Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Back to basics: Desensitizing firefighters – Driving

By Mark van der Feyst   

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Photo: Mark van der Feyst

In our continued series on desensitizing firefighters, we arrive at the topic of driving-related issues. Every fire department and every firefighter can relate to this category as they all have responding fire apparatus, and most firefighters are either driving the fire apparatus or are being driven in one. 

One of the main issues that the fire service finds themselves dealing with is the topic of speed. One aspect of speed is not driving to the conditions. In Canada, we are blessed with seasons, with one of those seasons producing snow, ice, sleet and other wintertime-related road conditions. During the winter, people are more prone to drive a little slower or with diligence because they know what snow, ice, sleet or black ice can produce on the roadways. They can also see the visual of the weather on the roadway, for the most part. Still, we do find ourselves sometimes driving a little too fast despite the visual cues in front of us, with the result producing perhaps a minor or major traffic incident.

Another weather phenomenon to deal with is rain. Rain is a roadway hazard that causes multiple traffic occurrences every year and, in the case of the fire service, it is a major reason for our response to motor vehicle collisions. When we are responding to any call in the fire apparatus, driving in the rain needs to be the same as driving in the snow. Hydro-plaining can easily occur with water on the roadway, causing the fire truck to lose steering control. 

We also need to talk about the wind. There are days that high winds are produced, and this can have an impact on the fire truck’s driving ability. Depending upon the type of fire truck being driven, it can be a giant sailboat, easily catching the wind and affecting its performance, steering and control. 

If due to our reckless driving or speeding to the scene, we are involved in a traffic incident, then now we are the ones requiring the assistance.

We turn our attention to the fact of the size of the fire apparatus versus a passenger vehicle with respect to speed. The majority of a firefighter’s driving time will be in their own personal vehicle, which will be a passenger type. Regardless of the type or model of passenger vehicle that they drive, there are distinct differences between a passenger vehicle and a fire truck.    

One distinct difference will be the size and weight of the fire truck – they are considerably heavier than a passenger vehicle. Just the fire truck on its own, with no equipment or water onboard, weighs thousands of pounds or hundreds of kilograms more than a passenger vehicle. When we add all the equipment, onboard water and personnel to it, the weight increases. Add to the fire truck an aerial device on top, and you can see how we are piling on more weight, which rests upon axles and tires on the roadway. The weight/size of the fire truck requires special brakes to be used to allow for proper stopping power when operating. When going too fast or not driving safely, the brakes will not be able to produce the stopping power that they need. Young firefighters who are learning how to drive fire trucks properly are surprised when they are not able to stop on a dime as they can with their passenger vehicles.

Another factor for our consideration is tunnel vision – driving recklessly or too fast because we must get there right now! Having a quick response time is certainly one of our goals, but driving at a ludicrous speed to achieve it is “ludicrous”. How does a firefighter develop tunnel vision? This can be attributed to a couple of factors, such as lack of sleep or being woken up from a deep sleep and then having to perform at full capacity. Mostly, tunnel vision will be attributed to physiological changes within the firefighter in terms of their heart rate. The higher the heart rate, the higher the tunnel vision that is produced. When there is tunnel vision, the firefighter that’s driving will not see everything and will be focused just on one factor – “got to get there” – which equals driving too fast. 

The last consideration is with tradition—tradition being that we have always driven this way or this fast to every call. As much as there is a place for holding traditions in the fire service, concerning speed, this tradition needs to be revised or changed to adopt a better tradition of arriving in one piece so that we can be of assistance. When we are not able to arrive on scene, then we can’t do our job of helping the individual(s) who called for it. If due to our reckless driving or speeding to the scene, we are involved in a traffic incident, then now we are the ones requiring the assistance. 

There are many videos captured by dash cams, traffic cameras and people’s personal cell phones that show the outcomes of a speeding fire truck. These videos can be useful in educating the fire service on “what not to do” and highlighting the importance of driving within the tolerance of the fire apparatus and not a passenger vehicle. There is a time to respond quickly and there are times to respond so that we can still do our job of serving the public. 

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is currently a Battalion Chief with the Six Nations Fire & Emergency Services as well  as a part-time firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department. Mark is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India, and at FDIC. He is the lead author of the Residential Fire Rescue & Tactical Firefighter books. He can be contacted at

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