By Homer Robertson
Published Saturday, May 31, 2008
| From the June 2008 Issue of FireRescue
As firefighters, we’re routinely involved in dangerous events that have a lot of negative consequences—people getting hurt or killed, for example. This repeated exposure to danger sometimes makes us complacent and less likely to react to the danger inherent in certain activities. But if we don’t exercise the proper caution in dangerous situations, an accident or injury lies just ahead.
One daily activity we take for granted: apparatus backing. Although many backing incidents only result in minor damage, the potential for a catastrophic accident is very real. If you don’t believe that backing accidents are one of your leading accident concerns, just walk around your own apparatus and look for evidence of operational shortcomings (dings, scratches, etc.).
I once heard Chief Alan Brunacini say that the U.S. fire service had, on average, an accident every 30,000 miles going forward and about every 80 feet backing up. Of course he said that as only he can, in his special tongue-and-cheek manner. But if you think about it, it’s not that far from the truth.
Backing is one of our most dangerous apparatus operations. It’s also one area where we can easily reduce preventable accidents. This month’s Quick Drill provides talking points for a classroom session and a hands-on drill to hone your apparatus operators’ backing skills.
Only When You Must
If your department doesn’t have a standard operating procedure (SOP) that covers backing of fire apparatus, you need one. Few operations require an SOP as urgently as backing.
First and foremost, it should be department policy to discourage the need to back up the apparatus. Put simply: If you don’t have to back up, don’t. Humans are designed to be predators, with our eyes set in the front of our heads so that we can go forward after prey. We’re just not as good going backward.
Although some of our backing accidents occur during emergency operations, the vast majority occur during routine duties. That means with a little discretion and by taking our time, we can usually avoid backing. But even during an emergency response, it may be appropriate to drive around the block rather than back up to make a missed turn. Think twice before you back.
In addition, look for opportunities to position your apparatus so you don’t have to back up later. This may not be possible at fire incidents where the length of preconnected hose or the aerial ladder will determine placement, but a number of other types of incidents, such as EMS calls, allow for strategic placement of the apparatus to avoid backing.
Finally, volunteers who respond from home should make a habit to back their personal cars in their driveways to avoid the need to back out in a hurry when responding to calls. Also, always walk around your vehicle before responding. Children may be playing near the vehicle or have left toys behind your car.
Any backing SOP must also address the use of ground guides and hand signals. Use ground guides whenever possible. If you’re alone on the apparatus, stop, dismount and walk completely around the truck, surveying the area you intend to back into.
Guides should be positioned at the rear, far enough away from the backing apparatus that they’re not endangered. They should always stay where they can see the mirrors of the apparatus and in turn be seen by the operator. If the operator loses sight of the guide at any time, they should come to an immediate stop. Use the scene lighting on the rear of the apparatus to illuminate the area and provide better visibility for both the guides and apparatus operator. Note: When deploying guides in traffic, use extreme caution. All guides should be dressed in the appropriate level of reflective gear.
A common question: “Do you have to use guides when backing into the station?” You should. Apparatus-vs.-station accidents are some of the most common. You never know when someone has parked something else in the same bay that you can’t see when backing out of bright sunlight into a dark station.
Normally, ground guides will communicate with the apparatus operator using hand signals. Each guide should also be provided a portable radio that can be heard by the apparatus operator. In addition to hand signals, the guide can provide a verbal stop command if needed.
Ground guides must observe the following rules:
- Never dismount the apparatus until it has come to a complete stop.
- Never turn your back to a moving apparatus.
- Always carry a radio to give a verbal command to “stop” if needed.
- Always stay in view of the mirrors so the apparatus operator can see you.
- Always carry a flashlight during nighttime operations. Never shine the light beam at the mirrors of the apparatus. Illuminate yourself so the operator can clearly see your hand signals.
- Always discuss the backing operation with the operator and have a plan.
- Never rely on the other backer. If something looks wrong, it is. Give the command to “stop,” then reevaluate.
- Never ride the tailboard of the apparatus when it’s in motion. Never.
- If you can avoid dismounting the apparatus in traffic, do so.
If your apparatus is equipped with a look-back camera, use it only when the apparatus is not in motion. Look-back cameras are great tools to verify the location of objects, but they should never be used as a guide while the apparatus is moving.
Use your mirrors in conjunction with your ground guides to back up. Never open the apparatus door and stick your head out to look back. If you need to verify your location, stop the apparatus and take it out of gear, then look.
Finally, remember to listen. As simple as it seems, rolling down the window and listening for the guide yelling, a horn sounding or other signals that something’s amiss may save you from hearing metal bending or glass breaking—as well as your boss chewing you out because you had a backing accident. If your department uses intercom headsets, remove or pull the left earpiece back so you can hear outside.
There’s no need to get in a hurry when backing. Take your time and do it right.
One area to really focus on taking your time: backing into the station. We get complacent backing into the station because we do it several times per day. When it is 4 a.m., cold, raining and you’re getting back from your third run after midnight, the last thing you want to do is get off the truck and help the apparatus operator back in.
But it’s everybody’s job to get the apparatus backed in safely. It’s also the company and chief officer’s job to strictly enforce the rules of backing every time, even at 4 a.m.
Stay focused when backing. There are a lot of distractions in the cab of a fire apparatus—radio, traffic, conversation between crewmembers and flashing and warning lights, to name a few. Many backing accidents can be traced to these distractions. Although the apparatus operator should always be attentive to the task at hand, it’s doubly critical during backing operations.
Drill 1: Classroom Training
Step 1: Discuss your department SOP on apparatus backing.
Step 2: Discuss the safety of ground guides and hand signals.
Step 3: Review past backing accidents and how they could have been avoided.
Drill 2: Hands-On Training
Step 1: Locate an open parking lot that will hold the weight of a fire apparatus and that has no obstructions.
Step 2: Using traffic cones, set up your own backing course. One pattern should be the width of your fire station doors.
Step 3: Following best practices for backing, allow apparatus operators and ground guides to work through the course, then evaluate their performance.
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