Friday, May 18, 2012

Roll with the Flow

I will be the first one to admit, I live in the fast lane.  No, not THAT fast lane, I am getting too old for that.  I am referring to the fast lane of the highway.  Occasionally I will slide in to the right lane and go with the flow with the normal folks, but I am usually looking forward to reaching my destination, and the sooner the better.  I like speed, and I like the challenge of beating my Garmin’s estimated time of arrival.  I agree with the late George Carlin, who noted that “anyone that is going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac”.  While the fuzz on the side of the road with the radar gun may disagree, I believe I set a safe but efficient pace for the fast lane. 
Of course, this only applies when there is room to run.  Once highway traffic is congested to the point where speedy travel becomes impossible, I submit to the situation and “go with the flow”.  This is usually the case during certain parts of my daily commute.  Anyone who has ever had the “pleasure” of traveling 222 between Reading and Allentown understands my plight.  Ten miles of outdated, single lane, overcrowded asphalt, choked by heavy trucks, thousands of commuters, Amish kids on bikes, and way too many cross streets is exacerbated by a few agonizing traffic lights, strategically placed to eliminate any possibility of smooth sailing on all but the luckiest of days.  In this situation, the choices are to “go with the masses”, or challenge yourself with the winding back roads that bypass the masses!  Those “shortcuts” don’t make the commute any shorter or quicker, but it sure seems like it does. 
The real analysis of humanity occurs on extremely congested super-highways.  Those that travel rush hour (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) in a major metropolitan area understand this plight.  I recently made a trip On Philadelphia’s “Blue Route” during the afternoon commuter hour.  I was making my way to the Philadelphia International Airport at 5:30 on a weekday when both the Phillies (always a sellout crowd) and the Sixers (poised to eliminate the Bulls from the playoffs) were playing across the street from each other in South Philly.  I was merely a speck in the river of cars that were crawling along the winding 4-lane strip of striped concrete toward Interstate 95. 
In these scenarios, there is no sense trying to “make good time”.  You simply must tune in a good radio station, pick a lane, and “go with the flow”.  When the speed limit is 65 and you are going 15, it is time to concede to the voice of your navigation device… there will be no checkered flag at the end of this excursion.  What you CAN do, however, is pick out the asshats that still believe they can beat the system.  They dart from lane to lane, trying to make up a car length or two by jumping into the lane that seems to be moving faster than the others.  Since their like-minded friends do the same thing, it is usually a few minutes until that lane becomes the idle lane and you see them again, trying to cut back into your lane, which is now steadily flowing by.  It reminds me of the “Tortoise and the Hare” fable.  I was playing the role of tortoise and stayed in my lane of choice, but in this case, the “hares” include the snotty, Armani suit-wearin’ Mercedes pilot, the punk in the multi-colored subcompact with the mosquito mufflers, the young clueless girl on the cell phone in the beat-up duct-taped sedan, or the blue collar contractor with the ladder rack and the squeaky brakes. 
I narrate the movements of these four targeted strategists, since texting while driving is no longer legal in Pennsylvania.  The entertainment keeps my mind off the clock, and is really quite comical.  They dart left, they dart right, and they occupy any gap they think will give them the positional advantage.  They piss people off by cutting in on a smoothly flowing line of traffic.  Brake lights flash like a disco on No-Doze.  The masses lurch forward, the masses stop, the masses repeat…   We are thousands of individuals with a common goal.  I am certain that if we would all work together, we could all enjoy more consistent movement and efficient travel.
I suppose this is where today’s lesson lies.  There are times when we all need to stay with the pack, and understand that “Together Everyone Accomplishes More” (TEAM).  Teamwork produces success.  Long distance runners know this, bikers in the Tour de France know this, herds of animals in the wild know this, and schools of fish know this.   Even NASCAR drivers, who are trying to be the individual that “gets to the finish line first”, know that if they don’t work with the other drivers, including their foes, they will lose!  Within a team, there will members who may be stronger, faster, smarter, or better than the others in some way.  Those individuals also have some shortcomings that can be compensated for by other teammates with different strengths.  That is the concept of a winning team: sticking together, remaining unselfish, supporting teammates who are struggling, using your strength to boost others forward, and staying focused on the group goal.  Even strangers on a highway can function as a team.
After 35 minutes of automotive crawl, the congestion seemed to magically dissipate, with no obvious reason for the sluggishness.  I was free to accelerate for the final 2 miles of my commute.  Not just me, though.  Me,  the “suit” in the Benz, the exhaust buzzing Technicolor Toyota, the chatterbox in the rattlebox, and Marlboro Man look-alike.  I shot past them, grinning at their futile attempt to break from the pack and selfishly navigate past my team of commuters. 
Woops, there is my exit already!  I Gotta go catch a plane!  Ciao.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

