Highway Safety Focus of Vehicle Safety Initiative

Vehicle Ops is a new column in EMS Magazine that will address a variety of topics centering around emergency vehicle operations—everything from safe driving techniques to ambulance maintenance to how to purchase an ambulance. Our mission is to help educate EMS providers on how best to operate the vehicles they place their trust in every day in a bid to reduce the number of accidents experienced by public safety personnel. If there is a particular topic you would like us to cover, e-mail emseditor@aol.com. This month’s column profiles the Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative report issued late last year.

Every so often, we harp at you about vehicle safety. Line-of-duty injury and death rates in the fire and EMS fields are high, and an awful lot of those come from crashes involving ambulances and other emergency apparatus. But despite the best efforts of your friendly advocates here at EMS Magazine—not to mention many of the emergency services’ top leaders and most clever thinkers—that crash record remains discomfitingly high.

A couple of years back, that poor record prompted the Fire Service Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative (EVSI), a safety-enhancement effort keyed by a trio of federal entities: the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Transportation/Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office. Now come the written findings resulting from that initiative: the Fire Service Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative report, released late last year.

The report—a joint project of the USFA and the Federal Highway Administration—offers recommendations in such areas as standards, training and technology to improve the safety of drivers and crews, and safety in roadside operations for fire and other emergency responders. It includes examples from departments that have positively addressed vehicle safety technologies and techniques.

“The Initiative pointed out a lot of things we can address within our own systems to protect both our safety and the public’s,” says Larry Wiersch, who was the American Ambulance Association (AAA) liaison to the project. “It allowed us to all get together and talk about our experiences, and look at some of the best practices out there.”

The problem, in both fire and EMS, is a significant one: In the last 10 years, at least 225 on-duty firefighters have been killed in accidents while responding to or returning from calls. “Vehicle crashes,” notes Michael Brown, the Department of Homeland Security’s Undersecretary for Emergency Preparedness and Response, “represent the second-leading cause of on-duty firefighter deaths.”

As part of their work, Initiative participants sponsored the National Forum on Emergency Vehicle Safety, which was aimed at identifying major issues related to provider fatalities on America’s roadways and developing recommendations to reduce such fatalities. As well, the Forum served as a basis for identifying organizations that had improved responder safety in these areas.

The emphasis on “best practices” recurs throughout the report. Instead of just admonishing readers to do things differently, the document spotlights departments that have made positive changes. Sections look at vehicle safety devices (things like striping and other markings, lights, restraints and electronic monitoring equipment), traffic-control measures (optical pre-emption, etc.), highway operations, response issues like priority dispatch, and driver training. Each section concludes with recommendations to enhance safety.

“[The idea was] to whittle things down into workable pieces,” says Wiersch, executive director of the Cetronia (PA) Ambulance Corps. “It has different addressable factors, where you can work on each one independently, and just gradually and continuously improve.”

But examining issues like this, while valuable, is only half the battle. The real challenge remains: How do you get departments to fully embrace such findings and providers—who, in terms of things like seat belt usage, defensive driving, etc., don’t always act in their own best interests—to practice them every day on the streets?

“The Initiative is just the beginning,” says Wiersch. “We have to continuously relay the message that this is an issue that needs to be constantly monitored and evaluated for improved technologies and systems to keep things working. We’ve had a number of educational sessions at our quarterly conferences, and I hope the fire service has done the same.”

Indeed, three of the nation’s major fire-service organizations—the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)—will use the Initiative’s findings to conduct educational efforts among their constituents.

Other efforts continue as well. The AAA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation are among those active in the areas of vehicle and life safety for the emergency services. NHTSA also looks like it’s ready to assist with the eternally pressing question of crash data. A summit is planned for early this year.

In the meantime, departments can get started impressing the report’s lessons upon their people.

“The human element is the easiest thing that can be addressed,” says Wiersch. “Educating your people on safe practices, doing driving background checks, doing driver training—all those things that should happen anyway but frequently don’t. That would resolve many of the problems.”

For a copy of the EVSI report, call 800/561-3356 or go to www.usfa.fema.gov and click on “Publications.” Requests can also be faxed to 301/447-1213. For more information about the report and other USFA efforts in the area of emergency-vehicle safety, see www.usfa.fema.gov/inside-usfa/research/vehicle.shtm.

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