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Move over: Emergency personnel face danger before getting to scene

LAWRENCEVILLE - Rick Harrison flipped on the sirens, looked both ways, blared his horn and swung the fire engine into oncoming traffic, the wrong-way down one-way Perry Street in Lawrenceville.

He took an immediate right onto Luckie Street, as a passenger car - dwarfed by the huge engine - gunned it in reverse to get out of the firefighter's way.

Harrison, a driver engineer at Gwinnett Fire Station 15, didn't know what awaited him at the accident scene ahead. But he didn't let the adrenaline get to him. First, he had to get his crew there safely.

"You've got at least three lives on your hands, plus anyone around you," said Lt. Rex Martin, the coordinator for the fire department's relief driver class.

In a dangerous business already, Gwinnett's firefighters sometimes put their lives on the line long before they rush into fire.

In a county with clogged streets, flashing lights and sirens aren't always enough to alert drivers of rescue personnel.

But Gwinnett's firefighters are trained to an ever-climbing standard, and leaders are tracking statistics to know which skills to stress.

"It's a different world," once the lights and sirens come on and the fire engine or ambulance races to a scene, Martin said. But he's hoping a little instruction and a lot of practice helps makes firefighters safer.

Last year, 99 incidents occurred with the county's fleet of fire engines, ladder trucks and ambulances. Of those, 42 happened when the vehicle was moving, said Capt. Stoney Polite, who is in charge of the department's risk management.

During the recent call at Station 15, Harrison drove up to the scene of a car crash. He secured the fire engine with chock blocks and hustled to help a 6-year-old bleeding profusely from a puncture in her cheek.

With the mother crying and the girl screaming and scared, Harrison and his fellow firefighters strapped the girl to a gurney and packed her into an ambulance bound for Scottish Rite Medical Center in Atlanta.

Before they left the scene, he gave some advice to the mother's sisters, something that firefighters sometimes have to remind themselves.

"Drive slowly. Everything is going to be OK," he said.

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Martin teaches recruits to drive an ambulance and offers nearly every firefighter with at least two years experience a relief driver course to get them familiar with trucks and engines. He says most accidents involving emergency vehicles are the fault of the other driver.

Georgia law requires drivers to slow and move to the right when approached by an emergency vehicle, but many people don't know the law, are distracted or panic when they hear sirens.

"The biggest problem is people aren't aware of what the law is, or they aren't paying attention. You can't depend on anybody to do that," Capt. Chuck Amason of Station 20 in Lawrenceville said. "We're all selfish. Me getting to my appointment on time is a lot more important than anybody else's problem is the attitude, it seems."

Firefighters say a big problem is the cars themselves, engineered to be noise proof and with booming stereos blocking out the sirens. Add a cell phone into the hands of many drivers on the road, and the firefighters have to contend with distracted drivers who often are unaware an engine is approaching.

"People listen to music and they are talking on their phones," Jordan Keough, a driver at Station 11 outside Norcross, said. "Sometimes you don't realize there is a firetruck until it's right behind you."

Keough said the problem is exacerbated in the area around his station, one of the most diverse areas of the county, because people don't know the law.

"The problem is people want to stop, want to go left, want to go right, and not knowing what they ought to do," Lt. Bobby Morgan of Station 15 in Lawrenceville said. "Everybody reacts differently."

When he goes through an intersection, Morgan tries to make eye contact with every driver. "You have to be patient. If you see their eyes, then they see you."

Because of the distraction, Martin trains the men and women to stay back when they come up behind a car.

"There's really no way to predict what anybody is going to do at any given time," he said. "It's too late if you are too close."

Martin says the first reaction of many drivers is to slam on the brakes, but that is the last thing firefighters want you to do.

After all, a 6,000-pound car can stop a lot faster than a 20,000-pound ambulance, a 43,000-pound fire engine or a 62,000-pound ladder truck.

Martin said his new drivers must adapt to the sheer size of the vehicles, which are wider, higher and longer than anything they have ever driven.

Drivers need to learn to rely on their mirrors and to know how close they can get to objects without hitting them.

The class, which also involves lessons on pumping water, includes 16 exercises, requiring drivers to dodge nearly 300 cones. To pass, a driver has to complete the course in under eight minutes with no more than eight infractions. Speed isn't as important as accuracy. After all, most of the fire engines don't go faster than 65 mph, and if an ambulance driver goes too fast, the paramedic in the back can have a hard time working on a patient.

"We have curbs. We have trees, so it's a little more of a perspective than an open parking lot," he said of the course, located at the fire academy on Braselton Highway in the Hamilton Mill area. "By the time they leave here, they have a good understanding of what they are supposed to do."