RLS Syndrome

If I were to ask a layperson what they thought the greatest risk a firefighter faces, I am sure some of the answers would be: Being burned, falling off a ladder, caught in an explosion, lost in smoke, or even trapped by a building collapse.  Health conscience people would turn to the risks associated with cardio-vascular health and the stresses placed on the firefighter’s body as the major concern.  I imagine very few would even mention “responding to a call” as a dangerous activity.  The facts are clear that transportation accidents are one of the leading causes of death and serious injury among emergency responders, and it is the activity that takes place on every incident.  Today’s blog will address some of the reasons this activity presents such a risk.
The average citizen sees a fire engine roaring through traffic and dreams of the invincibility of carving, unobstructed, through rush hour, bypassing lines of stopped cars that pull aside to allow you to pass and disregarding pesky crimson signs and lights that require others to come to a stop.  Before I proceed, I need to dispel some misconceptions about man’s laws of the road and nature’s laws of physics. 
Fire engines are NOT permitted to disregard safety rules of the road while responding.  They may proceed past a stop signal ONLY when it has been deemed to do so safety.  They are required to maintain a safe speed which includes decreasing speed during adverse weather conditions.  Most importantly, they are often held responsible for mishaps that occur if they fail to respect these regulations.  From the scientific side of the analysis, a fire engine does not have “magic tires” that grip the road better than any other truck on the road, “super-braking powers” that allow them to stop quicker than other vehicles on the road of similar size, nor an “invisible force field” that protects them from the other vehicles on the road.  In fact, many fire department vehicles push the envelope of their designed weight rating because of the water and equipment they carry.  They are simply very bright, very loud versions of every other vehicle on the road. 
There are several other variables, however, that make these vehicles even more dangerous than others:
·         The skills and experience of the driver may not be very sharp.  Particularly in a volunteer department, where the driver of this 40,000 pound monster might be much more accustomed to driving his 3500 pound Honda Accord.
·         The driver may be focused on the details of the incident they are responding to and the urgency to arrive quickly due to on-scene reports of rapidly spreading fire, or victims in peril.
·         The unpredictability of what the other drivers on the road will do in their pathway.  For every 20 drivers that do the right thing, there will be one who makes a contradictory evasive maneuver.
·         Believe it or not, despite the flashing lights and the blaring siren, some drivers are oblivious to the approaching emergency vehicle due to loud stereos, well insulated vehicles, or driver distraction.
I have personally logged thousands of miles in the driver’s seat of an emergency vehicle during my career, and admittedly, my attitude toward maneuvering through traffic en route to an emergency has evolved over time.  I have had a few close calls, but fortunately have never unintentionally bent and metal because of my driving.  The one time I did, was with the permission of a county police officer, but I digress.  I have witnessed people do some crazy things in front of my fire truck, from driving over a curb to get out of my way, to slamming on the brakes and covering their eyes right in the middle of an intersection.  I always attempted to maintain what I call “smooth control” of my vehicle, whether I was driving a medic unit with a class 1 trauma patient in the back, a fire engine through suburbia, or a ladder truck through rush-hour “inside the beltway” traffic.  AWARENESS and CONTROL are the key words to safe response. 
Another portion of my career was spent in the “thinking chair”, more commonly referred to as the Officers Seat.  In this position, you share the responsibility of safe operation of the vehicle through your awareness, but unfortunately have zero control over the operation of the rig.  Believe me, there were more than a few times I stomped on the imaginary brake pedal on the right side of the fire engine cab.  That is the seat where your only control is the ability to coach the driver through a safe response by maintaining a calm atmosphere, and a focused attention on the road conditions.  This is an impossible task if the operator of the rig is experiencing an attack of RLS syndrome.
RLS, or “Red Lights & Siren” syndrome can occur with any emergency driver from time to time.  I admit there were times when I believed that my siren and air horns had the power to move cars out of my path, and I know there were times where I was thinking about everything except the road when I was en route to an incident.  Every driver is susceptible to RLS, and some suffer from it repeatedly.  It is a period of perceived invincibility, where poor judgment reigns supreme, and tunnel vision closes in tight.  It is dangerous, and it can be deadly.
Until scientists develop a vaccine, RLS syndrome must be controlled through diligent screening of potential operators, repetitive training and practice of driving skills, established standard department guidelines regarding vehicle operation, and respectful rapport development between drivers and officers alike.