Drive to Arrive

Article featured in the 1994 April Issue of Canadian Emergency News
Word by: K. I. Copeland

Some of you will no doubt remember the popular TV series Starsky & Hutch from

years past, as well as the famous duo of Johnny Gage and Roy Desoto from Emergency. Many of us cut our teeth on shows like these, and now we find ourselves behind the wheel or our own emergency vehicles.

Television has been and continues to be a powerful influence on public perceptions. As educated as the main­ stream public is, many believe that we drive like ow- TV counterparts – especially TV cops! I’m sure that if you look around, you’ll see that some of your co-workers have also bought into that theory.

I think that an accident involving an emergency vehicle on a Code 3 run is made all the worse by the universal expectation that we are all professional drivers and, as such, we should be able to easily avoid an acc ident. Unfortunately, emergency driving skills are more of an acquired technique than a learned one. Unless you’ve been to your local A.J. Foyt Academy, you probably haven’ t had any formal driver training, let alone for  emergency driving. The purpose of this article is to provide you with some insight into the common sense skills that can help you avoid disaster.

ln a recent article in On Scene, Thom Dick summed the whole issue up very succinctly. He said, “It doesn’t do any good to get halfway to a rescue scene fast.” Along the same lines as this, there was an educational program some time ago that used the phrase “Drive to Arrive.” It’s most effective in this context and could be incorporated into the mental checklist that you go through prior to the start of your shift·. Lives hang in the balance when we respond to an emergency call, whether you are police, fire or EMS. If you don’t arrive, your backup may be too late.

In these days of strobe lights, laser light bars and electronic sirens, the old turret light and windup siren are hysterical artifacts. (They actually used those things?) Technology today has provided us with computer generated light patterns and deep penetrating sirens, but all the technology in the world won’t substitute for common sense. Indeed, in some cases improved technology can create a false sense of security. “With all this equipment on, people are bound to know I’m coming.” (NOT!)

Just because you’re on a Code 3 run doesn’t mean you’re obligated to mash the gas pedal and twist your face into a serious knot. On the contrary, “Drive to Arrive. ” Time is of the essence, but arrival is of greater importance. When you top a blind knoll at 100 km/h in a posted 50 zone, what options will you have if Stanley Senior is slowly backing out of his drive way on the way to pick up fresh batteries for his hearing aid?

Most Provincial Motor Vehicle or Highway Traffic Acts provide definitions of emergency vehicles, as well as what the motoring public shall do when encountering one, but the Acts do not give any specific direction to the operators of said vehicle s. Directions and instructions to opera­tors usually come as a result of civil litigation and coroners’ inquests after an accident.

Assuming your lights and siren will herald your approach is a false hope indeed. In cities and towns, John Q. Public has seen enough emergency vehicles in full glory that he doesn’t bother to look for them unless they’ re bearing down on his bumper. Trisha Teenager has the stereo cranked loud enough that she can’t hear your siren from two blocks away like she should; your pretty light display is wasted on her because she has the rearview pointed at her face so she can practice her pout. Farfetched perhaps, but we’ve all heard horror stories.

The key to emergency driving is to assume nothing and always leave yourself an out. You must drive at a speed that is reasonable and prudent, giving due regard to existing and potential hazards. That’s quite a mouthful, but that’s the sort of double talk that comes  at  inquiries  and inquests.

Roof lights have come a long way from the turret lights or the old fire services standby, the Figure 8 light. However, on ambulances and fire trucks, today’s light bars are frequent­ ly eight feet or more off the ground. This means that when you’re closer than 50 feet to the vehicle ahead, chances are your roof lights are no longer visible in the rearview mirror. Some vehicles have even worse rear view than that. For this reason most emergency vehicles are now equipped with wig-wag headlights or bumper lights. Technology has stepped in once again to give an even greater edge to this equipment. Kits are available that send multi-pulse flashes in a pre-set synchronization that greatly increases visibility. These components are infinitely less expensive than a light bar, and put lights down low where they are really effective.

The roof light hypothesis also applies to those of you driving cars in emergency services. Try it and see. In a parking lot, stop ahead of another car, then drive slowly ahead checking your rearview mirror until you can see the space over the roof where a light bar would be. Now check and see how far behind you the vehicle is. Try this with a parked van to simulate an ambulance or fire truck.

Approaching traffic from the rear means closing the distance and some­ times you just have to sit there until you get noticed. Nothing infuriates my partner more than someone who doesn’t pullover right away.

So what can you do when Mr. Magoo just motors on, blithely unaware of anything past the end of the hood? (He never uses the rearview because he just came from there.) Passing on the right should be avoided at all costs. Sometimes all that is required is to edge slightly to the left, using a trick from law enforcement. When police pull a car over, the standard practice is to offset the cruiser to the left. This offers protection while dealing with the violator. In working for you, this practice puts your wig­ way headlights squarely in the driver’s door mirror, and you’11 soon have Mr. Magoo’s attention.

As frustrating as this is, keep your distance! Distance is time, and time is advantage. Having finally attracted Magoo’s attention, what will you do when he suddenly throws out the anchor and screeches to a halt in front of you? Will you become intimate with his trunk, or have you left yourself options?

Another trick for moving traffic is to work your siren. Most siren control heads offer a choice of tones. Varying the tone will sometimes allow a motorist to pinpoint its location better. (Usually on the front of your vehicle!) Judicious use of the electronic air horn can often let someone know exactly what you think of them without the accompanying risk that they know how to read lips.

Picture this. You’re in bumper to bumper traffic and you get an emergency call. You’re six inches away from the car ahead and the one behind you is also very chummy. You can’t use the hyperspace button; it’s away being repaired. A trick my driving instructor gave me when l was a wee lad has worked time and time again. When stopping in traffic, stop behind the vehicle ahead so that it appears its rear tires are resting on your hood. This way you can drive around this vehicle without backing up.

Emergency service is a 24-hour a day business, 365 days a year. We respond whatever the weather – usually the worst. Know your equipment and its limits, as well as yours. Ensure that it is equipped for whatever conditions you will encounter. If your service is going to be upgrading or replacing a vehicle soon, check with equipment suppliers for products and options that will increase your safety margins. As the driver of an emergency vehicle, you are responsible for its safe operation and arrival. The onus is squarely on you. Lights and siren are not carte blanche that allow you to flout traffic laws. If you are involved in a collision while going through a red light for example, you could be skating on very thin ice liability wise. You must have clear title to that intersection before entering. You can’t assume that everyone has seen or heard you. People do the strangest things when they see an emergency vehicle on a run.

Precious few areas of our country are blessed with an overabundance of emergency personnel. If your emergency vehicle is involved in an accident while en route to a call, someone else will have to respond. The time that you would have extended by traveling slower and safer will be extended a hundredfold by the time the second unit reaches your original call. And what if you’re hurt? How long will you wait for yet another emergency vehicle to respond?

Don’t you hope that they “Drive to arrive?”