Firetruck Accidents On the Rise in District
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.