Today, Automotives starts a four-part series on the driver requirements and training methods of quick-response vehicles. Sirens wailing and lights flashing, these vehicles have a commanding presence on the road, clearing all out of their way as they rush to the scene of the emergency. Clearly, a very high level of driver competence is required - but it does not come overnight. We start with the biggest of Jamaica's emergency response vehicles, the fire truck.
Sheldon Williams, Gleaner Writer
With the heaviest vehicle in its fleet weighing 68,560 pounds (approximately 32 tonnes), including a massive boom that extends 104 feet in the air at full stretch, the Jamaica Fire Brigade has to move as quickly as possible to the scene of a fire. To complicate matters, the drivers have to watch out for obstructions from above; the distance from the truck's tyre to the boom on top is 13 feet, this on a vehicle 44 feet long.
There are smaller units. The pumper, which has six wheels, is the regular unit dispatched to combat a fire. On the other hand, the largest unit - the hydraulic platform or turntable ladder or 9-4 - has 10 wheels with the boom on top. It also has a built-in water tank.
Manoeuvering any of the units over long distances on roads which are often filled with traffic is obviously not easy. Still, fire truck drivers are entrusted with transporting crews and equipment rapidly, yet safely, as the brigade lives up to its motto 'Saving Lives, Protecting Property'. Then, once the emergency vehicle arrives at the required location they have additional duties to perform.
Deputy Commissioner of the Jamaica Fire Brigade, Raymond Spencer, told Automotives that, contrary to popular belief "the same training that is given to someone outside of the service is the similar training one is given inside the service You do the normal driver training as the man on the street normally does The only difference is the wailing signal so that the person in distress can know that we are coming and motorists who know the rules of the road will pull aside and allow you free passage."
However, Spencer conceded that persons with open licenses and who have operated heavy-duty vehicles such as trailers stand a better chance of becoming a fire truck driver than someone who does not have that experience. "It would be more difficult for someone who has never driven a vehicle before to drive a big haul unit," he said. He noted that the complete preparation time for a trainee driver to become fully competent might be three months and will culminate in him or her being taken to the depot to be tested. "The sooner you learn to maneuver a bigger unit, the sooner you can go to the depot," Spencer said.
Although the Jamaica Fire Brigade has four divisions, training is done mainly in two. "Training is done predominantly in two areas, one and four. The reason is because we only have two trucks to do the driver training. Drivers from areas two and three would have to go to other areas to do the training" Spencer said.
Area One includes Kingston and St Andrew and St Thomas, while Area Two consists of Portland, St Mary, St Ann and Trelawny. St Catherine, Clarendon and Manchester make up Area Three, while St James, Hanover, Westmoreland and St Elizabeth make up Area Four.
District Officer G. Slater of the York Park Fire Station in Kingston, who is also a driving instructor, explained that trainee drivers have to successfully complete both theoretical and practical assessments. According to Slater, " we give them a written test on all of the symbols on the dashboard and controls, and sometimes we just ask them to show us."
"Practical involves pump operation and ladder operation and the entire driving of the truck, because sometimes you get a driver who can already drive the truck but they are not familiar with the entire operation," Slater said. He emphasised that "you have to become a firefighter first, trained to be a firefighter, then you have to apply to the Transport and Fleet Management Division."
However, there are drivers contracted to the Jamaica Fire Brigade who drive the pumpers.
Slater gave Automotives a quick course in the functions of the hydraulic platform, assisted by a team from the York Park Fire Station. As a crew boarded the platform, the driver deployed the outriggers at the sides of the truck, positioning them so that they stood firmly on the ground. The boom was then released and hoisted in the air with a team of three firefighters aboard in a simulation of what actually takes place on some emergency assignments.
A boom may not be required on every assignment. But whether it is cutting motorists from mangled vehicles or climbing through windows into buildings engulfed by raging fire and billows of smoke, firefighters depend on the driver to get them to their assignments quickly - and safely.