Firetruck Ac­ci­dents On the Rise in Dis­trict

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - By Al­li­son Klein

D.C. firetrucks are in­volved in an av­er­age of two traf­fic ac­ci­dents a week, forc­ing many out of ser­vice when they should be re­spond­ing to emer­gen­cies, city of­fi­cials say.

Most crashes are mi­nor — fender-ben­ders or swipes of parked cars — but of­fi­cials are con­cerned about the po­ten­tial for se­ri­ous trou­ble. In the last fis­cal year, 20 peo­ple were in­jured, in­clud­ing nine civil­ians. No one was killed.

There were 126 ac­ci­dents in fis­cal 2006, up about 25 per­cent from pre­vi­ous years, records show. And the city paid tens of thou­sands of dol­lars to settle claims for in­ci­dents rang­ing from sideswiped cars to ac­ci­dents with in­juries.

The Dis­trict recorded more wrecks than neigh­bor­ing coun­ties and some com­pa­ra­ble cities, in­clud­ing Bos­ton, which had 53 last year. Wash­ing­ton did not have as many as slightly larger Bal­ti­more, which had 143 last year. Philadel­phia, which has more than twice the Dis­trict’s pop­u­la­tion, had 136 ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing firetrucks.

Like Wash­ing­ton, those three cities have a mix of wide av­enues and

nar­row streets in busy, crowded neigh­bor­hoods.

Hop­ing to re­verse the trend, the Dis­trict is putting a stronger em­pha­sis on train­ing. The city re­cently be­gan train­ing rook­ies on a $760,000 driv­ing sim­u­la­tor akin to a high-tech video game. It has a seat that bounces like an amuse­ment park ride when the driver goes over a vir­tual speed bump or curb — or crashes into a tree. Ex­pe­ri­enced fire­fight­ers will take turns on the sim­u­la­tor, too.

“We are so pro­grammed to go, go, go,” said Deputy Fire Chief Al­fred B. Jef­fery III, who over­sees train­ing. “A lot of ac­ci­dents can be pre­vented by pick­ing your foot up off the gas. This tool will get our driv­ers where they need to be.”

About once a week, D.C. fire­fight­ers get into crashes while driv­ing to burn­ing build­ings or other emer­gen­cies. Other ac­ci­dents hap­pen when units are re­turn­ing to sta­tions from calls or trav­el­ing on other busi­ness.

Even the fender-ben­ders cause prob­lems, es­pe­cially dur­ing emer­gency calls. The de­part­ment re­quires that any truck in­volved in an ac­ci­dent stop at the scene and call for an­other ve­hi­cle to re­spond to the orig­i­nal emer­gency.

Fire of­fi­cials said it is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to thread a 20-ton truck loaded with equip­ment through the city’s nar­row streets and al­leys. The size of the trucks — eight feet wide and 31 feet long — makes them a chal­lenge to nav­i­gate, as does their slow brak­ing speed. Added to those fac­tors is the pres­sure of re­spond­ing quickly to about 160,000 calls for help each year, some­times in icy or oth­er­wise treach­er­ous con­di­tions.

“When some­one calls and says, ‘I need your help, and I need it now,’ we’re com­ing — fast, and with a lot of equip­ment,” Jef­fery said.

While rac­ing to emer­gen­cies, D.C. fire­fight­ers are re­quired to stop, at least briefly, at red lights. “When I’m in my truck, I have the right of way, but only when you give it to me,” Jef­fery said. “The old days of bust­ing red lights are over.”

Many ac­ci­dents are caused by civil­ians not obey­ing traf­fic laws, Jef­fery said. Last fis­cal year, 39 civil­ians were given traf­fic ci­ta­tions and four mem­bers of the fire de­part­ment were cited.

Still, Jef­fery said, “there’s room for im­prove­ment for some of our driv­ers.”

D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber Phil Men­del­son (D-At Large), head of the pub­lic safety and ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee, said he was taken aback when he got a list of ac­ci­dents from the D.C. Fire and Emer­gency Med­i­cal Ser­vices De­part­ment. He sought the de­tails as part of a gen­eral in­quiry into pub­lic safety op­er­a­tions and said he was sur­prised by the num­bers for fis­cal 2006, which ended Sept. 30.

“I’m con­cerned, be­cause it’s an area of risk and li­a­bil­ity,” Men­del­son said.

In 2006, the city set­tled 25 claims to­tal­ing about $60,000 for mi­nor in­juries and dam­aged prop­erty re­sult­ing from ac­ci­dents.

