, cell phone in one hand and double decaf frappe crappacino in the other, cutting cars off, just so she could pull up next to one of the other moms (there for the afternoon social, of course) and gab some more. (Breathe deeply).

“Where is he going with this?” you ask (cautiously).  Well, while watching this daily comedy of the bizarre, I was thinking that perhaps our apparatus operators are also too distracted while driving very large, inertially-challenged, parade beasts, and maybe this is part of the cause of so many minor and major vehicle collisions each year.

Take for example, the discussion that I encountered this past week.  I am the Chair of our department’s standard operating guideline committee and people sometimes pull me aside to discuss recent changes to our manual.  With recent changes to the way we back our apparatus, our logic is to make everyone get off the apparatus (except the drivers, obviously) and act as spotters to provide some more eyes on the blind sides of the apparatus.  As you can expect, there are those who think more than one spotter is a bad idea.  I think that given the number of accidents we have had, we should be doing anything in our power to change things, since the current modus operandi doesn’t seem to be working all that well.  If one spotter isn’t working, two or more might be better, but one certainly doesn’t seem to be doing the job now.

In our organization, the command staff (unreasonably, I guess) believes that any number greater than one is an unacceptable statistic for collisions.  We LIKE being proactive.  Consequently, we have people who think a few collisions is okay.  “It’s the price of doing business”, I heard someone say.

Of course, when assigned to spot the apparatus, if we happen to be doing so with a spotter who can actually manage to do more than fog a mirror, that’s all well and good.  I say this because we have drivers who still manage to back into something even with an individual out there to plausibly prevent such an occurrence.  Of course, that’s if THE SPOTTER isn’t themselves distracted by their own cellphone, the hottie crossing the street, shiny objects, or the flashing lights.

Between the radio going, the siren blaring, the other distracted drivers, the officer ordering, and the three swans-a-swimming, our modern fire apparatus operator has a serious challenge when it comes to paying attention to the road and the myriad hazards encountered between Point A and Point B.  In today’s emergency services, and having read some interesting posts by members of some of the forums, while many of us believe the foremost concern of the apparatus operator should be the safe operation of their vehicle, there are people who are more concerned with what music they should be blasting on their way to “the big one”.  Then we wonder why we have accidents.

Years ago, I heard someone say that if every vehicle on the road was equipped with a nine-inch stainless-steel spike in the center of the steering column, we would probably decrease the number of traffic accidents ten-fold.  While I agree that a sharp object pointed at my chest would probably cause me to think twice before exceeding the speed limit, I think a less lethal solution, like a machine that would punch you in the balls for exceeding the physical limitations of the rig, might just be the answer.  Trust me, if I were smacked in the cajones every time I unlawfully exceeded the speed limit, it would get my undivided attention.  I certainly wouldn’t make that mistake twice.  So, if you’re sincere about avoiding this terrible contraption: FOCUS ON DRIVING THE (Pick one: engine/truck/medic/rescue) SAFELY, because I’m off to get the patent.

It is painfully obvious each time we roll a vehicle, smash one into a car at an intersection, park one on the train tracks, or run over our back-up man that there are serious issues of attention at play here.  Instead of focusing on getting to the fire first, we need to focus on getting to the fire in one piece.  And so long as officers on these rigs sit silently and pray that the ride ends up well instead of speaking up and ordering the driver to slow down and drive reasonably, we will continue to lose our brothers and sisters for what- so some hopped up adrenaline junkie can pretend he’s Mario Andretti racing in a 25-ton killing machine?

Just as my story about the clueless soccer mom riled some of you up, so should the image of a fire apparatus driver ramming into the side of a carload of kids be equally, if not so much more, reprehensible.  After all, our subject mom is just another dumbass civilian with a cell phone.  But you, my friends, are caretakers of the public trust.  The taxpayers chose to allow you to drive the biggest, shiniest example of the American Fire Service down its public thoroughfares because they had a semblance of trust that you wouldn’t mow them down like a dog when you were running to that alarm activation.

Let’s be serious about safe driving of our trucks.  If you really want to kill yourself, do it at the scene where at least you can pretend you were saving someone’s life.  Driving down the highway like a maniac isn’t helping anyone, may likely kill someone, and is really just an excuse for showing off.  Don’t be a dumbass.

