Sirens at AFD
Collision at intersection of labor and management
At issue is a safe driving policy, rewritten by Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, which took effect Aug. 11. Among other provisions, the policy requires firefighters driving department trucks on high-priority, lights-and-sirens, Code 3 calls to come to a complete stop at intersections where there is a stop sign or red light "prior to entering the intersection." Moreover, if an intersection is so congested that the truck cannot safely maneuver through it, the policy calls for firefighters to shut off the sirens and lights until the intersection clears. "Lights, sirens, air horns, spot lights and/or [public address systems] shall not be used to 'push' vehicles into intersections and traffic," reads the policy.
Stephen Truesdell, president of the firefighters union, says the policy is unnecessary and could have a "negative impact on response times," especially in outlying areas of the city and at times of day when congestion isn't a factor. Indeed, to make its point, the AFA points to a study of response times in Austin by a former assistant chief, Les Bunte. Bunte considered the impact of traffic-calming devices (like speed humps) on the response time of emergency responders and determined that slowdowns on the road increase those times – resulting in possible loss of life, especially in cases of sudden cardiac arrest.
According to Truesdell, there haven't been any incidents that would suggest the existing policy was flawed, including a provision that approved driving at up to 10 mph over the speed limit. The department hasn't offered any concrete reason for the change, Truesdell says, and firefighters' concerns about the changes weren't considered. "We were expecting a risk-benefit analysis or some pretty detailed analysis," but none had been done, he said. Ultimately, firefighters should "be able to use our discretion as drivers and officers. We have the responsibility of getting from point A to point B successfully."
That's absolutely true, says Chief Kerr, and nothing in the new policy takes away that discretion, she said. Bottom line, she said, is that the changes were made to codify what is already happening – this is the way AFD drivers operate vehicles "90% of the time," and the revised policy is nothing more than an effort to reduce risk of harm to employees and the public. Over the last two years there have been 66 collisions involving AFD vehicles, she said, 54 of which were "deemed preventable." Firefighters on the department's standing policy committee did weigh in on the changes, and she says she considered those recommendations but determined that "best practice" includes a duty to "stop at all negative rights of way" (red lights and stop signs) and to travel at the speed limit. Moreover, Kerr says these are the same policies suggested by the International Association of Fire Fighters, the national umbrella union for firefighters.
Kerr says that there could be situations where traveling faster than the speed limit might be warranted – and that's why she says she actually strengthened a caveat in the policy that it is not to be considered "a substitute for discretionary judgement and experience." "If certain ... conditions warrant it, then it is the officers' discretion to step it up," she said. Ultimately, Kerr points out, policy determinations are up to her. "As chief it is a decision I have to make, and I can't [do everything] by committee and [by running it past] the entire department," she said. "Ours is a busy city. And more and more people are on their cell phone or texting and they're not paying attention" to what is going on, especially at intersections – even more reason to make sure that firefighters are following stringent safety procedures. (According to the IAFF, 20-25% of all firefighter fatalities are vehicle-related, making that the second leading cause of firefighter deaths.)
That puts the responsibility on the public as well: When you are driving and hear a siren coming, says AFD spokeswoman Michelle DeCrane, pull to the right and stop (and if you absolutely can't get to the right, just stop in place and let the vehicle get around your car).
"At the end of the day, we all want the same thing," says Kerr. "To be proud of our department and the service we provide, and to be sure that everyone is safe."