As a young volunteer firefighter, still in high school, I can remember driving at high speed, flying along curved rural roads responding for miles in my dad’s Chevy to a reported structural fire. The car was equipped with alternating red lights behind the grill. It was a thrill knowing I could do what other guys my age couldn’t do. Fortunately, I survived that period of poor judgment to go on to a long career in an occupation I so dearly love.
Other firefighters haven’t been so lucky. Since 2003, 52 volunteer/paid-on-call firefighters have been killed responding to, or returning from, an emergency incident while driving their personally owned vehicle (POV).
A third of these fatalities were 21 years of age or younger.
This is a tragic loss of life. Research also reveals many, many other POV accidents have resulted in serious injuries, some career-ending, for firefighters. An added tragedy is that some of these injuries also ended the volunteers’ primary employment careers, resulting in a severe financial blow to the families.
To reduce the possibility of POV crashes, fire chiefs must consider a number approaches, whether for volunteer or combination departments.
SOPs and SOGs – An SOG or SOP must be in place outlining when and how a member may be authorized to initiate an emergency response in a POV.
- Where lights and siren are not permitted, the policy must describe following the existing traffic laws.
- Where emergency lights and siren are permitted the policy must describe speed limits and complete stops at stop signs and traffic lights.
The evolving standard of practice in the fire service is limiting speed to 10 miles per hour over the posted speed limit.
Driver qualifications – The driver must demonstrate qualifications to drive a vehicle under emergency response conditions. A background check on driving history should be part of this determination. A record of DUI’s or moving violations, or even a suspended license, places the department at great risk of litigation should an accident occur.
Training – The department should provide a qualified training program on emergency vehicle response driving for firefighters before they are authorized to drive their POV in an emergency status.
Insurance – Fire departments must also consider proper insurance coverage. Insurance companies may be very reluctant to write, or may outright deny, coverage on a private vehicle that will be responding as an emergency vehicle. Fire departments must thoroughly research this question to confirm that appropriate coverage is in place either for the POV or through the fire departments carrier. Substantial liability coverage should be considered.
Litigation possibilities – Fire chiefs and firefighters should consider the consequences that a serious crash of a POV involving civilian fatalities or injuries will have on them. The accident will have a high probability of litigation. The plaintiffs’ attorneys will be very aggressive in their discovery efforts.
If the department doesn’t have an appropriate SOG on emergency driving, you’re in trouble. If the firefighter did not adhere to the SOG, you’re in trouble.
And for the firefighter, he/she may be named in the lawsuit. The firefighter’s personal assets may be frozen by the court until the lawsuit is resolved. And, if the plaintiff wins the law suit, or even obtains a settlement, this could mean a financial disaster for that firefighter, particularly if the liability coverage is inadequate.
Criminal liability – Consideration must also be given to the possibility of criminal charges, in addition to a possible lawsuit, especially if the accident involves a fatality. There have been a number of cases of a firefighter going to prison on manslaughter or other charges.