You’re in Charge of Driver Training… Now What?

By Chris Daly

Congratulations! You have just been put in charge of driver training for your entire fire department. No worries, it’s not like fire apparatus crashes are one of the greatest liabilities a fire department may ever face, often paying out millions of dollars for a lawsuit. And it’s not like you will be called to testify in a courtroom so you can tell a judge or jury how you train your drivers…or more importantly, how you don’t train your drivers. Wait, you WILL be called to testify about your driver training program? Yikes. That’s a huge responsibility.

If a fire apparatus crashes into a civilian vehicle, you can almost guarantee a long and costly lawsuit. Are there times when the civilian driver was at fault? Certainly. However, each year there are countless incidents across the country where the fire apparatus operator was the cause of the crash. When that happens, get ready for the lawyers to start pounding on your door. And when the lawyers start pounding on your door, your house and your paperwork better be in order. In addition, you better be ready to defend yourself against the press, as an emergency vehicle crash that results in injury or death to a civilian can be a public relations nightmare.

So why don’t fire departments take driver training more seriously? Your guess is as good as mine.

Start with the Standards
So how do you build a “bulletproof” driver training program? I would recommend your first step is to review the NFPA standards. I have been called as an expert witness in several emergency vehicle crash-related lawsuits throughout the country and each time I am called, the first thing I ask for are the fire department’s training records and policy manuals. The next thing I ask for are the vehicle maintenance records, but that is a discussion for a different day. What I can tell you from having been involved in several of these lawsuits is that the departments that have a DOCUMENTED NFPA-compliant driver training program are almost always better suited to protect and defend themselves in a lawsuit. This is especially true if the emergency vehicle driver was NOT at fault.

Imagine how it would look in a courtroom if a civilian driver pulled out in front of an emergency vehicle and caused a crash, but the brakes on the fire apparatus were out of adjustment and the fire apparatus operator had never been trained to panic stop? If this were to happen, could the other side argue that the fire truck should have been able to stop before the crash occurred, even if the civilian was the one who pulled out of a side street? Sure. Would your attorney have a much easier time defending you if the fire truck was in good working order and the fire apparatus operator had been trained on emergency braking and evasive maneuvers? Absolutely. This is why it is so important to “bulletproof” your driver training and apparatus maintenance programs as much as possible.

So where do you start? The first step I always recommend is to purchase the following NFPA standards:

  • NFPA 1002 – Standard for Fire Department Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications
  • NFPA 1451 – Standard for a Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program
  • NFPA 1500 – Standard on Fire Department Occupational Health and Safety Program
  • NFPA 1911 – Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing and Retirement of In-Service Emergency Vehicles

These are the standards that I immediately reference after receiving a call from an attorney to work as an expert witness in a fire apparatus crash related lawsuit. If you can build your driver training program to meet all of the points in these standards, you will have a much easier time defending your program than if you just threw something together on your own.

Instructor Selection
Instructor selection is an important component of an effective fire apparatus driver training program. Do you pick the guy/gal who drives the fastest to calls and provides a “white knuckle” experience for all on-board? Or do you select the experienced driver who takes his or her role as a professional fire apparatus operator seriously and has little, if any, negative marks on their driving record. As you can imagine, I would highly recommend the latter. In the volunteer world, this is often the fire apparatus operator who operates a heavy vehicle as part of his or her “day job” and frequently lectures the younger folks on the importance of safe driving. Being a good driver training instructor is based on mindset. Identify those people and use them to the advantage of the fire department.

When selecting driver trainers, keep in mind that NFPA 1451 states that only qualified persons should be assigned as driver trainers and these persons should, at a minimum, meet the qualifications for Instructor I, as specified in NFPA 1041—Standard for Fire Service Instructor Professional Qualifications. The NFPA standard defines qualified as, “A person who, by possession of a recognized degree, certificate, professional standing, or skill, and who, by knowledge training and experience, has demonstrated the ability to deal with problems related to the subject matter, the work, or the project.”

Designing Your Program
When designing your driver training program, it is important to combine effective classroom lectures and hands-on modules that address both low-speed precision driving as well as emergency responses at highway speeds. Too often, I see a fire department that sets up a cone course in the parking lot simply to “check the box.” These types of programs often fail to address the important issues of vehicle dynamics, energy control, siren limitations, and the like. It is no wonder that we continue to crash fire apparatus, seriously injuring and even killing firefighters and civilians, on a routine basis.

When building your program, consider these questions: What resources or lesson plans are you going to use? Do you issue your students a textbook that they can keep with them for the rest of the careers and refer back to? What type of driving exercises are you going to teach them? Will you simply set up a cone course in the back lot, or do you also require hands-on driving exercises at highway speeds? Remember to document and save your lesson plans in case you are ever asked to produce them in court.

The NFPA 1002 standard provides a few hands-on exercises in the appendix. Make sure your students complete these exercises as a minimum. However, don’t limit yourself to just these exercises. Build and design courses and exercises that are specific to your district. Do you handle a lot of calls off-road? Perhaps you drive along a sandy coastline. Do you operate a unique vehicle or pull a trailer? Students should be trained on these issues ahead of time so they don’t find themselves in a situation for which they have never been trained. A drone is a great way to get an overhead photograph of your training courses that you can keep in your files.

Does your classroom instructor have a grasp of vehicle dynamics? Do they understand g-force, slosh, and braking efficiency? What resources have you provided them to be better able to convey these advanced concepts to the students? Perhaps you are better off finding an online fire apparatus vehicle dynamics course and making that part of your driver training program. Nothing says that you can’t require your student to complete an online class as a prerequisite and have your in-house instructors handle the hands-on training.

For the hands-on training, you should have a graduated program that starts off by learning every gauge in the driver’s cockpit, works up to cone courses in a closed off parking lot, moves to non-emergency road driving with a driver trainer, and only lets the trainee respond to emergency calls after all the previous steps are complete. Even then, it is best for the trainee to respond with a coach sitting next to them for the first few months.

Continuing Education
NFPA 1451 states that drivers must have two hands-on driver training sessions every year. I hope you are doing a lot more than that, but at least make sure you are hitting the minimum. Also remember to DOCUMENT these sessions, as you want to be able to easily present proof of training should the lawyers start knocking on your door. Every year, I teach at countless fire departments that bring me in on an annual basis as part of their driver recertification program. I am always impressed with how squared away these departments appear both in real-life and on paper.

Please understand that this article was designed to make you think about how you’ve designed your driver training program. It is by no means inclusive of everything required to “bulletproof” your program. We haven’t even begun to address driver selection, driving policies, and apparatus maintenance issues. For some of you, all of the issues we’ve discussed are old news. And that’s great. Unfortunately, I can tell you from traveling and teaching across the country, this is not always the case. And this is why driver training is such an important topic to discuss.

Chris Daly is the author of Drive to Survive – The Art of Wheeling the Rig, available at Fire Engineering Books and Videos. He also provides online courses at Chris is a 23-year police veteran, an accredited crash reconstructionist, and a lead investigator for the Chester County Serious Crash Assistance Team. He has also served 31 years as both a career and volunteer firefighter, holding numerous positions, including the rank of assistant fire chief. Chris has a master’s degree in environmental health engineering from Johns Hopkins University and is a contributing author to numerous fire service professional publications.