Fire truck accidents up last year, review says

Accidents in the District involving fire trucks increased by 25 percent in 2006, and fire officials have responded with an updated driving course for city firefighters.

There were 126 fire truck accidents this past year, according to an article in The Washington Post. Though most of the accidents were minor, 20 people were injured.

Alan Etter, spokesperson for the D.C. Fire Department, told The Hatchet that the statistics don’t accurately describe the situation.

“For the most part, the accidents we’re involved in are minor fender-benders and don’t take the apparatus out of service for that long,” Etter said. He added that D.C. fire truck accidents may seem more prevalent because the reporting criteria for accidents are more stringent than in other areas of the country.

Most of the time, it’s not the fire truck drivers’ fault, Etter said.

“We don’t get much help from the motorists out there. They’re racing the fire trucks, trying to beat them to the intersection,” Etter said. “In moving traffic situations, overwhelmingly the reason the accidents occur are because of the civilian motorists.”

He added that motorists often neglect to pull over and stop when fire trucks are approaching, which can cause problems for those rushing to a fire.

Landon Sewell, a firefighter with Foggy Bottom’s Engine 23, said most civilian drivers aren’t aware of the difficult handling of the emergency vehicles.

“A lot of people don’t have respect for the size of these trucks. It takes a lot to slow it down,” Sewell said. “People have to realize that these things don’t maneuver like a Corvette or some type of sports car.”

D.C.’s fire trucks are about eight feet wide and 31 feet long, Sewell said. The 750 gallons of water on board also gives the truck a slow brake time.

Pedestrians’ carelessness also poses a major hazard for fire trucks, Sewell said. The firefighter added that people often cross the street and talk on cell phones, even while fire trucks approach.

“You’ve got to wonder … what conversation could you possibly have or what can you be doing that could distract you from not hearing all these noises … and seeing this big red truck coming towards you, and (not stop),” Sewell said.

Sewell and Etter said it is a serious problem when a fire truck gets into an accident because a new truck must be sent to the fire – elongating the response time.

In response to the increase in accidents, the D.C. Fire Department has included a $760,000 driving simulator into its training program. The simulator, which looks like the inside of a fire truck cab, has the firefighter driving in a three-dimensional, real-life situation. The simulator is meant to educate firefighters about local traffc laws and the unpredictable nature of city driving.

The simulator will be added to the current training program, which allows trainees to practice their driving skills using the parking lot of the department’s training facility. Sewell, who’s been a firefighter with Engine 23 for 10 years, believes that both these educational devices are essential for trainees.

“Nothing beats getting behind the wheel of one of these and dealing with the weight, the speed, the reactions of it. Nothing beats that,” he said.

Despite the growing number of accidents throughout the District, Sewell said there have been few complaints in the Foggy Bottom area. Several area residents and students interviewed this week said they haven’t had bad experiences with fire trucks around campus.

“From what I see, they drive very responsibly,” said Ellie Becker, a Foggy Bottom resident who regularly brings food to the Engine 23 firefighters at night.

“I’ve never noticed them not driving safely,” said sophomore Amal Al Katrib. “They make sharp turns … but I guess it’s understandable since they need to get to (the fire).”

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