The lessons of the road, with lights and sirens and adrenaline, are even tougher, Martin said, so drivers have to be behind the wheel for 24 hours before they are certified.

Last Monday, the firefighters at Station 22 in Stone Mountain had to take off when storms caused nearly 30 trees to crash into houses and wires to topple across the county.

The first call of the morning is a business fire. After the men get on their bunker gear, Terry Chaffin gets in the driver's seat. "All right, everybody ready?" he calls. "Seat belts on?" adds Brent Campbell, who served as the crew chief on the engine for the day.

Chaffin hits the siren and pulls onto Stone Drive, pausing and blasting his horn as he turns onto U.S. Highway 78.

As they approach the Metro Diner, few drivers have pulled off the road.

"Y'all got here fast," said a man who called 911 about the fire, a small one at the diner's water heater.

As they leave the restaurant, Engine 22 is dispatched to a tree on a house, so Chaffin turns the sirens back on. But another engine is closer, so they slow down and head back for the station.

Aware of the storm and hearing the onslaught of calls begin, Campbell doesn't take off his bunker gear, and minutes later the men pile back into the engine, heading toward a possible woods fire more than 10 minutes away.

Although the sirens are blaring, only some cars move out of the engine's way, as the crew barrels down narrow streets in Lilburn. At one point, Chaffin comes upon a box delivery truck, the driver unaware of the fire engine. He pulls back and follows the truck, and a few minutes later the driver sees the engine and pulls to the side of the road.

Station 22's drivers' jobs have become even more treacherous recently, Campbell said. The construction on U.S. Highway 78 has placed a median in the road, which means the driver can't pull into the oncoming lanes to get around a traffic jam. And the lanes are narrower, making driving a nine-foot-eight-inch-wide engine and especially a 10-foot-wide ladder truck more difficult.

"You need to use thought when you are driving these vehicles," said driver engineer Wes Garrett, who had the reins of the station's longer ladder truck. "Some people are more concerned with where they are going than an emergency."

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While Martin blames driver distraction, Polite says one of the biggest issues for firefighters is traffic.

"We've come from a community that was very spread out, not so much any more," Polite said.

Amason, whose crew at Station 20 in Lawrenceville has to contend with Ga. Highway 316, said traffic can be a burden.

"The more traffic, the more people who move into the area, the more risk for everybody," he said. "It's stressful on the guys driving because it's so frustrating. As an officer, you have to make sure they are driving with their head and not their emotions."

In the past several years, the growth of Gwinnett's fire department has meant less experienced drivers are behind the wheels of the ambulances and fire engines. Combined with the traffic issues, Polite said the county will likely never completely eliminate incidents with emergency vehicles. But three years ago, he began breaking down statistics to find problem areas and tailor training to the issues.

"Those lights and sirens are there for everyone else. We are still stopping at traffic signs," he said, adding that the county has a relatively low incident rate, since firefighters answer up to 100,000 calls a year. "We drive with due regard."

Sometimes, an incident with a firetruck can not only keep the crew from reaching an emergency, it can mean the need for more medical assistance.

Polite remembers a wreck when he was driving an ambulance years ago. With traffic stopped on Main Street in downtown Lilburn, Polite drove into the next lane. He saw a car coming toward him fast, but because of the traffic he had no where to go. He stopped the ambulance and put his hand out to brace his partner.

"They hit us pretty good," he said, saying the med unit was totaled and he never got to the emergency scene. "Even when you are doing the right things, stuff can happen."

Amason knows that all too well.

Twelve years ago, while the full-time Gwinnett firefighter was volunteering for the Barrow County department, he was driving down Ga. Highway 316 to a scene when a woman did a U-turn right in front of him.

He couldn't stop and the woman was killed in the wreck.

"You can tell people about it all the time. One split second of bad judgment, you aren't going to win if you get hit by a big truck," he said.

Amason said firefighters have it easier than police officers, who have faster cars and are smaller and harder for people to see. But because of the size of the vehicle, the responsibility is even greater.

"You've got to get there and it's dangerous," he said, adding that his own accident and the death of the woman weighs on him daily. "As much responsibility as we have, the general public has a responsibility, too. It's got to be a shared responsibility."

SideBar: By the numbers

Of 99 incidents in 2008

42 involved moving incidents

25 were when units were responding to a scene

20 were at a station

35 were on a street

12 were in a driveway

19 were in a parking lot

9 were on an interstate

1 other

3 unknown

13 were backing up

(9 with a back-up person outside)

29 incidents involved a stationary object

Of the 42 moving incidents

15 were on engines

16 were in vans and cars

3 were on ladder trucks

8 were on med units