Sounding the alarm
SOUTHEAST Mo. (KFVS) - How long should it take for a police officer, a firefighter or an ambulance crew to respond when you dial 911?
First responders tell us the drivers around them can cost them precious seconds, even minutes, when answering that call.
We reached out to three dozen emergency responders across southeast Missouri to ask how the drivers around them respond when they’re on an emergency call.
89 percent of them say they encounter some drivers who do not seem to see all the flashing lights or hear the numerous sirens as they approach.
And of that group, 68 percent say driver response has gotten worse in recent years.
Now, they’re sounding the alarm on an issue they say is literally a matter of life and death.
On a Thursday afternoon in Sikeston, we are riding with DPS Captain Derick Wheetley onboard the fire division’s ladder truck.
Wheetley explained where they’re going.
“So, Sikeston DPS is responding to HH and Ingram, which is north of the rodeo grounds, for a two-vehicle accident,” Wheetley said. “Right now, we don’t have any further information. Both patrol and fire division and EMS is en route.”
They don’t know what to expect at the scene, but first responders across southeast Missouri say they know the kind of obstacles they face just trying to get there.
Wheetley explained Sergeant Jerence Dial’s use of multiple sirens as he navigates the huge engine through traffic, and why they usually have to use everything they’ve got.
“...We try to. Because with today’s vehicles and people not paying attention, radios, air conditioning. It’s hard to hear.”
When we arrive at that crash site, we see other agencies on scene, including the South Scott County Ambulance District.
Six days later, a field fire call takes an SSC ambulance crew back through Sikeston, and we see more evidence of drivers who don’t seem to see or hear what’s behind them.
“Cellphones, particularly. Stereo systems. You can watch movies in your car while you’re driving now.”
EMS veteran and Ambulance Service Director Ken Dicus knows about all those distractions. But he questions what else is going on.
“You wonder sometimes if it’s not just attitudes,” he said. “Years back, you still had the very occasional person. But you could always tell when they first saw you, they would pull over quickly. Nowadays, it seems like people won’t move over until you get right on top of them.”
“When you’re having an emergency, a minute seems like an hour,” added South Scott County Paramedic Supervisor Theresa Culbertson. “It’s a scary thing. So, people do get upset. What took you so long? When we’ve tried everything we can to get there as quickly as possible.”
And the problem can be just as frustrating for first responders in rural parts of the Heartland.
“We do anywhere from 17 to 20 runs within a day.”
Chuck Kasting manages four stations and 10 ambulances to cover the 829 square miles of Stoddard County.
“We’re usually right up on them before they see us,” Kasting said of drivers they often encounter on ambulance runs. “But we’re sitting up more elevated than when they are in a car. So, we see that they’re obviously on their phone.”
“It’s like they’re aggravated that we’re interrupting their day is what it seems like from our perspective,” added Stoddard County Assistant Director Tyler Juden.
In Pemiscot County, Sheriff Tommy Greenwell said his deputies roll on 90 percent of all medical calls.
“And a lot of times, you’ll be trying to get to a location, and it will take several miles to get their attention to get them to pull over,” Greenwell said.
Fruitland Fire Chief Rob Francis took us driving along a narrow, rural road near his fire station.
“80 percent of our roads are like this. Out in our district,” he said. That’s why Francis said, like all first responders, he’s always thinking about what can happen if drivers do not get out of their way.
“I’m looking at the road. But I’m also looking for what we call the soft spot. If I have to ditch to avoid an accident, where can I put this vehicle,” he continued.
“These things are not made to stop on a dime,” Captain Collin Cummings said of Fruitland’s huge engine. “We do carry, on this engine, about a thousand gallons of water. So, with that being in the truck that’s extra weight.”
“You know, one gallon of water weighs 8 pounds,” added Sikeston Sergeant Jerence Dial. “So, if you take and multiply that by 500, or even a thousand, that’s an extra eight thousand pounds of weight that we are carrying on our vehicles.”
Back at DPS headquarters, Captain Wheetley showed us how tough it can be just to pull out from Station 2 onto North Main Street.
He pulled up video taken from the camera mounted on the dash of Sikeston’s ladder truck.
“And as you notice traffic here, running lights and sirens right now, traffic is still failing to yield as they’re trying to get out. And you know they’re blowing their air horn, their Q, their siren. So, it took 20 seconds to get onto the main roadway in this case,” he said.
