Autonomous Vehicles: What a Fire Chief Needs to Know

Car manufacturers and technology companies alike are working tirelessly to bring autonomous vehicles (AV) to this nation’s roads, with states like California, Texas and Arizona already along for the ride. With promises of fewer accidents, better commutes and improved rider comfort, it’s no wonder the AV market is expected to grow tenfold by 2026.

The field, however, is not without its detractors.

In March 2018, an autonomous Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. This tragic incident was the first of its kind and, paired with dozens of accidents involving AV, has eroded some of the confidence community members have in these futuristic vehicles navigating their roadways. Concerns from politicians, city/county managers and community members will inevitably make it to your desk as the fire chief. You must be ready.

To help you get there, the IAFC has created a list of steps to take so you’re always prepared to face the tough questions.

Get familiar with the technology and type of vehicle being deployed.

When we think of AV, thoughts of completely driverless cars come to mind, but the truth is that there’s a spectrum of automation: from cars that parallel park on your behalf to full-blown driverless vehicles. When you catch wind of AV coming to your jurisdiction, knowing where those vehicles fall within the six levels of automation is key. To help, try asking the manufacturer these questions:

Will the human driver be assisted with either steering or braking/accelerating (Level 1)? Or will the vehicle control both steering and braking/accelerating (Level 2)?

Will the vehicle be able to perform all driving tasks under some circumstances (Level 3), most circumstances (Level 4) or all circumstances (Level 5) without intervention from a human driver?

Engage with the AV company regarding their deployment plans.

The AV company’s deployment plan will likely be a large topic of discussion among politicians and the city/county manager. They’ll want to know how many vehicles will be navigating the streets, which areas they’ll be in and how autonomous the vehicles are. And they’ll want to know with good reason: How a company plans on deploying its technology can have tremendous implications for how to mitigate risks and ensure the safety of residents and department members. It’s best to prepare for inevitable questions by working alongside the AV company directly to learn – and hopefully shape – their deployment strategy.

Here are a few questions to kick-off the conversation:

  • How many vehicles will be deployed and who will own them? Note that some vehicles are owned by a single organization with centralized dispatch centers and oversight while others, like Tesla, are individually owned.
  • In what areas will you operate and during what hours?
  • How will you plan to operate in adverse driving conditions, such as inclement weather, construction zones and heavy traffic?
Work with the AV company to understand how the fire department will interact with AVs.

Readiness shouldn’t be reserved for the fire chief and executive leadership. Rather, most of the effort should be devoted to training public-safety personnel on how to respond to incidents involving an AV.

Thankfully, AV companies are equally invested in their technology being safe, so partnering with public-safety organizations is usually a top priority. Insist on a leader from your organization attending a test session; while you’re there, take note of the following:

  • How does the AV interact with fire and EMS vehicles in traffic?
  • Does the vehicle recognize and respond to verbal and nonverbal directions, such as hand gestures?
  • What are the distinguishing characteristics of the AV in comparison to a standard vehicle?

The information you gather during the test session should be used to devise an emergency and quick-response guide, a resource that emergency responders can rely on to navigate incidents with AVs; see Chandler Fire Department and Waymo’s guide (PDF) for an example.

As more AV companies choose your jurisdiction as a destination for deployment, add sections to your guides, as each vehicle will be different and will require slightly different responses.

Lastly, automatic- and mutual-aid partners must be at the table during these discussions so they can do their part to reduce risk for their own emergency responders.

Develop procedures for informing the public after an incident involving an AV.

Unfortunately, mistakes happen and an AV operating within your district may get into an accident. If this happens, there’s a strong likelihood that the incident will make news locally or even nationally, as in the case of Tempe, Arizona. At this point, the questions will be their most poignant, so it’s up to the public-information officer to meet with local law enforcement and the AV company to coordinate a response.

Maintaining public trust in emergency-response organizations is the most important goal of the PIO, a fact especially true in instances of serious injury or death.

Conclusion

The future is upon us and AVs are here to stay, so it’s up to every fire chief to be cognizant of the risks and to prepare their members for the new terrain. In support of these efforts, the IAFC is working alongside the U.S. Department of Transportation, AV companies, traffic-safety experts and fire and EMS chiefs to gather best practices. Our hope is that by following the steps above, your organization will have the research, partnerships and preparedness necessary to successfully navigate tough questions.

 

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