Archive for Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Fire departments differ on use of flashing lights by volunteers

December 11, 2002

A Tonganoxie volunteer firefighter would like to figure out how to let other drivers know when he's on his way to the fire station for an emergency call.

That way, said Mike Arnett, drivers could pull over and give him room to move ahead.

Arnett recently received a traffic ticket while driving to the fire station. A volunteer for the Tonganoxie City Fire Department and a paramedic for Leavenworth County Emergency Medical Service, Arnett said he understands the importance of following traffic laws. But he still is trying to think of a way that would help him get through traffic quicker.

Arnett's car is marked by a front license tag that designates him as a paramedic-firefighter. He said this tag is not easy for other drivers to see.

Although the city fire department does not allow dashboard lights and a siren, or alternating flashing headlights on volunteers' personal vehicles, Arnett said devices such as that could help him get to the fire station on time by alerting other drivers to pull over.

But Dave Bennett, Tongan-oxie deputy fire chief and training officer, said flashing lights on vehicles would cause confusion.

"There are emergency volunteers coming in from all directions and we don't want to create chaos and confusion on the way to the station," Bennett said.

Bennett's theory is simple: Volunteers must obey traffic laws.

"We find that by obeying all traffic laws you get here just as fast without passing people and speeding," Bennett said.

Tom Pulkrabek, chief of the Tonganoxie Township Fire Department, said his department does not allow volunteers to use special lighting.

Pulkrabek said that last month while he was in Tonganoxie with a fire department van, he was called to a fire. But first he had to go to back to the township fire station, which is about two miles northwest of town, to get the truck.

"I was using my red lights and siren in the official fire department van and from the top of Hubbel Hill for a mile or so to the station, and three cars didn't slow down or pull off," Pulkrabek said. "So again, if it had been my personal vehicle with red lights and siren it would have made absolutely no difference."

Rick Huhn, chief of Dela-ware Township Fire Depart-ment in Lansing said his volunteers are allowed to use lights and sirens on personal vehicles.

"We've got probably four or five on our department," Huhn said. "It's mostly the older guys. We haven't got too many younger guys that have them."

In order to use the lights and sirens, the volunteers must take a test administered through Chuck Magaha, director of the county's emergency management department.

Huhn said the fire department has restrictions on when volunteers can use their lights and siren.

"If they're in downtown Kansas City they can not use them," Huhn said. "You've got to be realistic. If they're in downtown Leavenworth we don't use them, we tell them to wait until you're closer."

Huhn tells his volunteers to obey traffic laws.

"We tell them if you're pulled over it's on you," Huhn said. "If you get in a wreck you won't help us any."

And, Huhn said, the lights and sirens don't seem to make much of a difference.

"The guys without red lights get to the station just about as fast as the guys with red lights," Huhn said.

And, like Pulkrabek, Huhn said drivers are often oblivious to lights and sirens.

"They don't even get out of the way of fire trucks," Huhn said.

Dave Bennett agreed.

"They won't pull over and sometimes they even pass us," Bennett said.

Meanwhile, Arnett said he has already paid his $115 traffic ticket. And, he will be brought up before the fire department's review board to see if any disciplinary action is recommended.

Arnett, who has been a paramedic for two years and a volunteer firefighter for the city of Tonganoxie for eight months, said the last thing he wants to do is create a rift in the department. This is the first traffic ticket he's received since being on the department.

"It's the first and, hopefully, the only one," Arnett said.

Like Bennett, Pulkrabek and Huhn, Arnett said he's not sure if other drivers would pay attention to red lights and siren or any other flashing lights.

"I don't know how much more it would help even if we were to make ourselves more visible," Arnett said.

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