Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

Editor’s Note:

The risks of operating and riding on emergency apparatus are inherently high. However, many of those risks are generated from a lack of training and experience, as well as poor decision-making. Whether it be backing, failure to yield at intersections, or not wearing seat belts, these events can affect you, your crew members, and the very public which you are in the profession to serve. In light of the tragic event that recently claimed the lives of two West Virginia firefighters in a apparatus crash, Don Cox of VFIS, discusses the importance of having a comprehensive driver qualification program in your organization.

“Never let the minimum standard be your maximum performance!” – Billy D. Hayes

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Does Your Emergency Service Organization Have a Comprehensive Driver Qualification Program?

Who decides if your Emergency Service Organization (ESO) truly has a comprehensive driver qualification program? Unfortunately, the decision may be provided in a court of law.  It only takes a quick search of the internet to find law firms that specialize in defending civilian clients struck by an ambulance or fire truck.  Do you realize that in 2016, more fire fighters were killed when responding to or returning from emergencies than on the actual fire scene? Almost 5,000 fire fighter injuries occurred in the same driving environment.[i]

Most states have a valid and reliable certification system that often provides state certifications in our profession. One of those certifications may be a driver/operator status. Totally relying on that one-time certification, that typically has no expiration or retesting requirement, can be a weak link in your risk management decision-making. The terms “qualification” and “certification” are often confused and misused. Although your state certification is recommended and valuable, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) has a responsibility to ensure their drivers are qualified based on their own comprehensive driver qualification system.

What constitutes a comprehensive driver qualification program?

  1. An established, documented minimum age requirement.
  2. Annual medical physical examinations.
  3. Qualified and current driver’s license (make sure you know your state regulations for CDL exemptions and conduct annual driver license reviews).
  4. Didactic curriculum (which can take on many forms including, but not limited to, classroom setting, online material, simulator training, case studies, etc.,). Material covering distracted driving and emerging technology in our vehicles should be included.
  5. Written examination – covering best practice driving items from a reputable source, questions from your ESO’s driving SOP/SOGs, questions specific to your ESO’s vehicles, such and weight/height specifications, etc.
  6. A competency course based on based practice exercises.
  7. An over-the-road non-emergency evaluation by a qualified supervisor/instructor.
  8. An over-the road emergency evaluation by a qualified supervisor/instructor (some personnel do well until the emergency lights and sirens are activated). Free .pdf check sheets are available at[ii]
  9. Established and documented requalification criteria – annual refresher training is often cited as a best practice and NFPA 1451 actually recommends refresher training twice a year[iii]
  10. Separate qualification assessments based on the type of vehicle. Example- if you have a Class “A” pumper and a Tender, your drivers should qualify on those vehicles separately.
  11. Thorough and documented collision investigations with a goal of coaching so that the incident is not repeated.


What is the origin of these best practices for a comprehensive qualification program?  Your insurance company may establish standards or provide training material for you.  NFPA, has no less than five NFPA standards that address driver training and professional qualifications, regardless of whether you are a volunteer or career fire fighter (NFPA 1002, 1091, 1451, 1500 and 1911)

Ask Yourself – Why is it, the tool we use most often (our vehicles) is the tool we train with the least?  As your organization’s Safety Officer/Instructor you can get your program back on the right track.

Takeaway Tips:

  1. Your ESO should have a documented driver qualification and requalification policy.
  2. Driver qualification programs should include didactic curriculum; a competency course, an over-the-road non-emergency evaluation and an over-the-road emergency evaluation.
  3. Qualified drivers should participate in refresher training, no less than once per twelve-month period.
  4. Vehicle collisions, no matter how minor, should be thoroughly investigated, with lessons learned shared throughout your ESO.


EVOC Training Video


[i] National Fire Protection Association- Firefighter Fatalities in the United States, (2016)
[iii] National Fire protection Association – 1451 Standard for a Fire and Emergency Service Vehicle Operator Training Program (2013)

Don Cox- Education Specialist, VFIS- A Division of Glatfelter Insurance Group

Don has served as a firefighter/paramedic for over 40 years in Iowa, Wisconsin and Florida. He served as the Fire Chief for the City of West Des Moines, Iowa and the Town of Menasha, Wisconsin. He holds a Master’s degree in Adult Education from Iowa State University; is an Executive Fire Officer with the National Fire Academy and holds designations as Chief Fire Officer and Chief Training Officer with the Center for Public Safety Excellence. He currently is a full-time Education Specialist with VFIS.