Fire Safety Chief's Rule: Take it Easy

Chief Leader - June 30, 2005

Amid the controversy over slower response times by fire trucks, Mayor Bloomberg's insistence that the fire unions are out of line in urging FDNY Chauffeurs to stop at red lights rather than merely slowing down is contradicted by recent writings by the department's own Chief of Safety.

The Mayor heatedly took issue June 20 with the advisory to his members from Uniformed Fire Officers' Association President Peter L. Gorman that they heed the guidelines of the National Fire Protection Association and come to a full stop at red lights.

`Unions Not in Charge'

"That's not tolerable," said Mr. Bloomberg, adding that the fire unions "are not running our city."

The unions in turn have accused Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta of letting the Mayor and several of his key aides whose prime focus is productivity dictate policy that emphasizes fast responses over safe ones.

A ranking FDNY official last week said that such characterizations distort Mr. Scoppetta's position. "You have to drive safely but you have to drive with a sense of urgency," said this official, speaking on condition that he not be identified. "All we're saying is, use common sense."

Mr. Gorman's recommendation to fire officers that they be guided by the NFPA directive is actually consis tent with the advice dispensed by FDNY Chief of Safety Allen S. Hay in four articles written since 2003 in WNYF, the Fire Departments official magazine. After the first three were written but before the final one appeared earlier this year, the Fire Department altered its policy so that it no longer urges the same level of cau tion as the NFPA.

In a two-part article on "Safely Navigating Intersec tions" that he authored in 2003, Chief Hay counseled that when a fire truck is coming to an intersection, "Approach the intersection under control and come to a full stop in a position visible to oncoming traffic, keeping the apparatus out of the nearest traffic lane."

Later in the article, he cautioned that the truck's si rens and horns were no guar antee that motorists would be aware it was approaching and use appropriate caution at an intersection. "Don't rely on the audible warning devices to alert drivers," Chief Hay wrote. "Many new vehicles are well-insulated for sound and with the addi tional noise from air-condi tioning and radios, virtually none of FDNY's audible warnings will penetrate into the passenger compartment."

Uniformed Firefighters' Association President Stephen J. Cassidy contended in a recent interview that there is another reason not to make assumptions about other mo torists: some of them don't readily defer to fire trucks when they're aware that they're approaching.

‘They Don't Clear Way’

"I think the public does not get out of the way the way they used to. It adds to the frustration of the Chauf feurs” Mr. Cassidy said, explaining that their unhappiness about getting into any accident is compounded by the knowledge that they will face sanctions a lot faster than motorists whose reck lessness may have caused the problem.

In Part 2 of that 2003 arti cle, Chief Hay cited a case in which a fire truck decided to proceed through an intersec tion after the light had turned red because the Chauffeur saw that a Bus Operator had yielded to him rather than go through the green light. But the driver of a car that had been a block from the intersection when the light turned quickly pro ceeded, moving into the left lane to go around the bus, leading to a collision with the fire truck that also damaged two cars whose drivers had stopped after becoming aware of the truck.

Confusion Reigned

The driver of the car that was hit, Chief Hay said, had his view of the fire truck ob scured by the stopped bus, which he assumed was dis charging passengers rather than pausing at a green light because of the truck. "Addi tionally," he wrote, "the chauffeur did not come to a full stop before proceeding into the intersection as is re quired by FDNY regulations."

Those regulations were amended last fall by Mr. Scoppetta in an attempt to clarify department policy after a fatal accident in The Bronx in which a passenger in an SUV was killed by a fire truck whose Chauffeur sped through a steady red light. The new rule requires Chauffeurs to slow down, but does not compel them to make a full stop, a procedure that FDNY officials said put into writing the unofficial policy followed by most Chauffeurs.

`Wait for All to Yield'

In an article published in WNYF less than a year ago, Chief Hay emphasized that while the state's Vehicle and Traffic Law permitted emer gency vehicles to cross inter sections against a red light, they had the right of way "only when it is yielded by all other vehicles. As tough as this sounds, the truth is that if any other vehicle doesn't yield, apparatus chauffeurs don't have the right to enter the intersection, even though they are responding, first due, to a structural fire, the emergency lights are on and the siren and air horn are sounding."

He went on to state, "Chauffeurs should respond as if the emergency lights, the siren and the air horn are not being used. These tools should be viewed as ad juncts to increase the safety of the response and not nec essarily the speed ... The goal is to have an effective response ... where the chauf feur always chooses the safer option over speed."

He amplified those points in an article published in WNYF early this year, when the battle over response time between the Bloomberg administration and the fire unions was in full swing.

"Chauffeurs themselves must ensure that traffic has yielded in each traffic lane prior to entering it," Chief Hay wrote. "If the traffic doesn't yield, the chauffeur doesn't have the right of way."

The senior FDNY official denied there was a contradiction between those words of caution and the department's new policy. He also contended that the primary reasons for the rise in re sponse time was not the stop ping at red lights but rather slower "turn-outs" by fire fighters between the time a call comes in and the point at which they are all on a truck ready to respond, and delays in communicating to the department that they have arrived at the location.

Denies Union Behind It

Captain Gorman said any such delays were neither ordered nor condoned by the UFOA, adding that a deliberate delay in turning out for an emergency call was "a flagrant violation, and I would expect the department to hold accountable anyone who engaged in that." He said he had frequently advised UFOA members to hold drills to improve the speed at which their companies turn out.

Mr. Gorman also noted that in a stern letter he received from Commissioner Scoppetta a month ago about response-time delays, the Commissioner never men tioned turn-out time and "wasn't talking about pushing 10-84 buttons," referring to the transmittal of notification that a truck has arrived at an emergency call location.

Sees a Contradiction

The UFOA leader also disagreed with the FDNY's claim that there was no inconsistency between the new regulation allowing Chauffeurs to slow their vehicles without actually stopping when they approached intersections where the light was red against them and Chief Hay's continuing advice in his articles about being cau tious to an extreme.

"If I had said those things," Mr. Gorman said wryly of the Chief of Safety's advice.'"the Commissioner would have sent a letter to the press say ing I was slowing down fire operations."

Mr. Cassidy, referring to what he also contended are conflicting messages from the FDNY command about driving safely but not unduly sacrificing speed in the pro cess, asserted, "At the heart of it is the lack of communi cation from headquarters as to what they really want. And a part of that may be that they're not running their own show."