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Vehicle Situational Awareness Date Posted: Dec 21, 2017

Vehicle Accidents/Incidents: Situational Awareness

Mark Hodges

Fire and Emergency - MKRFD Principal Driving Instructor

“Situational awareness” is as important while operating a motor vehicle as it is on the fire line. As can happen from deployments, burnovers or medical emergencies, the simple fact is that firefighters can be and are injured or killed while operating vehicles on fire calls.

Over the past 3 years accidents have occurred on or around Incidents, involving St John Ambulance, NZFS and Rural Appliances, that by luck rather than good judgement could have lead to more serious outcomes.

These are just some examples of accidents occurring:

  • NZFS Appliance rollover in Motueka   

  • St John Christchurch Intersection Crash

  • Tankers being used in Offroad situations       

  • NZFS Wellington Intersection Crash

  • MKRFA Tankers getting bogged down                      

  • Darfield Fire Tanker burn over

A review of the types of vehicles involved and the operator qualifications of those involved in these incidents discovered that the operators had mixed levels of prior experience in these vehicles.  Their experience ranged from extremely limited in the vehicles being operated when the incident occurred to those with numerous years experience.

Human factors are the major contributor to Urban and Rural Fire motor vehicle accidents. Human factors can include fatigue, level of operator experience in the vehicle driven, and unsafe operator practices.  

In serious and fatal accidents under Rural Fire control, fatigue has been identified as a significant factor especially when operators have pushed to cover long response distances or are otherwise working extended shifts.   Furthermore, it is during these periods when operators are likely to be driving in areas/country that is unfamiliar to them.  Generally accidents occur while the operators are enroute to or returning from an incident, or driving on unfamiliar roads while at the incident location.

A second factor that has been identified was operator experience. 

The operator may have had many years of experience driving a car or light 4WD but they were often relatively inexperienced in operating a Tanker which has unique and specialised loading and handling characteristics that warrant additional precautions.

Unsafe practices and poor decisions of the operator have been a third human factor. These have included acts such as distracted by radio chatter or a cellular phone while driving and an operator placing helmets on dash for easy access.  Poor decisions such as not wearing seatbelts, is both an illegal and an unsafe practice that has contributed to injuries or death.   The value of a consistent seatbelt use, even at low speeds, can easily be illustrated.  During the late 90’s an Airforce  trainee with an instructor and passenger driving on a narrow 4WD track  at 15 km/h went off the track , rolled a few times times down a 45 degree slope and landed upside down.  The driver and passengers were wearing their seatbelts and walked away with minor bruises and abrasions. 

One of the least recognised human factors contributing to accidents are environmental ones. Vehicle operators and even their passengers need to maintain alertness to the variety and changing environmental conditions on fires such as narrow roads, smoky conditions that reduce visibility, soft shoulders, roadway edge drop offs, high winds, and fallen snags obstructing roads.  This enhanced level of situational awareness by operators and their occupants is also needed driving to or from an incident where abnormal roadway conditions may be encountered. 

Emergency Management Operations Centre

4 Wither Road, Blenheim