Early Monday morning a young man died for no good reason.  His name was Zachary Whitacre – he was 21 and had been in the fire service for less than a year, and died in a single-vehicle accident when the driver lost control of a tanker on “the icy road surface” and slid into an embankment.  According to the published story, Zach “was on the back of the vehicle and ejected when the truck hit the embankment”.  The tanker was en-route to get a second load of water for a structure fire.

Wait a minute – I thought we no longer rode the backs of trucks.  I (and my partners-in-crime) used to ride the tailboard back in the eighties – ashamed to admit it, but more than once I donned my turnout gear en route.  With the benefit of hindsight, I can now admit that it wasn’t skill or brains that let me live long enough to write this – just luck.  Thankfully, more intelligent people decided that killing your firefighters was counter-productive to the alleged goal of putting out fires, and the practice (along with tailboards big enough to ride) supposedly disappeared.

Now, I have little tolerance for people who condemn with the benefit of hindsight – but I also believe that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.  Alan Brunacini said it best: “If you’re going to make a mistake, make a new one”.  There were two people on this truck – the young man and the driver.  I’ve seen a lot of (especially older) tankers with only one row of seats – but I’ve never seen one with one seat only.  Why was this young man on the back of the truck?  Especially as cold as it had to have been for ice to be a factor?  If he was (as I profoundly hope) in an open rear-facing seat instead  of truly “on the back” as the story alleges, why was he not under a seat belt?

More importantly, why do we as a group steadfastly refuse to learn from history?  I can understand some firefighter fatalities – I don’t like them but I can understand them.  The unexpected collapse, the veteran heart attack, the flashover, are all examples of something that while you would hope someone could have foreseen and avoided, you accept as part of the cost of doing business.

However, this one floored me.  How many times a year do we see this?  More importantly, how many times a year do we have to see this before we start turning into overzealous fanatics about things like safe response, seat belts, and “risking little to save little”?  Good Firefighters train constantly to watch our brother’s back – to tuck that hood in. make sure that helmet is fastened, that coat buttoned. Then they get behind the wheel, say without a seat belt, and its, like, “oh well, it’s on him, not me”…

You’re wrong if you think that way.  Actually, it’s on you more than him, because you both are doing something stupid but you’re the only one that has to live with it if his luck runs out.

So don’t live with it.  Become that guy who’s constantly nagging the testosterone-laden hot dogs in your department.  If enough of you do it, it will make a difference.  And if it doesn’t, you can at least know that you tried. This is the time that you absolutely need to be your brother’s keeper.

My heart goes out to Zach’s family, especially his dad – who the WV State Police say was driving the tanker.


Reference: http://www.winchesterstar.com/breaking_events/view/264