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Firefighter Safety Culture Starts Behind the Wheel

“Back in the Day” when you joined the fire department, many of us were placed in the driver’s seat as long as we had a valid driver’s license. In today’s litigious society and with national data that continues to reflect a high rate of emergency vehicle collisions, how we qualify and maintain the competency of drivers has changed. 

Several quality driver training classes are available through various associations and state training programs. It is also critical that each emergency service organization (ESO) create and maintain a documented driver qualification program based on best standards and internal assessments. 

A comprehensive emergency vehicle driver program demonstrates your organization’s culture of safety for your firefighters, as well as the general public, that encounters our emergency vehicles on the street. An internal qualification program starts with a standard operating policy (SOP) that clearly identifies the attributes the employee must have before driving your emergency vehicle. It is a policy rather than a guideline because there is not flexibility in its application. The SOP[1] should include, but not be limited to: 

  • Minimum age to drive ESO vehicle
  • Mandatory valid and current driver’s license submittal to administration
  • Mandatory reporting of moving violations to the ESO administrator
  • Initial qualification requirements (training, testing, and documentation)
  • Identification of supervisor that is responsible for endorsing the qualification
  • Violations/Incidents that could cause the driving privilege to be suspended
  • Current medical evaluation requirement
  • Refresher training/testing required to maintain the qualification 

Most state agencies do not require refresher qualification, but annual training has become a best practice nationwide. Several insurance companies recommend a minimum of annual refresher training for qualified drivers and NFPA 1451- section 5.2.1 actual states that refresher training shall be conducted “not less than twice each year.” Additionally, NFPA 1451-section states that drivers shall be “reauthorized annually.”[2] 

The exciting aspect of refresher training standards or recommendations is that the vast majority do not state what the training entails and what the length of the training should be. Documenting your driver training is critical, however. You can utilize a competency driving course such as the NFPA course or other agency courses but consider making it relevant to your ESO, based on risk management. If you are experiencing mirror damage or fixed object collisions, including an exercise of knowing the vehicle’s width. 

Do you realize that in 2016 more firefighters died while responding to or returning from alarms (17 deaths) than firefighters operating at fires (15 deaths).[3] 

Most states exempt firefighters from requiring Commercial Driver's Licenses (CDL), but some states have enacted training requirements to qualify for that exemption. Your local legal representative should be consulted to ensure your drivers are complying with the appropriate state statutes and licensing requirements. How long will various states maintain certain CDL exemptions when, as indicated above, the statistics illustrate a high rate of tragic emergency vehicle fatalities? 

Follow our profession’s best practices and ensure all of your drivers are appropriately qualified and that “Everyone Goes Home.” [4] 

Don Cox is a retired Fire Chief from West Des Moines, Iowa, and now an Educational Specialist for VFIS (Glatfelter Insurance Group). M.S., EFO, CFO, CTO, and he is a VCOS member. Don can be reached at dcox@vfis.com. 

This article was provided to iCHIEFS News by the VCOS.

[1] VFIS Risk Communique-“Emergency vehicle Driver/Operator Requirements.” 
[2] NFPA 1451 Standard for a Fire and Emergency Service Vehicle Operations Training program (2013 Edition) 
[3] NFPA Fact Sheet “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States-2016 (June 2017) 
[4] National Fallen Firefighters Foundation- 16 Life Safety Initiatives. 

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