By Scott Harkins, CSP, CPCU, ARM, Senior Vice President Risk Control Services
Most volunteer emergency service departments
rely heavily on the ability of their members
to respond to calls, either to the scene or the
station, in their personal vehicles. While this
is essential to the organization’s ability to react
to emergencies in a timely manner, there are
also inherent risks. The most significant risk
associated with allowing volunteers to respond
in their personal vehicles is that they may
operate them as if they are emergency vehicles
or disobey motor vehicle laws. All too often, this
leads to accidents.
Motor vehicle laws
While motor vehicle laws vary from state to
state, all states address the issue of response in
personally owned vehicles similarly: personal
vehicles are not emergency vehicles and are not
permitted the same, if any, exemptions to motor
vehicle laws. For example, while responding,
licensed emergency vehicles may be allowed
to exceed the posted speed limit, move against
the normal flow of traffic and proceed through
a negative intersection control device, however,
volunteers driving POVs are required to obey
applicable state motor vehicle code.
When asked why they volunteer, most members
talk about providing a service to their community
or helping their neighbors. Not following motor
vehicle laws while operating a motor vehicle
does not provide a service to the community
or help your neighbors. In fact, it puts your
neighbors at risk.
Some motor vehicle codes address the use
of “courtesy lights.” These lights are a visual
request asking other drivers to allow you to
pass them upon your approach. They are not a
demand for right-of-way, nor do they permit the
driver to illegally pass or speed up to overtake
any vehicle. Motor vehicle codes do vary, and an
understanding of your state laws is important in
determining how to manage this risk.
The response of your members in their POVs
helps form the perception that your community
has of your organization. Don’t you want that
perception to be positive?
Your organization may wish to reduce or
eliminate the risks associated with members
responding in their personal vehicles by looking
at alternative ways of getting personnel to the
scene. For example, the creation and use of duty
crews (members staffing predetermined shifts) would eliminate the need to have large numbers of volunteers responding to every call. A duty crew could staff a full first unit response to handle most calls. This would minimize the amount and the number of times volunteers are on the road in POVs.
Standard operating procedures
If your members are going to continue to respond to calls in personal vehicles, help minimize the risk of death or injury by developing and enforcing standard operating procedures (SOPs). These procedures should include, but not be limited to, the following:
- Volunteers responding in personal vehicles must obey their state motor vehicle code with respect to courtesy light and siren privileges.
- SOPs should not be more restrictive than applicable motor vehicle codes.
- Volunteers are not to use courtesy lights as a license to operate their personal vehicles as if they are emergency vehicles. Have the department chief approve all courtesy lights and issue a written permit. The permit could include the “rules of the road” that apply.
- Volunteers responding in personal vehicles should never exceed the posted speed limit.
- Volunteers responding in personal vehicles are to come to a complete stop at all stop signs and red traffic signals, and must wait for normal right-of-way before proceeding.
- Procedures for at-the-scene parking/staging should be included in SOPs.
- Volunteers must have personal auto liability insurance with appropriate liability limits. This will help protect not only the volunteer but also your organization.
Once they are developed, include SOPs in new-member orientation and driver training sessions. After every member receives a written copy of your SOPs, have them sign off that they received them and understand them. In addition, develop written enforcement and progressive discipline guidelines for any member who violates procedures.
When volunteers respond to calls, they need to understand that, first and foremost, they must arrive at the emergency scene or the station safely in order to be of any help to the public. Leaders must set the example by responding appropriately because members notice what their leaders do and follow that lead.
Need help? VFIS has a training program, Privately-Owned Vehicle Operations – Answering the Call Safely that can be used as part of your new-member orientation and/or ongoing training program.