Volunteer firefighters and EMTs are heavily prominent in the United States. Many rural and suburban areas utilize volunteers to fulfill firefighting and medical needs, alleviating the fiscal burden of having to hire paid personnel. However, many people don’t know, or understand, that their department is composed of volunteers. So, what does this mean exactly, aside from one being paid and the other volunteering?
The primary difference is that paid personnel stay in-hours, meaning that they’re always there. Think of the movies like Ladder 49 and Backdraft – at night all of the firefighters are asleep. They awake to the sound of the alarm, jump up, slide down the pole, don their gear, and head off on the big red trucks to save the day. Volunteer departments, for the most part, don’t have in-house programs. Rather, volunteers respond from their residence in their personal vehicle (also known as a “POV” [Personally Owned Vehicle]), meaning that it takes additional time for an engine, truck, ambulance, or any other apparatus to respond.
So, lets go over what volunteer firefighters must do to get to a scene:
-Get the page (volunteers are granted a pager when they are taken into a department)
-Get in their personal vehicle
-Drive to the station
-Grab and don proper gear
-Get onto fire apparatus
-Wait for the rest of the crew
-Once a few crew is obtained they may depart from the station and make their way to the scene
The biggest gap in time is the response from their residence to the station itself, which is why in most states volunteers can equip their vehicles with emergency lights. Some allow sirens, but I am only referring to states that allow at least emergency lighting, as it shows a potential POV to civilian vehicles.
Of course with such a system there will be some controversy and confusion, so here are some pros and cons:
-Grants warning power, potentially expediting the emergency response process.
-Lights may be used on scene if members are allowed to go straight to the scene.
-If an accident (or some other emergency) occurs right on front of a volunteer they can use lights for exposure protection from traffic if police or other emergency apparatus aren’t on scene yet.
-Shows a degree of professionalism in the volunteer field.
-Generally allows volunteers to go slightly over the speed limit.
-Emergency lights have been abused in the past, as volunteers have not followed the general ideology of “Due Regard”.
-Gives some volunteers a feeling of invincibility, putting them and other drivers at risk.
-There has been cases of police impersonation. Although these may not always be volunteers impersonating police, the idea of putting emergency lights on an array of vehicles may heighten chances of it occurring.
-May create a risk to inexperienced drivers who have never encountered emergency vehicle lights on anything but uniform emergency apparatus.
While there’s many problems involved, I believe that adding emergency lights to a personal vehicle will indefinitely, even if minimally, expedite the emergency response process. But with the problems that these lights may pose, there are solutions to ensure that these “cons” don’t get in the way. These solutions include:
-Giving authorized department members special stickers/magnets to affix on their vehicles. This way police, as well as civilian vehicles, know which vehicles are owned by volunteers.
-Give an EVOC (Emergency Vehicle Operations Course) class, just so members understand the responsibility that they are currently holding by affixing these lights.
-Ensure that members with emergency lights have taken Defensive Driving.
-Create a strict policy that at any time the department may confiscate any emergency lights if it is deemed that the said member has abused them.
-Issue cards, authorized by the Chief, for members allowed to run emergency lights on their vehicles. Remember to
document whom has these cards and what vehicles they are driving, too.
-At “Open Houses”, tell and educate the public about the laws and policies of emergency lights in personal vehicles, as well as what to do when encountering one.
-Work close with Law Enforcement if a situation arises, such as police impersonation.
Overall, emergency lighting in personally owned vehicles is a luxury (in some states), and it merely a courtesy for other drivers to move over, or yield in any way. However, despite this fact, I believe that emergency lighting is a good idea, especially for districts in which members have along drive to get to their station. While not all drivers yield, and some even panic, members and the public alike should be educated about emergency lighting in non-uniform vehicles. In many cases, yes, these lights do expedite the emergency response process, which may make a difference on a case-to-case basis. But aside from that, emergency lights should never be abused in any way, such as, but not limited to:
-Not utilizing the well known ideology of “Due Regard”
-Driving recklessly (Example: Weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating, ect.)
-Impersonating a police officer
-Being used for fun, or to intimidate other drivers
-Being used outside emergency operations of any kind
If a member does not adhere to the laws and policies of emergency vehicle lighting in a personally owned vehicle it is recommended that the said member is disciplined in a proper manner.