BY ED BALLAMFirehouse.com News
From the moment that motorized emergency vehicles hit the streets, it's likely everyone recognized the importance of making them conspicuous -- visible to other motorists to avoid accidents. That's why they had bells, lights, sirens and in many cases brightly colored paint.
The importance of being seen has only increased as traffic volume and speeds have increased. Fire apparatus, police cruisers and ambulances must be conspicuous to avoid serious and often tragic accidents.
In August, the United States Fire Administration (USFA), in partnership with the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA), released the "Emergency Vehicle Visibility and Conspicuity Study."
The project is intended to improve emergency vehicle and roadway operations safety for firefighters, law enforcement officers, EMS providers and others who must work on roads during emergencies. The U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Justice (NIJ) supported the project.
"With vehicle crashes and emergency responders being struck on the roadway being a major cause of on-duty fatalities, it is important to examine all technologies to reduce this tragic cause of death," said USFA Deputy Fire Administrator Glenn A. Gaines. "We are grateful for the U.S. Department of Justice's NIJ support of this study that will benefit the fire and emergency services and law enforcement alike."
Mike Wieder, IFSTA Assistant Director, said his organization was pleased to work on the study. "We believe that the results of this study will enhance the safety of the fire service, law enforcement and other emergency responders," he said.
The 45-page study, which is available for download, details best practices in emergency vehicle visibility, including discussions about retroreflective striping, chevrons, high-visibility paint, built-in passive light and other reflectors for emergency response vehicles.
Ironically, one of the major findings of the study is "the urgent need" for more study of the issue.
"Additional research specific to U.S. emergency vehicle visibility/conspicuity is sorely needed, particularly given the complexity, diversity and interdependencies of the American traffic system and its driving culture," the report states.
Despite the committee's need for additional information, the study did key in on a number of findings that could help reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities. Many are common sense items, but are critically important.
Robert Tutterow was one of the experts assigned to the project in summer 2008 to contribute his thoughts to the report. Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department's health and safety officer. He's also a member of the National Fire Protection Association's apparatus committee.
"This report brings a focal point to the issue," said Tutterow in a telephone interview. "It also says there's a need for more study, but it validates a lot that has already been done."
The need for the USFA report, and even more study, is obvious in Tutterow's mind. "Too many people have been hit trying to do their missions over the years. People don't think it's a huge problem because it hasn't happened to them, but it happens all the time. There's not a major metropolitan department that hasn't had a vehicle hit, some several times. Even some of the smaller departments have had it happen."
Visibility and conspicuity has long been an issue for the Emergency Responder Safety Institute, a committee of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen's Association, based in Pennsylvania.
While the institute did not have any direct involvement with the USFA report, much of its work was verified and it was a resource for the panel working on the report.
Rich Marinucci, chief of the Northville Township (Mich.) Fire Department, is a spokesman for the institute. He has more than 30 years experience in the fire service and is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).
Like Tutterow, Marinucci believes that complacency is the enemy when it comes to visibility and conspicuity.
"We have got to do whatever we can to keep our responders safe and feeling safe so they can do their jobs confidently and quickly so they can get off the roads quicker," Marinucci said.
The report from the feds suggests that a lot more could be done to improve passive vehicle visibility and conspicuity. Best practices in emergency vehicle visibility, including cutting edge international efforts, are detailed in the study. Retroreflective striping, chevrons, high-visibility paint, built-in passive lighting and other reflectors for law enforcement patrol vehicles, fire apparatus, ambulances, EMS vehicles and motorcycles are all covered in the report.
Active warning systems, like lights and sirens, are part of a separate federal study and are not included in the August USFA report.
Tutterow is hoping the report catches news media attention and it gains some much needed publicity. He's also hoping it lasts more than one news cycle.
"Drivers today have too many distractions," Tutterow said. "They have cell phones, they're texting, they're using GPS navigation systems, and they're using sound systems. They are paying attention to everything but what is in front of them."
That's why Tutterow subscribes to a sort of "in-your-face" approach when it comes to retroreflective material and visibility aids.
