Often firefighters face dangerous situations long before actually encountering a blaze. A wreck involving a fire truck occurred recently on I-76 just east of Keenesburg. The engine of the Southeast Weld Fire Protection District was hit by a tractor-trailer sending four firefighters to the Platte Valley Medical Center Hospital in Brighton, CO. Fortunately, the truck was not hauling a trailer at the time of the accident. The department’s Chief Tom Beach informed Denver7 that the injuries ranged from those needing stitches to broken bones—but everyone will be fine. Beach stressed the importance of allowing adequate space for vehicles responding to an emergency.
Firefighters & Auto Accidents During an Emergency
Southeast Weld Fire Protection District (SEWFPD) is a state entity created in 1954 to serve the district, which is composed of 405 square miles, including Weld County, Adams County and the town of Keenesburg. The Department maintains 15 full-time firefighters and some reserve/volunteer staff to protect the district’s 8,000 residents. In a compact with the Platte Valley Medical Center, they have an ambulance classified for Advanced Life-Support Transport.
Motor Vehicle Collisions: Firefighter Injuries & Fatalities
For on-duty firefighters, motor-vehicle crashes are the second leading cause of death. There are approximately 30,000 collisions each year involving firetrucks, which have the potential for severe outcomes. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), which is a segment of the Federal Homeland Security Department, indicates that approximately 100 firefighters are killed in the line of duty annually and another 100,000 are injured.
The most common causes of death include overexertion, being trapped, falls, collapses and more. The federal policies in place do not require that emergency responders wear the vehicle’s seatbelts and only some jurisdictions have such a requirement in place. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and USFA acknowledge the risk that firefighters are taking when neglecting to buckle up. One potential solution is to redesign the firetruck seatbelt systems to be easier to use and more accommodating for individuals of all sizes.
Rollovers: Firefighter Injuries & Fatalities
As many as two-thirds of the fatalities involving firetruck occupants occur in rollover crashes. Rollover accidents are classified as either being tripped or un-tripped. A tripped rollover commonly involves a truck collision with a curb or guardrails, while un-tripped may result from occurrences such as an abrupt shift in weight because of sudden turning of the truck.
Advancements in national and regional safety standards have not led to a notable decrease in the number of injuries and fatalities among firetruck occupants. Much of this trend may stem from the high rate of speed that firetrucks are traveling when responding to a call. The rates of speed combined with the massive weight of firetrucks are likely to result in additional secondary collisions during the time between the initial accident and the time when all vehicles and objects involved have come to a stop. The USFA has expressed that their top priority is firefighter safety. Preventing and minimizing the effects of firetruck collisions are clearly the areas that need the greatest improvement.
Liability and Firetruck Accidents
Determining liability in firetruck accidents when other motorists are involved can be difficult. Many drivers of these massive trucks make the assumption that others in close proximity on the roads are aware of their presence because the truck’s lights and sirens are engaged. This is not always the case, particularly if another driver is distracted. As is generally the case in most states, Colorado has laws that protect governmental entities from civil liability based on the Colorado Government Immunity Act (CGIA). It was enacted in 1971 and is loosely based on the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) of 1946.
Claims brought against the government for damages from accidents involving emergency vehicles are nothing new. The governmental immunity provisions will usually apply to police vehicles, ambulances, fire trucks, etc. Those operating these government-owned vehicles are still required to exercise a reasonable level of care to avoid dangerous situations. It is definitely possible that negligence may exist when operators clearly demonstrate the reckless behavior. Examples of such are as follows:
- A failure to activate onboard warning devices, such as sirens and lights.
- Attempting turns at clearly dangerous speeds.
- Trying to navigate the vehicle even though spaces that are too narrow.
- Continuously accelerating through an intersection without any caution.
Firefighters must take precautions themselves to prevent accidents, but citizens on the road must also do their part: stay alert, keep your eyes on the road, and pull over whenever you see and/or hear sirens. Committing to these things in the New Year can go a long way to saving lives, including the lives of those who regularly put themselves on the line for us.