Many residents probably think firefighters can speed through intersections if the lights and sirens on their fire engine are activated.
Bridgeport Fire Lt. David Acanfora, who trains firefighters how to safely drive fire engines at the Fairfield Regional Fire School, wants to make sure firefighters don't think that.
"The laws of the road apply to us at all times," Acanfora said this morning during a training class for Trumbull and Darien firefighters that is designed to get them licensed to drive fire trucks. "We train them to follow the rules of the road because they do apply to us."
Firefighters responding to emergencies can drive a little faster than the speed limit, but they don't have the freedom to drive through intersections assuming that a motorist or pedestrian knows they're coming and won't cross that intersection at the same time, Acanfora said.
Speeding through red lights and stop signs doesn't save much time, and, in 2008, 21 percent of firefighters killed in the line of duty were killed in motor vehicle accidents, Acanfora said.
"We have to slow down. We have to come, if necessary, to a complete stop and make sure the intersection is clear. Intersections are our worst parts. That's where we have a lot of our accidents and fatalities," Acanfora said. "Nowhere in the state statutes and rules of the road does it say we can run through red lights."
Today's training class on One Rod Highway in Fairfield was part of a seven-week course that is designed to enable firefighters to obtain a "Q endorsement license" from the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The Q endorsement allows firefighters to drive fire trucks and, like a regular driver's license, doesn't need to be renewed through testing.
"Once you get it, you've got it, but the key is you can't rest on that. It's the responsibility of the department to take that farther and familiarize them with all vehicles," Acanfora said.
The "Q Endorsement Driving Program" normally trains seven firefighters at a time. The current program is training five firefighters - four from Trumbull and one from Darien. The program started three years ago, and all 70 firefighters who have gone through the program have passed the state DMV test, which is held at the Fairfield Regional Fire School after the program is over.
The current class is expected to end in mid-June, followed by a DMV test at the end of June.
In addition to teaching firefighters how to safely drive a fire truck, the Q Endorsement Driving Program also teaches firefighters the "pre-trip" part of the DMV test - making sure equipment on the truck's exterior and in the cab is present and in good condition and testing the truck's air brakes, service brakes and parking brakes.
Checking air brakes "is one of the most important parts of the Q Endorsement Program" and is done by starting the truck, bleeding all of the air out of the system, re-starting the truck and re-charging the system, Acanfora said.
The pre-trip check is normally done at the beginning of a firefighter's shift. "At the beginning of the shift, there should be a check of the airbrake system and overview of the vehicle. Then you should be good for the rest of the day," Acanfora said.
The second part of the DMV test that's covered in the Q Endorsement Driving Program is the "static course," which tests firefighters' ability to parallel park, and to stop, both in drive and in reverse, 24 inches from a mark.
While that may seem easy for someone driving a car, it's much different in a fire truck, Acanfora said.
Not only is a fire truck much heavier than a car, but the driver is elevated; driving in reverse is done with mirrors; operating the equipment is much different; and a firefighter must contend with blind spots, Acanfora said. "When you're backing, your right side becomes a blind spot. As the vehicle gets on an angle and we start backing up, there are blind spots that develop just because of the position of the vehicle," he said.
Acanfora said firefighters shouldn't drive a fire truck in reverse until spotters are outside the truck.
The third part of the DMV test covered by the Q Endorsement Driving Program is a road test, where a DMV inspector tells firefighters where to drive and what to do, Acanfora said.
A firefighter has to pass all three parts of the DMV test before he's eligible to drive a fire truck. "If you don't pass the pre-trip, your day is over," Acanfora said.
Each of the seven classes in the Q Endorsement Program is eight hours long. After firefighters attend a class on the weekend, they're encouraged to practice on fire trucks at their own fire departments, Acanfora said.
In the old days, firefighters were taught how to drive a fire truck by members of their fire department, but that isn't the case anymore.
"Now, because of so much liability and responsibility, departments are making sure drivers, before they even get on the road, take a course like this," Acanfora said. "When they get back to their departments, their departments have their programs they have to teach them - make sure they can drive other vehicles and that a firefighter is ready to be checked off to drive on a regular basis."
New drivers usually need 100 hours behind the wheel of a fire engine before the department will put them in a regular rotation of drivers. Every firefighter should have a Q endorsement license because they may need to drive a fire truck if the regular driver gets injured on a call or is out sick, Acanfora said.
The last Q Endorsement Driving Program taught firefighters from West Hartford, Trumbull, Shelton and Darien, Acanfora said. "They come from all over the state. This is a regional state school. There are a couple on the waiting list from as far away as Bloomfield," he said.
The fee for the course is $275, and preference is given to firefighters in Fairfield County.
Safety is stressed above everything else in the Q Endorsement Driving Program, Acanfora said.
Firefighters, he said, are trained to respond to emergencies as fast as they can, but that doesn't apply to driving, and fast driving is not only dangerous but can be counterproductive to getting somewhere in a hurry, according to Acanfora.
"Most of the accidents are attributed to excessive speed and that's our nature. If you get into an accident, you've already put in a delay. It might take another three minutes for the next company to get there. That's a long time," Acanfora said.