Firefighter Kyle Dixon negotiates an obstacle course at a fire truck driving school at the department's training academy in Rockville, Maryland. Montgomery fire officials are concerned about the rate of accidents and collisions involving trucks and ambulances. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

Lights flashing and siren blaring, the ambulance stopped at a red light, checking for traffic. The firefighter at the wheel eased forward. Halfway through the intersection, his partner saw the truck.

“I said, ‘This is going to hurt,’ ” Montgomery County firefighter Robert Sito, 27, told accident investigators later that day at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. Engine 723, headed to the same call for a hazardous material spill, was coming their way at an estimated 44 mph.

The impact shattered the front end of the ambulance and sent it spinning across the roadway. Firefighter Michael Matteo, the 34-year-old driver, was knocked unconscious. He, Sito and two firefighters from the truck went to the hospital with injuries that ranged from minor to severe.

The crash in the Aspen Hill neighborhood was one of 241 accidents involving Montgomery County Fire and Rescue vehicles last year, a number that officials say is excessive and troubling. County fire and rescue vehicles have crashed more than 1,100 times since 2010, with fire personnel ruled at fault in more than half the cases.

Although none of those mishaps was deadly, and many involved only property damage, fire departments elsewhere have been less fortunate. About 20 percent of the 829 U.S. firefighter fatalities over the last decade occurred while firefighters were responding to or returning from calls, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association.

Traffic accidents cause more firefighter deaths than smoke, flame or building collapses. Only heart attacks from overexertion kill more firefighters in the line of duty .

“It’s a nationwide problem,” said Vincent Brannigan, emeritus professor of fire protection engineering at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. “You’ve got a patient in back of an ambulance, and the instinct to go like hell is enormous.”

The collisions are costly. Municipalities can be held liable when civilians are injured or their property is damaged, and departments can be hard-pressed to fill in for injured firefighters or vehicles under repair. In Montgomery County, Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction, collisions since 2010 have caused an estimated $1.6 million in damage to fire trucks and ambulances, records show.

Shortly after the Aspen Hill crash in October 2014, then-Fire Chief Steve Lohr wrote a memo that said the department was “rapidly heading towards a more tragic accident that will likely be fatal.” Lohr, who retired in December, ordered a revamping of accident prevention and investigation procedures, which he called “broken and unacceptable.”

But the department has already exceeded its 2014 collision totals. Through Sept. 30, there were 246 incidents, including 133 in which department investigators faulted fire personnel.

Across the country, firefighters and EMTs have been injured or killed in intersection collisions or when their trucks swerved off the road to avoid civilian traffic. Some were thrown from vehicles or crushed when their vehicles tip over — a particular hazard with tankers that carry hundreds of gallons of water.

In September, a paramedic in Burnet, Tex., died when his ambulance rear-ended an 18-wheeler stopped on the highway. Five days later, a firefighter in New York State was killed when the ambulance in which he was riding hit a slow-moving backhoe in early morning fog. In August, a fire truck and ambulance crashed into each other in a Miami intersection, injuring seven firefighters and three civilian passengers.

D.C. firefighters have been in at least two serious accidents in the last five weeks. A fire engine and a police cruiser collided on Porter Street NW on Oct. 5, injuring an officer and a firefighter. Police said faulty brakes on the engine may have been the cause. Late on Oct. 31, four firefighters and four civilians were hurt when a truck collided with a car en route to an apartment fire in Anacostia.

Heroism and risk

Despite safety improvements — side airbags, fully enclosed truck cabs, on-board software to prevent rollovers, slip-resistant steps and standing surfaces, better training and protective equipment — injury and fatality rates “remain essentially unchanged over the last decade” said a 2013 study by the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine.

Risky driving practices, including excessive speed and dangerous passing maneuvers, are contributing factors, experts say. They cite a firehouse culture that values speeding to the scene, and is reinforced by media images of first responders as death-defying heroes. The AAAM study documented “dangerously low” rates of seat belt use, in part because firefighters don protective gear en route to a call instead of securing themselves.

Jeff Buddle, president of the Montgomery firefighters union, pushed back against that criticism, saying the vast majority of emergency responders use caution. He called the allegations of heedless bravado among firefighters “just a perception.”

New Montgomery fire chief Steve Goldstein said the department is seeing “an unnecessarily high level of collisions.” He has revamped how the department investigates accidents and has scrutinized its driver training program. He also established a “zero tolerance” policy for failure to use seat belts. “Our job is to get to Mrs. Smith’s emergency,” Goldstein said. “If we don’t get to the call because we’ve had a crash, what have we done for Mrs. Smith?”

