Illinois Department's Fire Trucks to Brake for Red Lights

Updated: 02-06-2007 09:44:55 AM

Chicago Daily Herald

Elgin firefighters rushing trucks and ambulances to emergencies with their lights flashing and sirens blaring soon will be adding a new step to their repertoire - stopping.

In a few weeks, all Elgin fire trucks and ambulances will be required to come to a complete stop at all red lights and stop signs, no matter what the emergency, Chief Mike Falese said.

"The few seconds later that we'll be getting to the scene is not a great deal of time," Falese said.

"Those few seconds can make sure that we get there a lot safer."

In 2005, nearly 30 percent of the country's 87 firefighter deaths occurred responding or returning from an emergency, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

In the past 10 years, the percentage of firefighters who died in transit has ranged from 19 percent to 35 percent of all firefighter deaths.

Elgin has not experienced such a death in recent years, Falese said.

"But we don't want to wait until that happens," he said.

The change was modeled after departments and best practices across the country, said Rudy Horist, an assistant chief in Elgin. Department officials researched 16 municipalities nationally, which regionally included Naperville, Hoffman Estates and Elmhurst, that already have made the change.

"We're just going to be taking a couple of extra seconds to help make sure we're safe," Falese said.

On most calls, coming to a complete stop at stop signs and red lights results in a "negligible" increase in response times, Horist said.

Although an Elgin ambulance was involved in an injury accident in December, the change was not inspired by it, officials said. The department has been working for about eight months on redefining its drivers' procedures.

"These amendments should decrease those accidents from occurring," Horist said.

Terry Mastandrea, president of the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association, said he was unaware of a state or national initiative to make the change, but he was aware of some departments making the switch. Mastandrea, chief of the Lake Zurich Fire Department, said most towns have installed technology that changes red lights to green for approaching emergency vehicles.

"We don't really have to go through any red lights anymore," he said.

Hoffman Estates Deputy Chief Robert Gorvett said all of the village's lighted intersections also have the technology. But drivers are taught to stop if the program does not work and at stop signs.

"Our theory is that you have the right of way once the other driver has given it to you," Gorvett said.

About one-third of Elgin's intersections now use the same technology, and more intersections are expected to be added in coming years.

But, Falese said, the technology is not perfect, and it does not work well when multiple emergency vehicles are approaching the same intersection from different directions.

"Our No. 1 goal is to get to a place of the emergency safely," Falese said.

"This will help us do that."