When the Evanston Fire Department goes out on an alarm call, getting to the scene of the emergency quickly can be a matter of life or death – but arriving there safely is just as important.
From Jan. 1, 2019, through Nov. 5, 2022, the EFD reported 65 accidents involving a city-owned vehicle, according to data released to the RoundTable though a Freedom of Information Act request. The majority of the incidents (58, or 89% of the total) were described as minor. Five incidents resulted in some damage and two involved significant damage.
As part of the budget development process, the Evanston Fire Department has set a goal to reduce the number of vehicle accidents in 2023 to less than 10.
The EFD is not alone with respect to vehicular accidents. In fact, the safety issues surrounding traffic accidents and emergency vehicles – firetrucks, ambulances and police vehicles – has been studied at both the federal and local levels.
In 2012, motor vehicle crashes were the second-leading cause of death for on-duty firefighters. Firetruck crashes occurred at a rate of approximately 30,000 crashes per year, according to data from the United States Fire Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But 2020 statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board show that of the three types of emergency vehicles, firetrucks have accounted for the fewest fatal crashes.
Work Zone Barriers analyzed data from a 2021 report by Richard Campbell and Ben Evarts for the National Fire Protection Association.
In 2020, “an estimated 15,675 fire department vehicles were involved in traffic accidents which resulted in 550 firefighter injuries and 7 fatalities. Over the past decade, 10 road crash fatalities per year have occurred on average.”
There are a variety of concerns, including the public’s response to emergency vehicles. A survey released in April 2019 by the National Safety Council and the Emergency Responder Safety Institute found “71% of U.S. drivers take photos or videos when they see an emergency vehicle on the side of the road responding to a fire or a crash, or simply making a routine traffic stop. Sixty percent post to social media, and 66% send an email about the situation – all while behind the wheel.”
Firetruck accidents in Evanston
The Evanston Fire Department is making progress toward its goal of reducing accidents. Since 2019, the number of vehicles that have crashed or had accidents has decreased annually: In 2019 there were 20 accidents involving EFD, in 2020 there were 19, in 2021 there were 15, and through Nov. 5 of this year there have been 11 accidents.
The fire department credits consistent training for the improvement. Division Chief Kim Kull emphasized the importance of drills. “All firefighters are provided mandatory monthly training to learn how to use new – and practice using existing – equipment,” she said.
Although EFD’s accident numbers have decreased every year since 2019, determining how Evanston compares with a national average is not possible, because there are no national guidelines in reporting accidents.
Brian Dale, president of Priority Dispatch Corp., explained in an email, saying, “What defines a reportable accident to one agency, will not meet that threshold in another. The ability to track these accidents on a national basis does not truly exist.”
Evanston’s analysis is very detailed – it even includes a minor incident where a vehicle accidentally clipped a snowbank, for example.
If a fire department vehicle is involved in a minor accident while on an emergency run, firefighters generally continue to answer the call and the Evanston Police Department investigates the incident. Chief Paul Polep said, “When an accident occurs, EFD protocol is for the staff involved to contact their supervisor and the police department immediately. EPD files a report, takes photographs and makes any notifications necessary. EFD supervisors are expected to be on site once notified.”
If the report indicates the city is responsible for the damage, the expenses are covered by the city. “If the police report indicates the other driver was at fault, a citation may be issued. The other driver may also be responsible for the costs of repairing the damage,” Kull said.
Three hit-and-run incidents
Of the 65 incidents, a RoundTable examination of the city’s records classified 50 of the accidents as due to EFD’s driving, while 13 were due to other drivers’ negligence, including three incidents where the driver of the other vehicle fled the scene of the accident. One incident involved broken equipment and one documented a report that was unproven.
Twenty-five (38%) of the 65 incidents involved engines, 18 (28%) involved ambulances and 12 (19%) involved ladder trucks. The remaining 10 involved other vehicles in EFD’s fleet.
For each call EFD responds to, an average of about 2½ EFD vehicles are sent to the scene, said Kull. EMS calls represent 60% of the calls EFD answers. Based on current data, EFD projects the total number of calls will be nearly 11,000 this year. Call numbers were lower in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, which corresponds to national numbers as well.
Narrow streets, large vehicles
There is a seasonal pattern to the number of incidents: The first half of the year tends to have a greater number of incidents compared to the second half. Snow, ice and the effects of both on street parking explain part of the difference. Some neighborhoods have particularly narrow streets.
“Geographically, there are challenges in accessing certain streets in Evanston after snowstorms. Even after the streets have been plowed, there is reduced availability for street parking, making it very difficult for us to effectively maneuver,” said Kull.
The data bears this out. In 26 cases, city property was damaged, such as scraping a curb, hitting a street sign or bumping another city vehicle. In 25 cases, EFD caused damage to private vehicles or property; 10 of these 25 incidents involved clipping the side mirror of the other vehicle.
There have been four instances of vehicle scrapes, all minor, at the heavily trafficked City of Evanston fuel depot on Asbury Avenue. Kull confirmed, “It can be congested over there, no doubt.”
And firetrucks, of course, are large. An article last year by J.D. Power, using information provided by the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association, estimated that vehicles are 98 to 100 inches wide, from 9 to 13 feet tall, and 24 to 51 feet long depending on the specific type of equipment.
A single injury incident
Of the two incidents labeled “significant,” one of those incidents resulted in injuries, both to the first responders en route to an emergency call and the driver of the car that collided with the city vehicle. No EFD employees were hospitalized; the department’s report did not indicate if the other driver was hospitalized.
EFD policy calls for firefighters to buckle up, even on emergency calls. Polep said the city’s firetrucks, all made by Pierce Manufacturing, “each have a safety feature that produces a loud beep if any of the fire personnel on a vehicle are not seat belted. All drivers are trained not to operate the vehicle until everyone on board is seat belted.”
In both of the “significant” incidents, reserve vehicles had to be called into service while the damaged ones were repaired. Damaged city vehicles are repaired by the Fleet and Facilities Department.
None of the incidents led to lawsuits, according to city records.
One incident was reported to EFD and an accusation made of damage, but according to city records, no proof was provided and the personnel involved with that call believed no accident occurred.