Chief’s death reminder of danger for first responders

Grand Rapids Fire Department Utility Two
Grand Rapids Fire Department Utility Two, which is meant to prevent firefighters from getting hit by a vehicle while responding to a crash on the highway. (June 15, 2017)


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The story is the same for just about any Grand Rapids firefighter who has answered a call on US-131’s S-curve.

“There have been some close calls,” said Grand Rapids Fire Department Lt. Mark Penning.

His Ladder Truck 2 crew responds from the Franklin Street firehouse, just about a block away from US-131.

“Cars are cutting in — seem to be driving the speed limit — cutting in at the last minute,” Penning said.

The death of Comstock Township Fire Chief Edward Switalski highlights the dangers first responders face when responding to calls.

ed switalski
An undated courtesy photo of Comstock Township Department of Fire & Rescue Chief Ed Switalski.

Too often, while they are attending to someone who needs help, other drivers aren’t attending to good driving habits.

“Every year nationally, we lose about 50 to 60 tow truck operators, a dozen law enforcement officials and half-a-dozen fire personnel on the scene of incidents in the roadway,” said GRFD Deputy Chief Ron Tennant.

Those crashes occur despite Michigan’s Move Over Law. The measure sets fines and other penalties for drivers who don’t attempt to move over when they see the flashing lights of a police car, firetruck, ambulance or tow truck.

Get caught and it’s a $500 misdemeanor that could put you in jail for 90 days.

Violate the law and hit a first responder, and it becomes a felony punishable up to two year in prison and up to $1,000 in fines. If the responder is killed, the driver could face up to 15 years in prison and a $7,500 fine.

Tennant is also co-chair of the state’s Traffic Incident Management Action Team. The group includes first responders working on ways to improve safety in highway emergency situations.

“It’s a very dangerous place out there for us as workers and our families. We’re very worried about that,” said Tennant.

It’s not just the risk of injury and death. A few years ago, crashes involving GRFD vehicles blocking traffic lanes during crash caused a half-million dollars in damages and caused shortages of vital fire equipment.

Rebuilding a damaged fire truck can take up two years. So department leaders came up with some solutions, like a marking system on the S-curve. They’ve also reduced the time it takes to get a wrecker on scene and clear the roadway.

“Where we’ve pre-engineered locations to park our vehicles for maximum time of visibility by the motorist approaching the incident,” said Tennant.

Those same markings will soon appear on portions of I-196.

GRFD firefighters are also getting additional training in how to be safe at crash scenes. Perhaps the biggest idea in both size and concept is Utility Two.

Grand Rapids Fire Department Utility Two
Grand Rapids Fire Department Utility Two, which is meant to prevent firefighters from getting hit by a vehicle while responding to a crash on the highway. (June 15, 2017)

The fire department repainted an old public works dump truck, which the city was about to sell at auction.

Utility Two is fire engine red and has mounted lights, a siren, traffic arrow and an attenuator — which is more or less a big shock absorber on a trailer. It began responding as the department’s main traffic blocking unit, replacing the more expensive pumper and ladder truck.

“They’re hitting something that can absorb the energy rather than letting the energy being absorbed by them and their vehicle,” said Tennant.

And while it’s difficult to gauge the success of something when it doesn’t happen, firefighters are convinced Utility Two has worked.

“There is no hard data, but we believe we have reduced incidents because of the availability of the unit,” said Tennant.