When motorists hear sirens, they are supposed to move over and allow the emergency vehicle to pass. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. When drivers do not get out of the way of emergency vehicles, it creates an unsafe situation for drivers, firefighters, and those needing assistance. Firetruck drivers have numerous factors to contend with to minimize the risk of an accident.
Local laws define the rules governing the speed of a fire truck, but the expectation is the driver should not exceed a safe speed. This safe speed is determined by weather conditions and other circumstances, including the design of the vehicle and how familiar the driver is with the vehicle.
In this article, the regulations and policies regarding fire engines and truck speeds will be explained, as well as general courtesies that other motorists on the road are expected to give emergency vehicles.
Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.
To learn about the differences between a fire engine and a fire truck, read: What’s the Difference Between a Fire Engine and a Fire Truck?
Table of Contents
Posted Speed Limits and Traffic Laws
The rules for the speed of fire engines depend on their location. Fire departments can establish their own rules regarding the maximum speed of a fire engine.
According to the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ “Guide to IAFC Model Policies and Procedures For Emergency Vehicle Safety,” they all follow similar guidelines. States have specific laws regarding provisions made for those responding to an emergency, but the fire department’s expectations are often more stringent than state law.
Failure to Obey – Consequences
There are times that drivers do not obey the laws, and their vehicles get in the way of the fire department arriving at their destination.
- Officers of fire departments can remove vehicles on public or private property that get in the way of firefighters responding to an emergency.
- A police officer may give a citation to the person who does not obey the laws when a firefighter is on their way to an emergency or taking someone to a hospital.
Other Drivers on the Road
One of the contributing factors to dangerous road conditions for fire engines is the failure of other motorists to yield to the sirens and lights of emergency vehicles. Motorists should pull to the right edge of the road and come to a stop. If that is not possible, drivers should slow down and leave a path free for the fire truck or other emergency vehicles to get through.
Many people will move to the right, but instead of stopping will just slow down, waiting till the emergency vehicle passes so they can be the first back on the road. Please do not do this, as it can’t make the situation more dangerous for all drivers. By coming to a stop, the drivers of the fire apparatus are able to safely negotiate around everyone and get where they need to go, without anyone else being hurt.
Move Over Laws
Though the details of these laws vary from one state to another, motorists need to know that fire trucks and other emergency vehicles have the right of way, and according to “State Move Over Laws.”
- If the vehicle is on the road and sees flashing emergency lights behind them, that is a signal that the cars on the road should move over to the right and stop.
Move Over Laws are enforced in all 50 states and failure to abide by them can result in fines from $50 – $10,000, up to 90-day license suspension, or even up to 60 days in jail.
Time, Pressure, and Consequences
When fire trucks and other emergency personnel are on the road with sirens on (called Code 3), they are typically on their way to help someone else who is experiencing a crisis. If these emergency vehicles are in accidents themselves, it delays the response to the crisis at hand.
According to Hongwei Hsiao, et al. in the research titled “Preventing Emergency Vehicle Crashes: Status and Challenges of Human Factors: Status and Challenges of Human Factors Issues,” time pressure is one of the most dangerous characteristics of driving an emergency vehicle.
The sense of urgency to get to the destination causes drivers to want to speed. This urgency, in turn, which leads to a higher likelihood of crashes. The pressure of time is also known to impact decision-making and increases the possibility that a driver will take risks.
The goal of firefighters driving a fire engine is to arrive safely at their destination. Usually, they are on their way to help with a crisis of someone in the community who might be facing a catastrophic incident. We are trained to remain calm, make good, safe decisions and remember that the call we are responding to is not our emergency; so we need to get there safely in order to be of any help.
There are local rules in place to ensure firefighters arrive at their destination safely. Generally, these expectations include extreme diligence to safety rules on the road. It has been researched and recognized that firefighters can sometimes be under stress while on their way to emergencies, and improvements are being made regarding training and warning lights.
How to Reduce Accidents
According to research performed by Kelly Donoughe, et al. for the Associate for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine titled “Analysis of Fire Truck Crashes and Associated Firefighter Injuries in the United States,” fire apparatus crashes happen at a rate of about 30,000 a year. Though this is less than 1% of the total 6 million car accidents in the US each year, it is a number that should be improved upon.
This high level of crashes leads to significant consequences for many members of the community because the firetrucks are on their way to provide emergency assistance elsewhere in the community.
Also, data shows firefighters frequently fail to use their seatbelts when driving or riding in a fire truck, putting themselves at significant risk for life-threatening injuries when accidents happen. Many fire departments, including the one I work for, have installed seatbelt alarms to ensure all members are safely restrained while the vehicle is moving.
The United States Fire Administration’s (USFA) research shows that 16% of firefighter deaths in the line of duty were the result of motor vehicle crashes. This research prompted the USAF to start new projects to address the problem by doing a risk assessment.
Response Policies to Reduce Accidents
Because of the frequency of accidents, while firefighters were responding to emergencies, policies were put into place as a response. Davis P. Bui et al. discusses the risk management and decisions to help protect the community in his research titled, “Risk management of emergency service vehicle crashes in the United States fire service: process, outputs, and recommendations.”
The research discovered high priority issues such as turning and rear-end crashes, as well as weather and road conditions impacting accidents. These findings led to new policies and procedures to help drivers. For instance, in some areas, backup cameras were installed, and firefighters saw an increase in training.
In “Alive on Arrival,” the USAF gives further recommendations to keep emergency personnel safe when operating a fire engine:
- Drive carefully and assume other drivers cannot see you.
- Do not drive faster than the speed limit.
- Stop at intersections.
- Be cautious at railways with no guards.
- Park off the road if possible and use emergency warning if parking on the roadway is necessary.
Currently, the USAF is working on a project involving emergency vehicle warning light systems to help drivers’ confusion when they see lights. If technology is improved, it is expected that communities will be safer.
The United States Fire Administration is working with local fire departments and communities to educate the general public on how to behave on the roadways when a fire engine is trying to get to a destination in an emergency.
Local fire departments have set up their own rules regarding roadway safety for the drivers of the fire engines. Often, these rules are stricter than those defined by individual state law. Drivers are expected to drive the speed limit, observe all traffic laws, and keep weather and road conditions in mind while making decisions.
In the end, the goal is for the public to be mindful and aware of what they should do on the road, so the firefighters on the fire engine can arrive at their destination safely to ensure the best outcome for those who are waiting for emergency help.