Technology in emergency vehicles carries risks, rewards

July 6, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

State phone ban exempts emergency services agencies

Greg Tryon, Eastside Fire & Rescue battalion chief, describes the laptops, smart phones and other communications equipment used in the agency’s mobile command posts, fire trucks and aid cars. By Greg Farrar

Distractions abound for Eastside Fire & Rescue trucks roaring through downtown Issaquah or down Northwest Gilman Boulevard at rush hour: cars racing to catch a yellow light, cyclists steering through narrow bike lanes and drivers chatting into mobile phones or tapping out text messages.

The distracted drivers concern Lee Soptich, chief of the regional agency, because motorists become too consumed in technology, and might not clear a path for emergency vehicles. The situation creates the potential for disaster, despite a statewide ban on talking on handheld phones and texting behind the wheel that took effect June 10.

“We’ve been very, very fortunate that we haven’t piled up a rig,” Soptich said.

But the high-tech tools that responders use en route to emergencies also pose a risk. EFR and other local agencies cram a jargon-seasoned alphabet soup of devices into trucks and cruisers — AVLs, MDTs, GPS units and VHF radios.

Emergency services workers said the technology helps them find incidents in less time and prepare emergency room physicians for incoming patients. The devices — automatic vehicle locators, mobile data terminals, radios, mobile phones and the like — also present potential hazards to emergency crews headed out on a call, and to other drivers as well.

Information streams into EFR command units — tricked-out Chevrolet Suburbans — through a dashboard-mounted laptop called a mobile data terminal. Special software, the automatic vehicle locator, helps emergency responders find vehicles in distress. Each battalion chief has a BlackBerry clipped to his or her belt.

“The cell phones are an essential part of our communications package,” Soptich said. “We’re doing everything we can to make it as safe as possible.”

Officers with EFR and other agencies said the technology — despite the potential for dangerous distractions — serves a crucial role in emergency response.

“Unfortunately, the business of running a fire department requires it,” EFR Battalion Chief Greg Tryon said.

Emergency services exemption

Anne Teigen, transportation policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said lawmakers in 27 states enacted texting bans since 2001. Most states, including Washington, allow exemptions for emergency responders to use mobile devices behind the wheel.

“The technology has come so far, and in addressing it, we also have to realize that it’s become useful in some instances,” she said.

Officials at EFR and other local agencies — the Issaquah Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office and the Washington State Patrol — said officers using a mobile phone or in-vehicle technology had never caused a crash.

No state or national data exists for the role in-vehicle technology has played in emergency vehicle crashes, but high-profile incidents in other states prompted Washington officials to take steps to avoid such accidents.

In April, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste changed regulations to require troopers to use hands-free devices while driving. The agency also distributed Bluetooth earpieces to employees with agency-issued phones.

Cruisers already include a bank of radios, a laptop computer and a small printer.

“They’re not there for them to check Hotmail or surf the Web,” Sgt. Freddy Williams, a spokesman for the agency, said just before the ban went into effect.

“We need to be leading by example,” he added. “Even though the law exempts law enforcement, our chief says, ‘No. If it’s not safe for the motoring public, we should lead by example.’”

Troopers face discipline if they get caught breaking the rule. Consequences range from a slap on the wrist as minor as a verbal reprimand all the way to termination.

Despite the abundance of technology in state patrol vehicles, the agency has left out one potential distraction: GPS units.

“The state patrol is not going to provide troopers with GPS devices,” Williams said. “We’re supposed to know our beat.”

Useful, if risky, tools

Technology can also help reduce the distractions bombarding law enforcement officers from the dashboard and beyond the windshield.

Computers in Issaquah police cruisers have been outfitted with voice recognition software. Officers can read license plate numbers to the computer after only a few taps on the keyboard; a disembodied, electronic voice recites information to the officers.

In 2008, the tech-savvy department embraced e-tickets as a faster way to issue and process traffic citations. The system affords officers instantaneous access to the Statewide Electronic Collision and Ticket Online Records, or SECTOR, a state database of traffic incidents.

Issaquah Police Chief Paul Ayers said the agency discourages officers from talking on the phone during patrols. The department has not had any incidents as a result of technology in cruisers, he added.

The same goes for the King County Sheriff’s Office. The agency issued earpieces to allow deputies to talk hands-free while driving, Sgt. John Urquhart said.

EFR relies on another acronym to reduce the risk of crashes: EVAP, for Emergency Vehicle Accident Prevention, a driving course for emergency services workers.

But Soptich said common sense remains the best preventative measure.

“As much as possible, we discourage the use of cell phones unless it’s in relationship to emergency responses,” he said.

Instructors at the Health & Safety Institute in Eugene, Ore. — the largest private provider in the nation of continuing education — help emergency responders and law enforcement officers integrate technology into everyday use.

Chief Learning Officer Jeffrey Lindsey, a retired fire chief based in Florida, said the gadgets help reduce errors, because responders and physicians receive updates about the incident as it unfolds.

Despite the potential advantages, he said emergency responders and law enforcement officers should not use technology behind the wheel, due to the crash risk.

“Technology and everything are meant to be a tool, and should not be relied upon solely,” he said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

Troopers cite nearly 670 drivers for phone use

Washington State Patrol troopers issued nearly 670 citations for mobile phone or texting violations between June 10 and July 1.

King County troopers issued 129 violations for mobile phone use and another 13 for texting.

State law changed last month to make phone use and texting while driving primary offenses. Before the change, law enforcement officers could only cite drivers for phone use if the driver had been speeding or breaking another law. Infractions carry a $124 fine.

Since New York lawmakers passed the first-in-the-nation ban on talking behind the wheel in 2001, 26 more states have followed suit.

News about the crackdown could convince mobile phone outlaws to hang up and drive.

“If drivers don’t believe they are the ones who are likely to be targeted and ticketed, they will not change their behavior,” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spokesman Russ Rader said.

The number of violators inched up July 2 after State Patrol Chief John Batiste cited a driver near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“The fellow was just driving along talking on his phone,” Batiste said in a news release. “He was fully aware of the law and had no excuses.”

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