The department started several years ago to place cameras on trucks to monitor driver performance. But problems with the vendor and friction with the firefighters union have placed the initiative on hold.

While direct comparisons are difficult because of differences in fleet size, land area, and road systems, some fire departments elsewhere also are seeing more accidents over time. In Washington, the number of collisions has more than doubled over the last five years, from 72 in 2011 to 152 so far this year.

Prince George’s County handles more fire and EMT calls than Montgomery but reported fewer vehicle accidents: about 1 in every 794 calls for service, compared with 1 in 466 for Montgomery in 2014.

Many of the Montgomery collisions were minor, according to a Washington Post review of accident reports: fender-benders, side-view mirrors sheared away, a ladder truck jackknifed after a botched U-turn.

Others were more serious. In April 2013, a woman was struck by a ladder truck that was attempting to back into a station on Wisconsin Avenue. She was one of 12 civilians injured in accidents with emergency vehicles that year.

Each collision is investigated and reviewed by an internal departmental board. Officials declined to discuss which incidents resulted in disciplinary measures, citing personnel privacy regulations.

Firefighters say crashes could be reduced if more motorists abided by what they call a “hear us, see us, clear for us” policy.

Elsa Terrones had just dropped her daughter at Julius West Middle School in Rockville last year and had started to turn left when she heard approaching sirens. She says that she stopped her Ford pickup. But the vehicle had already edged into the intersection, and an oncoming fire engine hit it.

Terrones, 41, went to the hospital with abrasions and bruises, paid a $200 ticket and lost a point on her license when police found her at fault. More costly, she said, was the emotional trauma. It took eight months before she felt safe driving again.

“The firefighters were just doing their job, and it was mala suerte [bad luck] for me that I was sticking a little out,” she said. “But it affected me. Now when I hear sirens, I am frightened. My feet start to tremble.”

The crash in Aspen Hill

The serious collision in October 2014 was especially awkward for Montgomery County because of the identity of the driver whose engine struck the ambulance.

In addition to his duties at Station 23 in Rockville, Master Firefighter Richard Tatum is an instructor in the department’s driving training program. For 12 years, he has conducted safety classes and put aspiring ambulance and truck drivers through backing and turning maneuvers on a Gaithersburg training course.

Lt. Dan Schaefer, who runs the program, called Tatum a “first-rate” teacher. “From a technician’s perspective, he’s top-notch,” he said.

Tatum, 44, and other crew members from Engine 723 told investigators that as they headed east on Aspen Hill Road they saw the ambulance and other traffic stopped at the Parkland Drive intersection. Tatum, thinking that Matteo saw him, kept going toward the intersection. Then Matteo’s ambulance started to move.

“He was coming out slowly,” Tatum said in a statement that is part of the official accident report. “I turned to my officer and said, ‘What is he doing?’ My light was still green, and he was creeping out. We had the sirens on, and I was on the air horn.”

Investigators said Matteo had established right-of-way, because he reached the intersection first and all traffic was stopped. While Tatum said he was going no more than 15 to 20 mph when he slammed on the brakes, police was concluded from the absence of skid marks that Engine 723 was traveling as fast as 44 miles per hour when it hit the ambulance. The posted speed limit is 30 mph.

In a brief interview, Tatum declined to discuss the accident in detail, except to say that there was nothing he would do differently. Schaefer, his boss at the driving school, noted that shrubbery and other physical features created poor sight lines at the intersection.

Although police cleared Tatum of wrongdoing, the report by the department’s Collision Incident Review Committee placed some blame on him. The department redacted the committee’s final determination, but near the end of the two-page report, Assistant Chief Michael E. Nelson Jr. said evidence showed that Tatum was going too fast. “The vehicle must be under complete control and driven at such a speed that it can be safely stopped to avoid an accident should another vehicle enter the intersection,” Nelson wrote.

Tatum has returned to driving and instruction. He said the crash gives him “more teaching tools,” adding that he often describes it in his classroom sessions.

Schaefer said Tatum provides a valuable case study for younger firefighters of how danger can appear suddenly.

“We want to instill in them a weighty feeling and understanding that this is not just a technical class,” Schaefer said. “You’re taking responsibility for the life of your crew.”

Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.

Of the 829 U.S. firefighter fatalities over the last decade . . .

. . . 20 percent occurred while firefighters were responding
to or returning from calls.

Source: National Fire Protection Association