Chief's Corner

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Roadway Risk

Posted on July 24, 2013 by Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator Glenn Gaines

Year in and year out a significant portion of firefighter injuries and deaths are associated with motor vehicle and roadway incidents, yet it is one of the most preventable of all on-duty deaths. In recent weeks, several American fire and rescue personnel have lost their lives while responding to, on the scene of, or returning from incidents. We have seen firefighters killed in backing accidents, ejected from their vehicles and killed as the vehicle rolled over them, tanker rollovers, and private vehicles striking operating personnel on the roadway.

Since 1990, 390 personnel have died while responding to incidents. Eighty-five personnel have died while returning from an incident. Simply said, we can do better. Having served as fire chief in a large metropolitan fire department spread over 400 square miles and 35 stations, I realize how difficult it can be to ensure consistently safe operations. Regardless of the size of your department or the makeup (paid, combination, volunteer), firefighter safety is something we all can agree on. The question is, how often do we ignore violations of fundamental safety rules and regulations? When encountering unsafe practices, are we willing to take disciplinary action? It may sound harsh but a verbal rebuke, written reprimand, or suspension are tolerable alternatives to an on-duty death or serious injury.

Of course the negative encouragement to protect one’s life and limb should be preceded by a well-conceived and implemented communication plan. All this begins with a sell/tell with senior management by the chief. Make it clear that safety on the road and on the scene will be a standing priority with your daily department operations. Safety practices must become the fabric of company operations. For example: losing sight of your back up firefighter while the vehicle is in motion is call for an immediate emergency stop. No excuses.

How the message is communicated is just as important as the message itself. I say we should use everything available to us. Posters on bulletin boards, signs on mirrors in bathrooms, email, social networking, teleconferences, drills, and station visits are all means and opportunities for conveying the safety message. What we are talking about is critical messaging. I am reminded of some advice I once received on effective communication: make it targeted, brief, bold and credible.

This is important. Driving the speed limit, stopping at controlled intersections, using seat belts, positioning large apparatus to shield responders at the scene of a roadway incident, and stopping when we lose sight of our back up guide should be as routine for us as pulling and advancing an inch and three-quarter hose line. “It is just something we do” should be what we hear from every officer, every driver/operator, every firefighter, and every EMS provider.

Working with a variety of partners who share a commitment to responder safety, the USFA has developed resources for emergency responders in emergency vehicle safety and while operating at roadway incidents. Visit our Emergency Vehicle Safety and Roadway Operations Safety pages for details.

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