Some drivers may see this and say, “oh, it’s just 20 seconds,” but in their line of work, Wheetley explained what 20 seconds means for them.
“Life and death. Yeah. Depending on the call it can be a life and death moment,” he said.
Emergency responders across the Heartland are constantly trying new ways to try and get your attention.
I spoke to Sgt. Jerence Dial as he drove his department’s ladder truck back through Sikeston.
We asked if he was surprised by the number of drivers who don’t seem to see or hear a big truck with all the sirens.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Dial ran the built-in electric siren, along with what’s known as a Q siren mounted on the front. As he approached intersections, he also pulled the air horn.
“So your newer vehicles, which are built to block out all the noise from the roadway, that actually penetrates those vehicles better than what your normal siren sound does,” he said.
Sikeston DPS also has command vehicles equipped with what’s called Rumbler or howler sirens. The low-frequency pitch emits a vibration to the vehicle in front of it. Captain Wheetley tested it out for us.
“This is your typical wail siren,” he said. “And when you introduce the rumbler, you can tell that change of pitch. And that’s actually causing a vibration that I can feel all the way to my feet.”
The Stoddard County Ambulance District has six ambulances with rumbler sirens, but Assistant Director Tyler Juden said they are not made to run constantly.
“It runs for 10-15 seconds at a time,” he said. “Just because of the voltage draw. And the damage to the electrical system. So, you’ve got to pick and choose when you’re going to run it.”
Several Heartland departments are adding new vehicles with light and siren packages offering multiple combinations to cut through outside vehicle noise and inside distractions.
Stoddard County Ambulance District Director Chuck Hastings described just some of the siren options on his new command vehicle.
“Different frequencies. High low versus slow versus fast tones is making a huge difference,” he said.
“We’ve added a lot more emergency lights,” Pemiscot County Sheriff Tommy Greenwell said. “They’re brighter.”
Fruitland Fire Chief Rob Francis also has several new sirens he can use when he responds in his command vehicle.
“I’ve got the normal wail, the high-low and then one we call the phaser,” he said.
“Giving people something they haven’t heard before does seem to help,” said Stoddard County Assistant Director Tyler Juden. “But, how long is it until we’re in the same position again?”
These first responders acknowledged a siren’s limitations if their route takes them on a highway or interstate.
“At highway speeds, you’re on top of people before they hear the siren,” said South Scott County Ambulance Director Ken Dicus.
That’s why Chief Rob Francis pointed out they also rely on their training to try and anticipate a driver’s next move.
“We actually come to a complete stop,” he said of all intersections. “Have control of that vehicle. And try to make eye contact with who we’re going to come in against. Or who’s going to turn. Make sure they see us before we proceed through.”
But even with all that effort, first responders still run into issues.
Sikeston Captain Derick Wheetley showed us another dashcam video of their ladder truck stuck at an intersection.
“Lights. Sirens. Q’s. Air horn. As you can see here, nobody really wants to get out of the way. The white car finally realizes. This car. Typical. You’ve got to get up on them. And normally the driver has the airhorn just blaring,“ he said.
“We’ve all got the same problems on this,” Dicus said. “And public awareness on this is probably the best thing for us.”
And that’s why all these emergency responders are sounding the alarm. They want you to know all the ways they try to get your attention, and they want you to really to understand what can happen when they don’t.
“If we have somebody where we know from the time of the call is in cardiac arrest,” Kasting said. “Well, after about five minutes, brain cells are starting to die faster than we are going to save them.”
“There have been several fatality fires that I’ve been involved with over the years,” Wheetley said. “And you replay that back in your mind. Did we get there fast enough? Did we do this or that right?”
“If it was my family member, I’d want the help to get there as fast as they possibly do,” Dial added from behind the wheel. “So hopefully, other drivers will feel the same way.”
Tyler Juden does not mince words when we asked him what he’d say to drivers.
“Pay attention,” he responded. “What if it were you?”
“Let us have that road for the few seconds it’s going to cost you to pull over,” Ken Dicus added.
All three of our Heartland states have move over laws requiring drivers to yield the right of way for emergency vehicles by either safely pulling over or safely changing lanes.
Missouri’s move over law comes with fines from $150-450 and can impact your driver’s license.
Kentucky fines run from $60-$500 and up to 30 days in jail
In Illinois, what’s known as Scott’s Law, carries fines from $250 to $10,000 with mandatory court costs. You can also get your license suspended.
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