Most every driver has had it happen at one time or another…something… a sound or a flash…catches your attention, and you look into your rear view mirror to find an emergency vehicle rapidly approaching from behind. It could be an ambulance, fire truck, or a police car. As a driver, it’s time for you to make a split second decision.
The law requires you to move to the right and allow the emergency vehicle to pass. In theory—it sounds simple. In practice, especially in rural America, it’s not always that easy. Narrow roadways, often with unimproved or no shoulders, sandy and rutted rural roads, and traffic across multiple lanes of large divided roadways, all making the same split-second decision you are trying to make can be challenging and dangerous.
Consider for a moment the view from that responding emergency vehicle. In the case of a fire department, our vehicles are most all very large, very heavy and not extremely maneuverable. The trucks carry hundreds, if not thousands of gallons of water, rescue tools, hundreds of feet of hose, couplers, nozzles, and a large pump—not to mention the firefighters on board. What is an easy stop for you in a passenger car can take a hundred feet or so in a fire truck.
In my time responding to an emergency in a fire truck I have seen some extremely close calls. One of the most common problems we encounter is panic. The driver simply has no idea what to do. Some immediately hit their brakes…stopping directly in front of the on-coming apparatus. Some make an attempt to pull to the right, however, fail to move their vehicle off of the roadway enough to allow the emergency vehicle to pass. Some just slow down and continue moving in the traffic lane. By far the most dangerous are those that attempt to make a left turn trying to “beat” the responding vehicle.
As a first responder, I can attest to the fact that getting to the scene of most emergency calls is much, much more dangerous than what greets us when we arrive on the scene. National statistics confirm this. More firefighters are killed or injured responding to emergency calls than are injured or die on the scene of emergency calls.
In the defense of most drivers, cars today are extremely well made and designed to keep traffic and road noise to a minimum. This, in turn, makes it very hard to hear the sirens of on-coming emergency vehicles. There are more distractions today than ever before while behind the wheel. Cell phones, entertainment centers, and GPS devices are all common and draw your eyes from the road and mirrors to operate.
So…what can be done? Basically, be aware. If you frequent areas around hospitals, fire and police stations, be aware that the chance of encountering an emergency vehicle in these areas is much greater than on a lonely rural roadway. Keep radios and other music device volumes at a reasonable level. Never text and drive. Limit cell phone conversations and use hands free devices. Be aware of your surroundings. Always have a way out of your lane of traffic.
From the perspective of the driver of an emergency vehicle attempting to overtake you…it goes back to a basic rule learned in Drivers Ed. Signal your intentions. When you see an emergency vehicle in your mirror…signal a lane change to the right then make the change after checking for traffic or when you can safely do so. If possible, come to a complete stop. Use your emergency flashers. This alerts traffic around you that you are stopped. Most importantly it signals to the driver of the emergency vehicle that you realize he is there and that you are yielding to allow him to pass. Personally, I really like it when a vehicle yields and uses their flashers…just for that reason.
Safety is a two way street. As drivers we all have a responsibility to be aware and prepared and to act quickly and safely when presented with an emergency vehicle nearby. As first responders, drivers of emergency vehicles have the responsibility to respond in a safe, effective and courteous manner. My fire department, as well as most, has a series of protocols or operating guidelines for responding to an emergency. An old adage among first responders is: “red lights and sirens do not give you the right of way…they are merely asking for permission to proceed.”
Among a long list of rules; our department requires a complete stop at red lights and stop signs, no more than 10 mph over posted speed limits (In most areas) no red lights or siren in school zones, and requires any driver responding in an emergency manner to be trained (yearly) in proper and safe techniques. Any Police Chief, EMS Director or Fire Chief would appreciate you notifying them if you see a vehicle operated in an unsafe manner. Please note a vehicle number, location and day/date/and time.
Emergencies happen. Time is important. Safety is more important. To be effective, emergency responders often have to arrive quickly…but most importantly…they have to arrive.
Bill Knight is the Fire Chief of the Holcomb Community Fire Department