For drivers of emergency vehicles, intersections are accidents waiting to happen. In fact, the largest percentage of major accidents involving emergency vehicles occur at intersections. Visibility is often restricted. There may be many vehicles converging at once. Other drivers' actions can't always be anticipated. And all the while, the responder's adrenaline is pumping as he focuses on getting quickly to the scene.
Even with the use of warning devices, intersections pose a serious threat to the safety of both emergency service personnel and the general public. Several years ago, a VFIS study showed that as many as 68% of emergency vehicle accidents occur with lights and sirens operating.
It is critical for every emergency service organization to adopt and put into practice intersection guidelines for emergency vehicle operators. At a minimum, these standard operating guidelines (SOGs) should include the following recommended practices:
Any intersection controlled by a stop sign, yield sign, yellow traffic light or red traffic light requires a complete stop by the emergency vehicle driver if all visible traffic in all lanes cannot be accounted for. In addition, these steps must be followed:
- Do not rely on warning devices to clear traffic.
- Scan the intersection for possible hazards (right turns on red, pedestrians, vehicles traveling fast, etc.), as well as driver options.
- Begin to slow down well before reaching the intersection and cover the brake pedal with the driver's foot, continue to scan in four directions (left, right, front, back).
- Change the siren cadence not less than 200 feet from an intersection.
- Scan the intersection for possible passing options (pass on right, left, wait, etc.). Avoid using the opposing lane of traffic if at all possible.
- If all visible traffic in all lanes cannot be accounted for, the driver should bring the vehicle to a complete stop. If the driver proceeds past a control device with a negative right-of-way without coming to a complete stop, both the driver and officer should be required to complete an incident report providing an explanation of the circumstances that permitted them to do so.
- Establish eye contact with other vehicle drivers; have your partner communicate all is clear; then reconfirm all other vehicles are stopped.
- Proceed one lane of traffic at a time, treating each lane as a separate intersection.
Any time an emergency vehicle driver approaches an unguarded rail crossing, he/she should bring the apparatus or vehicle to a complete stop before entering the grade crossing. Prior to proceeding, the emergency vehicle driver should:
- Turn off all sirens and air horns.
- Operate the motor at idle speed.
- Turn off any other sound-producing equipment or accessories.
- Open the windows, and listen for a train's horn.
Every emergency vehicle driver should do the following at any intersection that either does not have a control device (stop sign, yield or traffic signal) in the direction he is traveling, or where the traffic control signal is green as he approaches:
- Scan the intersection for possible hazards (right turns on red, pedestrians, vehicles traveling fast, etc.).
- Observe traffic in all four directions (left, right, front, rear).
- Slow down if any potential hazards are detected, and cover the brake pedal with the driver's foot.
- Change the siren cadence not less than 200 feet from intersection.
- Avoid using the opposing lane of traffic if possible.
And-emergency vehicle drivers please take note-there is one more very important point we want to stress: You should always be prepared to stop. If another vehicle operator fails to yield the right of way to your emergency vehicle, you cannot force the right of way, nor should you assume the right of way, therefore you should not assume you have the right of way until the other vehicle yields to you!
This article was originally posted in 2006 and was part of a series of columns on emergency vehicle safety from VFIS. The columns were a component of VFIS' "Operation Safe Arrival" initiative, aimed at heightening safety awareness and reducing the frequency and severity of accidents involving emergency vehicles.
A noted emergency service educator, lecturer, author and consultant, Richard Patrick, MS, CFO, EMT-P, FF, serves as the director of the Medical First Responder Coordination for Medical Readiness Division of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Health Affairs (OHA). He began his service with DHS in June 2008 and has been actively involved in volunteer and career emergency medical and fire services for thirty years and is a nationally recognized leader in emergency services.