Emergency vehicles loaded with distractions

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Ted Sullivan
Sunday, January 23, 2011
— They’re driving around with dashboard computers, radios and other high-tech gadgets at their fingertips.

While Wisconsin has banned texting while driving, emergency responders are exempt from the law. And many emergency vehicles come standard with laptops and cell phones capable of sending and receiving messages.

Emergency vehicles also have technology ranging from microphones, cameras and radar units to sirens, emergency lights and spotlights. And using some of the gizmos while driving is unavoidable.

Emergency responders as consider the technology essential to their jobs as a gun or a fire hose, but the same devices would be considered a danger in any other vehicle.

The computers that provide responders with essential information could be particularly distracting, officials said.

“Basically, our policy is officers have to use extreme caution when using the laptops and that traffic safety takes priority,” Janesville Deputy Police Chief John Olsen said. “There are those times when they need to read something, but then again, they just need to weigh: Is this an emergency type situation where they need to read that or can they just pull over?”

The Rock County Sheriff’s Office has a policy that states deputies must use proper driving techniques and cannot attempt to type messages while driving, Capt. Gary Groelle said. They also have to drive in a way that keeps themselves and others safe.

“They’ve got to use common sense,” Groelle said. “When they’re going to a complaint, we don’t want them looking at their screens.”

But officers have to drive to emergencies while on the police radio and while activating the siren and lights, Olsen said. Some distractions are unavoidable.

Janesville officers have been in accidents. Sheriff’s deputies also have had wrecks, although none involving serious injuries.

“Officers are required to do a lot besides just driving, and sometimes that causes problems and distracts them, and we’ve had accidents over the years,” Olsen said.

At the Janesville Fire Department, emergency responders ride with a partner, said Scott Running, a firefighter and paramedic. The driver never uses the vehicle’s technology because the passenger handles it.

Emergency responders undergo training for driving their vehicles, officials said. They also learn to multitask and decide whether using technology is appropriate at the time.

Despite the distractions, officials said the technology has improved their ability to do their jobs.

The computers provide dispatch notes, search license plates and check warrants. They provide traffic stop history, maps and print tickets or accident reports. They reduce the amount of data entry and handwriting.

“It makes our job much more efficient. We can gain data and information quicker. We can research and find out information on a resident, on a suspect or on a complaint,” Groelle said. “It has vastly improved our ability to gain knowledge quickly.”

Communicating while on calls and sharing information with other emergency responders also has improved, Running said.

“If you don’t’ know what’s going on or what everyone is doing, it makes the job that much harder,” Running said. “That whole communication aspect of relaying information is probably the biggest help.”

Last updated: 4:00 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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