A list of the claims pro­vided to Men­del­son de­tailed pay­outs for in­ci­dents, in­clud­ing $7,187 for “Fire truck struck parked ve­hi­cle,” $3,500 for “D.C. Fire truck crossed cen­ter lane and struck claimant’s ve­hi­cle” and $1,347 for “Fire truck sideswiped claimant ve­hi­cle.”

The city also paid $525 to settle a claim that a truck swiped a side-view mir­ror and $2,867 for a firetruck that hit a parked car while leav­ing a fire­house.

Other ac­ci­dents had more se­ri­ous con­se­quences. The fire de­part­ment gave Men­del­son a list of pend­ing law­suits, in­clud­ing one filed by D.C. res­i­dent Brenda Car­pen­ter, who says that she and her two grand­chil­dren were in­jured in a crash in July 2004.

Ac­cord­ing to the suit, Car­pen­ter was driv­ing in the 1800 block of Mon­tana Av­enue NE with her grand­chil­dren in the back seat. She heard an ap­proach­ing firetruck and pulled over. The truck plowed into her car “with great force and de­struc­tive mea­sures,” caus­ing the oc­cu­pants to be “thrown in and about the ve­hi­cle,” ac­cord­ing to the law­suit.

They suf­fered “se­vere pain and per­ma­nent in­juries,” the suit says. Car­pen­ter says she has spent “large sums of money” on med­i­cal care. Through her Mary­land­based at­tor­ney, Blaine Kolker, Car­pen­ter de­clined to com­ment on the case be­cause she is try­ing to settle it.

Fire of­fi­cials would not com­ment on the case be­cause the law­suit is pend­ing.

Den­nis L. Ru­bin, the choice of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to be­come the city’s next fire chief, said driver safety will be one of his top pri­or­i­ties. Ru­bin is the chief in At­lanta, a slightly smaller city that av­er­ages about 70 firetruck ac­ci­dents a year, he said.

“It’s a hugely im­por­tant is­sue,” said Ru­bin, who will start work April 16 as the Dis­trict’s act­ing chief. “Fire­fight­ers sim­ply can­not do their job at all un­less they ar­rive safely.”

Ru­bin said his goal is to bring the num­ber of ac­ci­dents down to zero.

Wash­ing­ton is not the only place fac­ing safety prob­lems. Na­tion­ally, there were 15,885 ac­ci­dents in 2005 in­volv­ing firetrucks go­ing to or from emer­gen­cies, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion. Last year, fire en­gines were in­volved in 95 crashes in Prince Ge­orge’s County, 56 in Mont­gomery County and 54 in Fair­fax County.

D.C. union of­fi­cials said the in­crease in ac­ci­dents could be re­lated to the hir­ing of about 200 em­ploy­ees in re­cent years. The de­part­ment, which has nearly 2,200 em­ploy­ees, hired and trained about 100 new work­ers in 2005, and they would have been on the street in 2006, the union said.

“We’re get­ting some new guys. Some are less ex­pe­ri­enced be­hind the wheel,” said Dan Du­gan, pres­i­dent of the D.C. Fire­fight­ers As­so­ci­a­tion.

But crashes don’t hap­pen only to rook­ies. Du­gan said he had three ac­ci­dents dur­ing his 12 years as a driver. “I backed into a stop sign once,” he said.

The Dis­trict’s sim­u­la­tor, de­liv­ered to the de­part­ment in Jan­uary, is an ac­tual firetruck cab sur­rounded by three screens that re-cre­ate the ex­pe­ri­ence of driv­ing a big rig. The city used a fed­eral grant to buy it but must pay the yearly $23,000 ser­vice con­tract.

Trainees sit be­hind the wheel and brace them­selves for re­al­is­tic street scenes. The de­vice tests driv­ers’ skills on a vir­tual K Street at rush hour, for in­stance, or on a rain-slicked road or in the split sec­ond when a child darts in front of the rac­ing truck.

Sev­eral other fire de­part­ments use the tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing New York City, which got a sim­u­la­tor sev­eral years ago as a post-Sept. 11, 2001, do­na­tion from NASCAR. The stock car rac­ing as­so­ci­a­tion has been us­ing sim­u­la­tors for years to train its driv­ers.

Since New York’s fire de­part­ment started us­ing the sim­u­la­tor, crashes have dropped about 12 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to de­part­ment data. Last year, there were nearly 600 crashes in the city of about 8 mil­lion peo­ple.

Un­til Wash­ing­ton got its sim­u­la­tor, trainees got their driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in a park­ing lot. Now ev­ery­thing is pushed up a notch.

“We’re sharp­en­ing their skills so they can bet­ter re­spond dur­ing high-stress sit­u­a­tions,” de­part­ment spokesman Tony Dorsey said. Staff re­searcher Meg Smith con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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