Not many young drivers make the jump from riding a motorcycle around town to weaving a 15-ton red behemoth through traffic with lights flashing and sirens blaring, but when Boston Fire Captain and driver trainer Scott Wahlen joined the service 13 years ago, he didn't even have his own driver's license. Now he teaches young recruits how to drive the big fire engines safely.
Scott, a former Marine, says after getting his license as part of firefighter training, he quickly went from "riding my motorbike around Boston to driving a fire truck with a brief spell driving a Plymouth Horizon in between." He's taught rookie fire-engine drivers for longer than he can remember and, if you're lucky, he'll tell you the tale of the time he sideswiped a state trooper's car en route to an emergency.
Many of Scott's recruits go through the Boston Fire Academy, and the mandatory driving awareness classes included in the three-month course, but Scott says a shortage of these institutions nationwide -- and often a lack of actual driving time on an academy course -- results in many recruits effectively getting their driving experience on the job. That's right: most fire fighters driving those big red beasts often are learning their red-light-driving skills on the job.
Often, he'll let a "newbie" drive the engine back from a call-out or maneuver through an obstacle course simulation at the station to get them accustomed to the vehicle's weight and dynamics.
Scott says that despite their hulking frames, fire engines (which he lovingly refers to as simple, "engines") are much more maneuverable than they used to be: "They've done so much better on Fords and Pierces. Guys get fanatical about engines but you can make a corner with an engine that I can't make in my Honda Civic. In a Honda the wheels are ahead of the driver; in an engine the wheels are behind. It looks like you can't make the turn but swing out a little and you can. They've come up with crab crawl: If you take a left, the front wheels will go left but the back wheels will go right to get around tight turns."
Scott says fire engines are now longer and usually carry a 45-foot ladder and 50-foot ladder among other heavy equipment. At idle, the engine's gears are used to help pump water by way of a vacuum in the engine's central fuel pump. Some call-outs will involve two fire engines but others require up to four vehicles: a fire engine, rescue truck, tower (basically a regular ladder truck with a "bucket" in which a firefighter is lifted to a high window), and an ambulance. This means four separate drivers.
He says some states, including New York, have created a "chauffeur" position similar to a captain or lieutenant rank where a specific firefighter on a team will drive the engine and run its operations at a call-out site. It's a prestigious position in a team, Scott says, a promoted post that usually results in a pay bump above the rank-and-file firefighters.
The chauffeur, Scott explains, will control the "stick" -- the giant aerial contraption a firefighter uses to gain access to a high-rise or roof -- at the emergency site, sets up the "jacks" behind the engine's rear wheels and make sure the engine's brakes are engaged and the engine is in neutral. Scott breaks the driver's responsibility into three parts: to drive to the emergency scene, set up the heavy apparatus and look after its operation until the team's work is done. "If a kid's hanging out the window you need to get the aerial up quick, it's all up to one guy." That's a lot of responsibility.
Driver safety is a much-discussed topic among fire departments, but sadly Scott cites the case of his late colleague, Boston Fire Lieutenant Kevin Kelly, a 30-year fire-service veteran who died in January after suspected engine brake failure that's still under investigation. Scott is mindful that death looms large for any firefighter as a result of the nature of their jobs, and Scott and his wife, Deborah, run a nonprofit retreat in the Virgin Islands for families of deceased firefighters and those hurt in the line of duty, where they can rest and recuperate from the job's stresses.
Scott says most accidents occur, somewhat surprisingly, when road conditions are nearly perfect. 'It's not dawn, dusk, wet or snow. It's when it's dry, perfect [conditions]. People think they can go a little faster, they get a false sense of security, and people tend to go faster. When it rains you'll get a fender bender but the real big crashes occur when it's perfect out."
He adds: "You can't really simulate too many emergencies. An old captain's joke, even if they're a great driver, is we'll say, 'There's a fire there, there's still gonna be a fire there when we get there, but if we don't get there, then that's gonna be a problem.' It's very scary teaching new officers. When you learn you sit on the left, of course, but it's much more scary being on the right.
"We really have to stop at intersection for oncoming traffic [but] we can stop and go through a red a light if there's not traffic."
Often a call from a team ahead will determine if the engine needs to speed to get to its destination, or if the driver can take it a little easier. "We get updates from first responders, we can keep on lights but turn off sirens, or if there's a red light, we'll stop.
"We get a lot of police calls: If the police are tied up they'll send the fire department. If nothing else is around, a cell phone's out of range, always they'll pull one of the boxes [and a] fire engine will be there in 3 minutes. We respond whether it's a heart attack or smoke in the area. I can't tell you how many fights we broke up, or a girl was in trouble. If it's a car accident we send all the equipment.
"We log all the driving time, so the chief looks at it and says, 'Hey this kid hasn't driven in the last four months,' so the chief might say 'this guy needs to drive again.' [Often firefighter driver records are available to the public.] All in all the guys that drive are pretty good. I'm amazed at the stuff they pull."
Scott says the most valuable lesson of fire engine driving applies to regular drivers, too: "Use your mirrors. It's the Number One thing kids have to get used to. But my big thing as captain is to know where we're going. Knowing where they're going, confident drivers get in fewer accidents. When kids don't know where they're going, it's a recipe for disaster."
He explains that firefighters track the location of a call-out through a centralized system that logs the "box" where the alarm was raised -- often those little red boxes you see in public spaces or buildings where you have to pull the lever or break the glass -- and dates back to days when horses were used in place of engines. Scott says the older horses used to be able to work out where the box was in Boston -- then much smaller -- by the number of notes in the system's alarm call, which varied depending on the box's location. "Now if only we can get our rookies to know the streets as well as the horses," he jokes.
He warns against the public parking on corners which are marked as free spaces to accommodate a fire-engine's maneuvers, especially in a city with narrow streets like Boston: "Don't park on a corner for fire trucks. Taking a right-hand turn with a car on that corner, he gets hung up on that car a lot; it's imperative not to park there as we can take that car out. The big concern is: When do you take the car out? With a fire showing, a lot of times you have to make that decision. If it's an emergency, the ladder truck will take that car out.
"I took out a state trooper car one time when there was fire showing. I had to push his car and I just remember saying, 'Oh my God,' but there was fire showing, and my lieutenant was cool."
He then tells a harrowing tale of just one of the times his life was in peril while he was behind the wheel -- when he slid the vehicle in black-ice conditions on a raised street hundreds of feet above an interstate that runs through Boston.
"It was really slippery conditions and someone had a heart condition. I went up to the top of the street and I stepped on the brakes and the engine just started going left and right. I turned to my lieutenant and he said, 'Stop, stop, stop, put your foot on the brake.' I said, 'My foot's on the brake.' And now I'm sliding down the hill, in about 200 feet I knew that if I didn't stop I'd be going right over. Imagine a fire engine falling off a cliff onto an interstate.
"All the guys were ready to bail, the piece was not stopping, and at the last second I said I'd rather hit five or six cars than go over. I finally hit the cars, part of a fence and almost hit a house.
"Now I knew everyone was going to show up: The city chief, the safety chief, I was like, 'they're gonna fire me.' But the safety chief's driver, in a Chevy Tahoe, drives up, steps on the brakes and slams right into the engine. He gets out and goes, 'Well I guess it was kinda slippery, huh chief?' It was all black ice."