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Dec. 31, 2013, Toronto - The metaphor of the three-legged stool is often used to illustrate situations in which three primary elements are in place to support a result or outcome. For example, to support fire apparatus driving safety we would require well-maintained apparatuses, properly trained drivers exhibiting safe behaviour, and an inherently safe infrastructure of roads, signage and signals. The neglect of even one of those three legs would be enough to cause the stool to collapse, and result in conditions for an accident to happen.

December 31, 2013
By Peter Sells

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Dec. 31, 2013, Toronto – The metaphor of the three-legged stool is often
used to illustrate situations in which three primary elements are in
place to support a result or outcome. For example, to support fire
apparatus driving safety we would require well-maintained apparatuses,
properly trained drivers exhibiting safe behaviour, and an inherently
safe infrastructure of roads, signage and signals. The neglect of even
one of those three legs would be enough to cause the stool to collapse,
and result in conditions for an accident to happen.

Let’s look at three specific apparatus accidents from Ontario, and firefighter opinions from across Canada.

Earlier this month, the Township of Nipissing pleaded guilty to charges that were laid under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act for failing to provide information, instruction and supervision to a worker to protect the health or safety of the worker. The charges were laid in response to the death of 21-year old firefighter Paul Nelson, two years ago. Nelson had lost control of the tanker he was driving, while responding to a call. Regardless of Nelson not having the proper licence nor any training driving a tanker with air brakes, he had been directed to drive the apparatus in snowy, slushy conditions. The tanker left the road on a long sweeping curve, coming to rest in a marsh area. Nelson was pronounced dead at the scene.

After the guilty plea, and subsequent sentencing of the township to two years’ probation with compliance orders, Ministry of Labour spokesperson Matt Blajer told the Nipissing News, “I think this is one of the very first times that we know of that a fire department or township or city have been charged for being in breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act while somebody is responding to a fire.”

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Blajer must have forgotten two incidents from 2007, which very nearly took the lives of Windsor firefighter George Copeland and Kingston firefighter Tracy Killoran.
Copeland was behind the wheel of a responding Windsor apparatus in March 2007 when the truck tipped over on its side on a curve and crashed into a concrete post. Excessive speed was cited as a factor in the incident. Copeland suffered a critical spinal injury and is a quadriplegic.

Killoran was riding in the front right seat of a Kingston pumper, and was in the process of donning her gear as the pumper made a left turn. Somehow the door on Killoran’s side flew open and she was ejected onto the street, striking her head against the pavement. Killoran survived, but is still in the process of regaining motor skills and memories as she continues a long recuperation from her critical brain injury.

There is nothing to indicate that apparatus design or maintenance were factors in any of the three incidents above. The Ministry of Labour orders laid on each municipality focussed on the creation and maintenance of safe driving behaviours. Orders included:

  • Development of seatbelt and safe driving SOGs where they did not already exist;
  • Training on worker and supervisor responsibilities under the OH&S Act;
  • Training on seatbelt and safe driving SOGs, including supervisors’ responsibilities;
  • Emergency response driver training; and,
  • Record keeping of all related training.

A ministry report in the wake of the Windsor accident noted that Windsor police receive "extensive" emergency response training at the Ontario police college, compared to firefighters, who receive "no such training." Considering that fire apparatuses are heavy, long trucks with high centres of gravity and significant overhang, and a police car is, frankly, essentially the same as any other full-sized sedan on the road, it is a wonder that we are allowed to put firefighters behind the wheel without at least as much driver training as police officers. One leg of the stool is clearly not providing adequate support.

Setting aside the stool analogy for a minute, let’s look at what firefighters across Canada have said about response driving. In October, we placed a survey on the firefightingincanada.com website, asking firefighters “What is the most dangerous step when driving a fire truck to an emergency?” The results, as of Dec. 30, were as follows;

Turning left at a red light, after stopping 

  • 47.2 per cent

Exceeding posted speed limits 

  • 28.4 per cent

Proceeding straight through a red light, after stopping 

  • 18.1 per cent

Turning right at a red light, after stopping 

  • 3.7 per cent

Driving on divided highways 

  • 2.6 per cent

 Excessive speed is often cited, as it was in Windsor, as a factor in apparatus accidents, so it is heartening to see that firefighters are aware of this potential hazardous behaviour. But what is the explanation for left turns being considered the most dangerous manoeuvre for an apparatus driver? Here we have a situation that calls for defensive driving behaviours, a situation in which everyone else on the road constitutes a hazard to the fire apparatus.

OK, back to the three-legged stool. If we wanted to make it less dangerous to turn left, how could we create an inherently safer infrastructure of roads, signage and signals? For decades, fire departments have had access to devices and systems allowing for some level of control over traffic signals. Sometimes a button in the fire hall can be pressed to control the nearest intersection, in order to allow safe access out of the immediate neighbourhood. Sometimes firefighters have dynamic control over intersections as they are approached on the road. All of these ideas work well when combined with safe defensive driving by firefighters, but none of them is specifically designed to make left turns safer.

A few months ago, I was introduced by a firefighter friend to a group of young entrepreneurs who have been working on this exact problem. Their company, Guardem Incorporated, has developed a video monitoring system that displays opposing traffic flow to drivers as they prepare to turn left at controlled intersections. Kedar Trivedi, Guardem’s vice president and secretary, says, “We aim to take the guesswork out of what is hailed as driving most dangerous manoeuver.”

In addition to making left turns safer and reducing gridlock, Trivedi says Guardem “will be working on a way to integrate our system with fire trucks to warn drivers and pedestrians via screen of approaching emergency vehicles.”

Police will benefit from this system as well, since it will have the ability to capture video footage of traffic within and approaching intersections, eliminating the major problem of recreating the events which took place. Without need of hearsay, police would have objective evidence of, for example, a hit-and-run incident.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on
fire service management and professional development across North
America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of
Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the
advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch.
Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in
fire-service management. Contact him at
peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo


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