Training keeps Johnson City Fire Department firefighters' truck-driving skills sharp

Hannah Swayze • Mar 23, 2019 at 12:00 AM

When you see several fire trucks in one parking lot, it most likely means something bad has happened.

But if you’ve driven down Legion Street this week and saw an unusual number of fire trucks, there’s no need to fret.

In fact, it’s a good sign.

This past week, the Johnson City Fire Department conducted Emergency Vehicle Operations Course training off Legion Street downtown to keep its firefighters’ behind-the-wheel skills sharp.

“Driving a fire apparatus is very different than driving your personal vehicle,” engineer Kevin Haynes said.

Fire trucks weigh, on average, between 19 and 30 tons. The size, wheel placement and weight of the trucks means drivers have to practice defensive driving — and there’s a learning curve for those who are new to it.

“It’s just a skill set they have to learn,” said District Chief David Bell. “Not every person comes into this department knowing how to drive a truck, and this is why we’re here in the controlled environment: to teach them.”

The course

To practice, a course was created on a large concrete pad using cones, and each driver, including those in training, drove through the course.

While driving the EVOC course, the firefighters have to drive through a series of maneuvers and situations that they could encounter on the job. And then some.

“This is a stress-free environment where they can actually go out and practice the skills that they wouldn’t normally get to practice in the real world, and not do any damage to the vehicles and help build their confidence up,” said Bell.

On the course, drivers practice navigating a narrowing alleyway, a three-point turn, reversing into a small space, a serpentine course and an offset road. And then, for some extra practice, the drivers parallel park, though it’s not something they would do on the job.

The Johnson City Fire Department requires its firefighters, whether they currently drive a truck or not, to drive the course yearly to keep ahead of requirements set by the National Fire Protection Association. According to Bell, the department exceeds those standards every year.

Bell said the biggest part of driving the trucks is knowing and respecting the size and weight of the vehicles.

Throughout the week, Bell said approximately 125 firefighters participated in the training course.

Don’t become an obstacle

One challenge firefighters can face on the road has nothing to do with buildings, backing up, curves or even cones. It’s cars.

Tennessee law says that when an emergency vehicle is on the road, with lights and sirens on, drivers are to slow and move to the right.

But Haynes said many drivers don’t do that or don’t know to.

“If I am coming up behind somebody, I don’t want them to just freeze up and lock down. Because then they become more of an obstacle. If they will slow and move to the right, then I can get past them easier,” said Haynes.

Drivers at an intersection or in a position with nowhere to go should remain in place until they can move. If the emergency vehicles are not in an emergency with the lights and sirens on, drivers should continue normally.