Photo by Donna Kallner

One night years ago on the long drive home from Minnesota, I was engrossed in a book on tape – a nonfiction bestseller called The Hot Zone. Terrifying stuff about viral hemorrhagic fevers including Ebola. My mind was in the Monkey House in Reston, Virginia, while I waited for the green in a one-stoplight town. And I didn’t realize an ambulance was on my rear bumper until it turned on its siren and nearly stopped my heart.

Yes, I have been the distracted motorist that emergency vehicle operators know so well. I’ve also been the confused driver at the intersection who couldn’t tell which way the sound was coming from. I’ve even been at the wheel on the interstate on black ice sliding sideways toward the ambulance trying to pass on the shoulder. I have sympathy for drivers who encounter emergency vehicles on rural roads. 

But a doctor quoted last year in this New York Times article about sirens sure raised the hackles of this rural volunteer first responder:

In rural areas, it would seem counterintuitive that ambulance and fire services would need to rely on lights and sirens to get through traffic, but they create an allure that can help in recruiting volunteers, Dr. Clawson said. “Running hot,” he said, is an adrenaline rush and makes the responses seem more exciting.

“It feels good and it feels like it works,” he said. “When it’s embedded in an institution — and a fire department is as good-ol’-boy an institution as you can get — it can be difficult to change.”

Let me address the good-ol’-boy adrenaline junkie B.S. later and start with this: Wisconsin law states that, upon the approach of any authorized emergency vehicle giving audible signal by siren, the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way and shall immediately drive such vehicle to a position as near as possible and parallel to the right curb or the right-hand edge of the shoulder of the roadway, clear of any intersection… 

Nevertheless, in every emergency vehicle operations training and departmental briefing since the late 1980s I have heard this: Emergency lights and sirens are used to alert others in the vicinity and to request that other drivers yield the right-of-way. We ask, but don’t assume that will happen.

Wisconsin law does not relieve the operator of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard under the circumstances for the safety of all persons using the highway. Even the ones not looking out for us.

With or without lights and a siren, here are some things you should know about emergency vehicles when you drive on rural roads.

Alert. It’s true that rural areas like mine don’t generally have bumper-to-bumper traffic to get through. But we certainly have our share of distracted and impaired drivers and other unpredictable critters. Here those include deer, turkeys, black bears, coyotes, family dogs, ATVs, UTVs, and bicyclists on skinny tires not well suited to gravel shoulders (where they exist). And when it comes to logging trucks and farm equipment, sometimes they simply can’t get over further without risking a rollover. An ambulance driver approaching an oversize slow-moving vehicle from behind may also be trying to gauge the distance to the guardrails that narrow the roadway over a creek against the speed of fifty grand worth of SUV in the oncoming lane. It’s challenging. 

Minutes count. Seriously, a request for right-of-way with lights and siren may inconvenience motorists who slow down and pull over for a minute or maybe two. But for someone whose house is on fire or the patient in an ambulance, a minute or two can make a difference. I invite those who say different to test that theory. Imagine you’re the patient with, say, a broken back, pelvis, or femur on a 30-minute transport to the hospital (or 40 minutes in early spring when frost heaves make the roads here even rougher). Or ask your homeowners’ insurance agent how they feel about two minutes (or multiples of two from multiple drivers) added to a structure fire response.

Sirens. Every training I’ve had has said that if an emergency vehicle is moving with emergency lights on then the siren must be on as well. And yet, you probably have encountered emergency vehicles on rural roads running with lights but no siren. It’s done NOT, as some suggest, so the emergency responder at the wheel can make a quicker donut run (sheesh). Rather, in the wee hours, a crew might run with lights but no siren to keep from further elevating the heart rate of the volunteer (woken from sleep) who responded to drive that vehicle or the anxious cardiac patient in the back of the ambulance. Or the operator may have silenced the siren to hear a situation size-up through the static that is the bane of rural radio communications.