"I'm not sure that there is such a thing as overkill when it comes to retroreflective material," he said.
The yellow and red chevron stripping on the backs of apparatus is an example of how something relatively simple and cost effective can have a dramatic affect on responder safety. New apparatus, to be National Fire Protection Association compliant, must have at least 50 percent of the rear body covered with chevron stripping. Tutterow's hoping emergency responders will see the value and retrofit existing response vehicles to the standard.
Ironically, what's good for a fire truck might not be good for law enforcement officers, the report indicates.
For example, too much retroreflective material on a cruiser and police officers wouldn't be able to maintain stealth during patrolling. Often police prefer to be nearly invisible to other drivers when conducting some enforcement and patrol activities, the report says. It further says that one way to compromise is to put more retroreflective material on the backs of cruisers.
The report says; "The dichotomy between the need for emergency vehicles to be highly visible under some scenarios, and less visible under others, creates different conspicuity requirements for emergency vehicles than for vehicles like school buses where high visibility is always desired."
Not only is it important for drivers to see emergency vehicles, it's important they recognize them for what they are, the report says. Recognition and driver actions are just as important to responder safety.
That's why, Tutterow said, there's a need to standardize some emergency vehicle visibility and conspicuity features.
"What would you do if you came up to a stop sign that was blue with green letters," Tutterow asks rhetorically. He said the nation has standardized on octagonal red signs with white letters as the universal symbol to stop.
"We need the same kind of standards for emergency vehicles," he said.
The report refers to "cognitive conspicuity" which is designed to give motorists information, rather than just making sure emergency vehicles are noticed.
"While catching the eye of another driver is the 'first thing,' the larger goal is to help provide other drivers with information about a vehicle's presence, size, potion, speed and direction of travel," the report said. "As a driver, the critical objectives of conspicuity are to 1) clearly broadcast your own aims, and 2) easily recognize surrounding drivers' intentions, enabling the appropriate action to avoid a collision."
The report points to systems in place in the United Kingdom which help motorists to immediately notice and identify emergency vehicles because of a standardization system. The Battenburg or harlequin pattern along the sides of law enforcement officers' vehicles are said to improve both day and night time conspicuity and recognition as a police vehicle.
Ambulances in the UK are also using an adaptation of the Battenburg scheme with yellow and green colors for recognition.
The Battenburg pattern has recently been catching on in the United States, the report points out, while recognizing that some agencies will not embrace the scheme because of traditions and cultural influences.
While the biggest thing to come out of the USFA report is the need for more study, it does offer some practical advice for increasing visibility and conspicuity.
The report recommends the contours of emergency vehicles be outlined with retroreflective material. Edge marking helps drivers determine the size and shape of the vehicle they are observing and its use is supported by research dating back 25 years.
Marking placement also must be considered when trying to increase vehicle visibility. Retroreflective material placed lower on emergency vehicles may actually work better with new headlight designs which are made to illuminate the roads in front of motorists.
Fluorescent retroreflective materials have shown to improve daytime as well as nighttime visibility and using high-efficiency retroreflective material can improve conspicuity while reducing the amount of vehicle surface requiring treatment, the report said.
Even the placement of logos and emblems, especially those with retroreflective material, can improve emergency vehicle visibility and recognition.
"The use of clearly identifiable logos or graphics specifying the affiliation, and therefore function, of an emergency vehicle can be reasonably expected to aid recognition and help surrounding drivers better anticipate its behavior," the report said.
The report concludes with the observation that emergency vehicle visibility improvements will "likely result from a combination of both active and passive conspicuity treatments -- including enhanced emergency vehicle warning lighting systems and the increased use of retroreflective materials -- to improve the visibility and recognizability (when desired) of emergency vehicles including ambulances, patrol cars and fire apparatus."
And, while more scientific study is needed, the report also observes that "common sense" approaches to traffic safety have been successful.
"For this reason, sensible efforts to improve the visibility and conspicuity of emergency vehicles need not be delayed," the report said. "However, these efforts must be followed-up, in short order, with empirical studies to determine their effectiveness and identify any unintended consequences."