Lights & Sirens

Everyone has had the experience of driving in our personal vehicle when, seemingly out of nowhere, an emergency vehicle drove by at high speed with the emergency lights and siren on. You probably felt a sense of shock, fear and relief in the total time span of one second. More importantly, there have probably been times when you were the one in the emergency vehicle that blew by someone who didn’t see or hear you coming. We have a huge responsibility behind the wheel, and if we do not take the necessary precautions, there can be deadly consequences.

Overdriving the Siren

Most of us place too much emphasis on the effectiveness of our siren. At speeds of more than 60 mph (even lower in an urban setting with buildings on all sides), other drivers won’t hear you coming. Combine that with car radios, distracted attention, rolled-up windows, etc. and it could well be that you’re the only one who hears that siren.

Siren Syndrome

It’s no secret that a siren can stimulate the nervous system and cause the adrenaline to flow. Experienced operators need to be aware of another, almost opposite effect. A continuing siren without pattern or tonal change may result in a decreased level of attention and awareness. At the same time, it may decrease the effectiveness of the siren to those around you. It’s always a good idea to change the siren sound, especially when approaching intersections. This is most effectively done by using the horn on your steering wheel. If your patrol cars are not set up this way, your maintenance folks may have a job on their hands.

Know Your Laws

I’ve worked at two agencies in two states. One required blue lights and one required both red and blue lights. There are also likely requirements on what types of vehicles can operate with emergency equipment and how that equipment is to be mounted (e.g., some areas may not permit low profile patrol vehicles). You need an awareness of what is required, when it is authorized and what authority is conveyed. Despite our best efforts, sometimes things go badly and if/when they do, you want to be in total compliance with department policy and the law.

Know the Public

The motoring public often reacts differently to an approaching emergency vehicle depending on the nature of the jurisdiction you are working. If it’s rare to see an emergency vehicle, the drivers on the road may act absolutely crazy. Even if it’s a common occurrence, you will always see some bizarre driving behaviors. Expect the unexpected and don’t compromise your safety just because a driver in front of you acts strangely. You can pick up a copy of the 2011 book The Invisible Gorilla to find out more about this phenomenon.

Less is More

We often think the more lights, the better. While this might sound logical, it may not be the safest way to do business. In fact, the proper placement of lights is a lot more important than how many you have. Get a copy of the Florida Highway Patrol study on this issue by Lt. James Wells, Jr. and make sure that your agency takes a reasoned and proper approach when it comes to emergency lighting.

Wear Your Belt

Wearing your seatbelt is a core tenet of Below 100 for an important reason—the failure to do so is killing our crime fighters. In fact, I’m convinced that if our profession would have complied with this one common-sense tenet over the last two years, we would have been well below 100 line of duty deaths for the first time since 1943. I hope you know that wearing your belt in an emergency run is a must, but it’s also important when you are sitting still doing traffic control. We’ve all been behind the wheel blocking or re-directing traffic when we saw a car barreling towards us. When you’re struck by another vehicle, your best hope for survival is that seatbelt. It’s understandable that we take the seatbelt off when coming to a stop at a call or at a traffic stop but if we’re just sitting in our car doing traffic management, the real risk posed to us are the cars coming from behind, and for that reason we need a seatbelt on.

In Conclusion

While many of these topics may be basic, our profession continues to see issues with emergency equipment. It is dangerous to place too much reliance on the effectiveness of your lights and siren. They’re valuable tools, but they’re not perfect. Make the most of what you have, but understand the limitations.

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