What the operator is not doing is jamming to tunes or lost in an audio book or talking on a cell phone while checking their navigation system and eating a snack. Can’t say the same for motorists on rural roads. And some of those multitaskers are driving vehicles with so much cabin insulation they don’t hear a siren until it’s close anyway. Others (including many rural fire and EMS volunteers) are driving rattletraps so loud they don’t hear you coming either. Sirens might alert wildlife and underage drinkers, but they do not clear the road of hazards. So in rural departments, the SOP may be that lights-and-siren must be used in tandem – but with an unspoken understanding that if you silence the siren you will not exceed the normal speed limit or roll through intersections without first turning it back on.

Intersections. The only 4-way stop with flashing red lights in the 155 square miles our fire department serves is close to our station. According to the folks who work on that corner, about one car a day blows through that stop – and you don’t know which one it will be. So even with lights and a siren, we approach that and other intersections with caution. I might have seen a few “rolling stops” made by fire apparatus. But it only takes about one assignment on traffic control on a rural motor vehicle accident for volunteer firefighters to assume most motorists are unpredictable moving hazards and to adopt defensive driving habits. 

Lights. Emergency lights may also signal that you’re approaching an emergency scene. Be prepared for vehicles that are stopped, or in motion trying to position or even turn around to get where they’re needed. Law enforcement may be on the scene with lights flashing blue instead or red and/or white. A wrecker may be flashing amber as it tries to position so it can clear the road. Any of those vehicles and/or oncoming traffic may forget to dim their blinding halogen or LED headlights. The volunteers who serve as first responders may be arriving in both emergency vehicles and private vehicles that may or may not have flashing lights or be using standard hazard lights. Mutual aid partners may be arriving from the opposite direction. There’s a reason why this is sometimes called the “zone of confusion”. It’s a high-risk situation even if you’re not one of us good-ol’-boy adrenaline junkie volunteer first responders (sheesh).

Anticipation. In rural areas, it can take a while to get enough people on the scene to set up incident warning signs and traffic control. So if you see flashing lights up ahead, the best thing you can do is anticipate that other drivers may be confused and/or make mistakes or poor choices. You can help reduce the threat to yourself and others by reducing your speed to increase the time available for you to react to whatever might happen around you. Slow down as much and as quickly as you can under the circumstance. It takes longer to do that in fog, on slippery roads, or with a bozo riding your bumper. Keep your eyes on the road if you’re moving through a scene. Expect sudden stops from the vehicle(s) ahead of you and unexpected behavior from oncoming traffic. Anticipate foot traffic as personnel open compartments for needed equipment. A rural fire department called to the scene of a motor vehicle accident, for example, might have personnel going for signs and cones for traffic control, cribbing to stabilize the vehicle(s) and extrication tools while also preparing for fire suppression – and trying to keep the walking wounded from straying into traffic.

Training. The volunteers driving rural ambulances and fire trucks get a lot more training about how to do so safely than most motorists get about how to safely navigate emergency scenes. But you may have no idea what that training involves. I certainly didn’t years ago when the officers on my ambulance squad explained that, since there was no parking lot in our service area large enough to learn how to drive out of a skid, we would be practicing on a frozen lake. My fire department regularly participates in Traffic Incident Management (TIM) training. Each year, our Emergency Vehicle Operations (EVO) refresher is a humbling experience for some (me) and pretty darn impressive to watch (others) as they navigate forward and backward and demonstrate the ability to execute turns. Sometimes a “good-ol’-boy” (sheesh) officer will increase the level of difficulty by unexpectedly tossing an obstacle onto the course – not for the adrenaline rush but for the training value. Most of us do that training running lights but no siren out of consideration for the neighbors. And because we don’t need an adrenaline rush to make “responses seem more exciting”  (sheesh). Even in training, things are plenty exciting, thank you very much. I invite those who say different to test that theory by joining their rural volunteer fire department or ambulance squad.

Seriously, they could probably use your help. I know ours could. They make allowances for me, because even a gray-haired volunteer so short she needs a milk crate to get into one fire truck is of value when she lives near the station, can generally respond to calls even on weekdays, and shows up for trainings. And they don’t ask me to do things too far out of my comfort zone. 

It seems to me the real adrenaline junkies are the ones driving fifty grand SUVs in the oncoming lane and not pulling over for emergency vehicle lights and sirens.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin, where she is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department.

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