Firefighters flame out behind wheel

The majority of dings, crashes and collisions that occur when San Francisco Fire Department vehicles rush through the streets are the fault of the firefighters and cost The City hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to department data.

The Fire Department has steadily reduced its number of accidents in recent years — from 261 in fiscal year 2000-01 to 171 in FY 2006-07. But the portion of accidents caused by department personnel has remained the same — about two-thirds, department data show.</p>

Fire officials say that training and increased attention to defensive driving have led to the drop in total accidents. The decrease came in the wake of a 2002 report by the Board of Supervisors budget analyst that said 68 percent of accidents in FY 2000-01 were “caused by inattention or by the poor judgment of Fire Department personnel.”

From January 2000 to December 2007, there were 1,601 accidents reported, including vehicle collisions, crashes into stationary objects and pedestrian injuries. A majority resulted in minor damages and claims, many of which are paid out immediately through The City’s settlement fund, according to City Attorney’s Office spokesman Matt Dorsey.

According to SFFD data, less than one-third of the accidents since 2000 — 27 percent — have occurred during what’s known as a Code 3 call, when fire vehicles are racing to life-and-death situations. More than half — 54 percent — involve fire engines or trucks. Ambulances were involved in another 28 percent.

Nearly half have been the result of “misjudged clearance” or “driver inattention,” according to the department. Nearly one-fifth occured when a department vehicle was backing up.

“When you misjudge the clearance on something, all you can say is ‘Bemore careful,’” Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said. “These are big pieces of equipment, and some of these garages are really narrow. They do fit into stations, but there’s a little bit of adjustment.”

Less than 5 percent of the accidents resulted in “civilian injuries,” according to department data.

The Fire Department responded to 105,153 calls in 2007, and an average of about 100 vehicles are in service at any given time. Talmadge said that considering each call involves multiple vehicles, fewer than 200 accidents in one year is considered minimal by the department.

Fire Department vehicle-related accidents cost The City thousands of dollars every year in settlements and legal judgments, totaling nearly $2.1 million since 2000 — a figure representing only legal payouts. Costs associated with equipment repairs, medical costs and overtime to cover temporary leave are not included, the budget analyst noted in the 2002 report.

One man’s tale of an SFFD mishap

San Francisco resident Daniel Worrell was in the crosswalk at the intersection of Third Street and Jerrold Avenue when a San Francisco Fire Department engine — one not headed to an emergency — knocked him to the ground and shattered his hip.

The firefighter at the wheel was moving the engine from the Bayview storage facility to another station on Oct. 4, 2005, about 9:30 a.m., for routine maintenance, according to legal documents related to the incident.

The engine didn’t stop in time and hit Worrell, also crushing his leg, according to his attorney Walter Cook.

In February, the Board of Supervisors approved a $585,000 settlement for Worrell.

The driver claimed he was blinded by the early-morning sun and didn’t see Worrell until it was too late.

Cook pointed out that the grime on the front window reflected the light and made matters worse.

“Worrell was an unfortunate accident,” Cook said. “The Fire Department wasn’t outrageously negligent. The driver didn’t barrel through a playground or anything, but my client was very badly hurt and there was a clear case of negligence.”

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

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