Driven to distraction


One of the Hagerstown Fire Department's toughest training requirements doesn't involve fighting fires.

Before a firefighter ever reaches a fire scene he has to learn how to maneuver the department's vehicles, including a 50-foot-long ladder truck, through Hagerstown's city streets.

"There's not much room for error," said Battalion Chief Ron Horn.

Nearly all of the city's 55 firefighters are trained to drive the department's trucks, some the size of a tractor-trailer.

Locust, Mulberry, Washington, Church and George streets are some of the most difficult to negotiate because they are narrow and usually have a lot of parked cars, firefighters said.

"You're driving 21st-century equipment in an 18th-century town," said veteran firefighter Bob Herr.

Herr said the firetruck equipped with a 100-foot ladder is the hardest and most nerve-racking of all the rescue vehicles to learn to drive.


The ladder truck requires two drivers using teamwork to steer. One sits up front and directs the vehicle, while a driver in a rear cab controls the rear wheels. The rear driver's steering and movements must be a mirror opposite of the front driver's.

The ladder truck is used for every call involving buildings, said Horn. The city went on more than 1,000 calls last year.

Firefighters are required to attend a 39-hour emergency vehicle operator course, which includes written and practical exercises. Those skills are refreshed about every two years, he said. Firefighters also must earn a state tractor-trailer driver's license.

Firefighters partner with experienced drivers and perform frequent training exercises, such as driving the department's ladder truck in a serpentine curve around pylons.

Accidents are expected, said Horn. They tend to occur most often when a driver is backing into the firehouse or making a turn, he said.

Statistics about the number of accidents in which fire equipment was involved in the past year were unavailable. Horn said he's been told that the record is good considering the city's landscape and the size of the apparatus.

Horn said he had to put up with the nickname "wipe out" for years after he hit two parked cars while making a turn onto Jonathan Street.

"A tailboard took out the sides of the cars like a can opener," he said.

When accidents happen a fire department investigation is conducted and drivers may be required to take additional training, said Horn.

Traffic congestion, illegal parking and people trying to drive around the firetrucks while they maneuver make the job more difficult, Hagerstown Capt. Justin Mayhue said.

People need to be educated about what to do when they see flashing lights and hear sirens, Mayhue said.

"Don't throw on your brakes and stop in the middle of the street," he said. Driver's should pull over and let the emergency vehicle pass and then look in there rear view mirror for other rescue vehicles, he said.

"People have good intentions but sometimes stress out and aren't sure what to do," Mayhue said.

Mayhue said he's had his share of accidents but doesn't dwell on them.

"You learn from the experience and move on," he said.

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