Risk of Fatal Fire Vehicle and Train Crashes Can Be Reduced, Says NIOSH

By planning in advance and following good safety precautions, fire departments and firefighters can reduce the risk of potentially fatal collisions between fire vehicles and oncoming trains at railroad crossings.

A new bulletin from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Federal Railroad Administration and Operation Lifesaver Inc. notes two firefighter fatalities that involved this type of collision. In 2002, a volunteer firefighter in Kentucky was thrown from his tanker truck and killed in a crash with an oncoming train as he attempted to cross an ungated crossing. In 2000, a career firefighter was thrown from his ladder truck and killed after he drove around a lowered gate and into the path of a train. His view of the train was obstructed by a tanker truck stopped in front of him.

As practical steps for reducing risk, the bulletin recommends that fire departments plan routes to avoid railroad crossings. If crossings cannot be avoided, the bulletin recommends that fire departments plan routes to include crossings with active warning devices, such as flashing lights and gates, and with a clear line of sight along the track in both directions.

The bulletin also recommends that if a vehicle uses a crossing, the driver:

  • Come to a complete stop at all crossings, roll down the windows, turn off the siren and radio, listen for a train horn and look both ways before crossing.
  • Always heed flashing lights, closing gates and stop signs.
  • When stopped, make sure the vehicle's front or rear bumper clears the track by at least 15 feet.

If an emergency vehicle becomes stalled at a crossing, the bulletin recommends the driver and other occupants leave the vehicle and keep a safe distance from the tracks. If a train approaches, the driver and occupants should move in the direction of the train. That way, they will be in the opposite direction from any flying debris should the train collide with the vehicle.

Copies of the bulletin, "Your Safety First: Railroad Crossing Safety for Emergency Responders," DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2003-121, are being sent to all fire departments across the country. The bulletin is also available by calling (800) 35-NIOSH, or from the NIOSH Web site at www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2003-121/pdfs/2003-121.pdf.

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