Montgomery Fire, Rescue Crashes Rise
Accidents Threaten County's Insurance

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2003; Page A01

Drivers of Montgomery County firetrucks and ambulances have had more than 1,100 accidents in the last five years, doing so much damage to the fleet that the Fire and Rescue Service is at risk of losing its insurance coverage, according to county records.

Montgomery has received warnings from its insurance underwriter that the mounting losses, totaling nearly $2 million since 1997, "exceed trends from comparably sized fire service clients on both the east coast and the west coast," according to a memo written by Gordon A. Aoyagi, the county's fire administrator.

Departmental reviews of the most serious accidents, including crashes that left one motorist dead and more than a dozen injured, have found that many could have been avoided had drivers slowed before entering intersections or followed proper procedures as they responded to emergency calls.

When an ambulance tried to push its way through a rain-slickened intersection north of Rockville in October, the driver realized too late that she couldn't squeeze past the late-model Volvo driven by Gema Doe, 37, who was four months pregnant.

"All of a sudden, boom!" Doe recalled last week. "My whole car shoved forward. I felt a sharp pain in my back. I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to lose my baby.' "

Doe, of Gaithersburg, recovered from her injuries, but her daughter was born in March with a broken shoulder. A review of the ambulance driver's actions concluded that "a slower speed would have prevented the collision."

A June 2000 crash in eastern Montgomery ended more tragically. When Kenneth Sleeman, 80, edged his Dodge Intrepid into the intersection and stopped, the driver of the rescue service's tanker truck thought the road was clear. But Sleeman hit the accelerator and moved directly into the truck's path.

The front of the truck crushed the driver's side of the Dodge, killing Sleeman instantly. Police cleared the veteran firefighter who was at the wheel of any blame, but an internal safety report found that he had "failed to drive at such a speed that he could safely stop to avoid an accident." Police estimate that the driver, Master Firefighter Edmund J. Siekierski, was going 31 mph at the time of the collision, 20 mph below the posted speed limit.

Siekierski sent a letter of apology to Sleeman's widow and said he was so distraught over the crash that after 30 years with an unblemished record, he has refused to get back behind the wheel.

There is no national benchmark for driving safety in fire departments. Locally, Prince George's County logged 607 crashes during the three years ending Dec. 31, and Fairfax County had 414 crashes, compared with 704 for Montgomery.

"It's really a national problem," said Vincent Brannigan, a professor in the University of Maryland's Fire Protection Engineering Department. "The people driving these trucks are good people, but their perception of risk is off. It needs to be hammered into their heads: You have no right to risk people's lives on the highway to save people trapped in a fire."

Montgomery officials have known for at least three years that their department's driving record was deficient and that the numbers have been getting worse -- up from 154 crashes in 1997-98 to 217 in 2001-02. The county's underwriter, Volunteer Firemen's Insurance Services Inc., has charged progressively higher premiums each year since 2000. In 2002, premiums rose 18 percent to $1.2 million.

With accident costs still rising in December, Chief Roger W. Strock sent a bulletin to firefighters warning that the county Fire and Rescue Service "is in danger of losing its insurance coverage due to the high number of claims."

"A major component of this problem is the number of preventable collisions we are currently experiencing," Strock wrote.

Not many companies are willing to insure fire equipment, and only a handful have made recent bids for Montgomery's business. If crashes continue to stack up, Montgomery's insurance broker, Willis of Maryland Inc., warned in a recent report, the county "could be forced to retain some or all of its [own] risks, which could be prohibitively expensive."

Aoyagi said the department has made several attempts to reverse the trend, including hiring a risk control consultant two years ago to investigate why there continued to be so many accidents. The resulting report did not pinpoint a single cause for the crashes -- they could not be attributed to the drivers in one station or to a specific type of vehicle. Only half of the accidents occurred on emergency runs.

The study found that accident damage occurred any number of ways: while trucks were backing up, while they passed through intersections, even while the engines were parked. In April 2000, a driver in Silver Spring forgot to set the brake, enabling the truck to coast into the station's bay door. That relatively minor mishap led to $18,455 in repair bills.

The consultant concluded that fire department brass needed to encourage "a defensive driving philosophy."

The fire service has tried in several ways to underscore the dangers of reckless driving. In February 2001, the department's safety officer distributed copies of a newspaper article about an $11 million jury verdict awarded to the family of Kathy McAndrews, a New York woman killed when her car was flattened by a speeding ladder truck that had entered an intersection against a red light.

An October 2002 safety bulletin mentioned an Indiana ambulance driver who had been charged with reckless homicide in the death of a motorist after the speeding ambulance broadsided a car while on an emergency call.

Aoyagi said the department has also tightened its standards. "You can talk safety and say, 'Be safe, be safe, be safe.' But I know that's not enough," Aoyagi said. "It requires more than talk. It requires affirmative initiatives."

One example, he said, was the department's decision to hold a "driver's rodeo," in which 30 drivers competed on a closed course and the most skilled participants were rewarded with bonuses. The department also decided to require annual recertification of its drivers, Aoyagi said.

Not everyone is convinced that those measures are adequate. Edward G. Sherburne, chief of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, said he believes the message of caution "has not gotten through."

"There just hasn't been a lot of open discussion about how to solve it," Sherburne said. "An effort needs to be made to persuade all the drivers that this could happen to them."

Lisa Larson, a member of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Commission, an oversight board for the fire department, said one of the most serious problems is the department's lack of consistency in disciplining drivers.

"A lot of times, they don't fault the driver," Larson said of department officials. "They just brush over the details and say it's a no-fault collision."

Strock appeared to concede that point in his Dec. 30 bulletin, telling firefighters, "While there may have been leniency in the past, personnel violating these [driving] policies will face the maximum disciplinary action available." But it is unclear whether the penalties for crashes have become more severe since Strock issued that warning.

Hundreds of pages of records, including internal bulletins and reports about collision inquiries, were obtained by The Washington Post through Maryland's public records act. The county initially released the accident reports only after blacking out portions that revealed who was at fault and what punishments were assessed to drivers who had made costly errors. After a Post attorney challenged the county to produce unaltered documents, fresh copies of some records were released, but the penalties facing employees still were not disclosed. County attorneys said they withheld information about punishment to protect the employees' right to privacy.

Among the seven most serious accidents for which the county provided detailed reports, five showed that the Fire and Rescue Service driver was at least partly to blame. A December 1999 collision on Rockville Pike involving a ladder truck, for example, was deemed "preventable."

In that case, the driver skidded while trying to negotiate a narrow right turn from West Cedar Lane in the rain and struck three cars. Sitting in one of them was Sandra Dwiggins, 61, of Hyattsville, who works at the National Institutes of Health.

"I remember I looked behind me and the whole truck had swung around," Dwiggins recalled. "The cherry picker smashed the car next to mine. I couldn't figure it out. This huge truck was going much too fast for the conditions, clearly. And instead of going around us, he took this small turn lane, which was, of course, impossible. It was completely bad judgment, and he could have killed this guy."

The collision caused $148,533 in damage.

Aoyagi said a range of penalties have been meted out since the department decided to crack down on bad drivers. Some have lost pay; others have been retrained or have lost their driving privileges.

But the real penalty for drivers such as Siekierski is the pain of knowing they have caused harm while on their way to help those in need.

"I have a very difficult time even driving my own vehicle," he said. "I just have no desire to get back behind the wheel."

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company