Do your job and be proud you are a firefighter, and keep your community safe by easing back a little on the throttle.  Focus on what is important; delivering your highly trained crew with the necessary equipment to the scene of the emergency, and insuring that not only they arrive safely, but everyone and everything encountering you in your travels survives the experience as well.


  • Our agency recently took delivery of our first back-up camera equipped apparatus. It will be interesting to see if it reduces accidents or if the requirement of a spotter is ignored. I hope someone is collecting data, but I don’t worry enough to do it myself.

    The problem with today’s apparatus is that they go too good and they stop too good. Operators forget that they are driving 38,000 lb. vehicles until they are outside the normal operating parameters or something unexpected happens and it’s too late.

    Good advice Mick, I hope that it changes some behavior.

  • Tom B. says:

    I’m going to take credit for the quote about the metal spike in middle of the steering wheel. Actually, it’s not mine. I heard it from the Chair of the Libertarian Party over coffee at the Huddle House on Exit 5 in Hardeeville several years ago. And the spike is supposed to come out explosively (like an airbag) if you hit something! 🙂


  • truck6alpha says:

    There you go. I knew I heard it somewhere. I’ll bet my device could get approval faster though.

  • Carol Mayers Wingeier says:

    Most interesting piece I’ve read in a very long time.

    I’m sure I scared my share of drivers and pedestrians while driving ambulances AND I know my legs were shaking on more than one occasion by the time I arrived at my destination…I always chalked it up to the adrenaline flow caused by the sound of the siren, though. Maybe it had more to do with not driving ambulances enough to be at ease behind the wheel.

    When I was taking driver’s training in high school our instructor made us drive backwards in the school carryall through obstacles and get proficient at it before we were allowed to drive foreward. No such thing as cell phones back then but Mr. Burch was one demanding little guy and we all learned quickly to pay attention to our driving NO MATTER WHAT!

  • Anthony says:

    ok im gonna rock the boat alittle bit here. I understand that “were alwayse at fault” (as my department’s command says) in an accident (wich actually makes no sence to me but hey.) first of all how do you run over a spotter? and y is he/she standing directly behind the rig. doesn’t that defeat the point of a spotter? also shouldn’t you be able to trust your spotter to direct you correctly (wich means you actually need to watch him/her) so if you back through the otherside of the bay or whatever isn’t that just as much the spotter’s fault as the driver’s if not more assuming your not screwing off and ignoring him? im not saying that the driver isn’t ever at fault but there is more to the picture then just the driver. no he shouldn’t be speeding or breaking any laws but that doesn’t prevent an accident totally. there’s another person involved in the accident too. I just think more needs to be adressed then “it’s the driver of the big red truck’s fault”

  • truck6alpha says:

    In my department, we have a rule: when you lose sight of the spotter, you stop the truck. There have been cases around the nation where, yes, the spotter has been run over. I have been around when a spotter was behind the apparatus and the bay phone rang, the spotter was beside the phone, answered it, and the driver backed into something. Again, lose sight of the spotter, stop the truck.

    I would never go so far as to say it’s always the driver’s fault. Things go wrong. But more often than not, accidents are a result of inattention on somebody’s part. We need to focus on what we are doing. Thanks for commenting.

  • fm114fd says:

    Anthony: The last LOD funeral I attended was an Elizabeth, NJ firefighter who was backed over by the engine, at a fire. Both the victim and the operator were very experienced in their jobs, had done it (probably) thousands of times before, and knew their responsibilities on the fire ground… That didn’t change the fact that the SPOTTER was killed by his own engine.

    We can’t assume that the spotter is not going to be distracted, nor can the spotter assume the driver is not going to miss them in the mirror. I agree that the driver bears responsibility, and that “there’s another person involved in the accident too” like you said; it won’t matter to the victim’s family at the funeral. Nor will it matter to the driver, who’s scarred for the rest of his career. PTSD is a bitch.

    So, what’s my point? We, as a brotherhood, need to take care of each other. NOTHING we are doing must be done so fast that we endanger each other or the public with our response. Slow the F*#K down, act safely, and go home to your family at the end of every shift knowing you did everything you could to help.

    Stay safe, Brothers and Sisters.

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