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This article was originally published in a March 2006 issue of the Traverse City Record Eagle newspaper.
Click here to read the original article

At Issue: Emergency Vehicle Crashes

Drivers can't rely on just lights and sirens

BY GEORGE THOMPSON

Editor's note: Traverse City attorney George Thompson has had extensive experience in emergency vehicle collision cases. Most recently, he represented the family of Rebecca Garrisi, who was killed in a collision with a Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department fire truck in March 2005.

The Record-Eagle recently asked Thompson to share his insights on this and other such cases.

On March 8, 2005, a fire engine from Battalion 11 of the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department struck the Matthew and Rebecca Garrisi family SUV, killing Rebecca Garrisi and their 11-month-old son, Jesse. The driver of the fire engine was 26-year-old Cory Carlton.

The Grand Traverse County prosecutor's staff, with its many ties to Grand Traverse Metro Fire, rightfully took a "hands-off" position with regard to prosecuting Carlton; the matter then was orphaned for several months while authorities sought to identify a prosecutor willing to add this unpopular prosecution to his normal duties.

Only Antrim County Prosecutor Charles Koop was willing. The editorial staff of the Record-Eagle appropriately applauded Koop for agreeing to prosecute Carlton but expressed reservations about his decision to accept a no-contest misdemeanor plea.

Carlton's prosecution addressed a problem that is more pervasive than the poor judgment of one young firefighter. I represented the Garrisi family and on their behalf, I would like to address the broader issues that the newspaper raised.

In North America, more than 12,000 emergency vehicle collisions occur on emergency runs each year. More U.S. firefighters are killed traveling to and from fires than are killed fighting them. The National Fire Protection Association concluded that "obeying traffic laws, using seat belts, driving sober and controlling speed" would prevent most of these deaths.

Intersection collisions are the most common cause of death. These collisions are even more dangerous for civilians struck by heavy emergency vehicles while traveling in smaller, lighter vehicles. Our office has been involved in litigation arising out of four separate northern Michigan emergency vehicle collisions, which together caused six civilian deaths.

In the Grand Traverse case, the Garrisis were northbound on East Silver Lake Road, approaching Zimmerman. The fire engine was westbound, en route to a reported chimney fire. By all accounts, the light was green for Garrisi and red for the fire engine.

Garrisi was traveling about 10 mph below the speed limit. All witnesses put the speed of the fire engine above 25 mph. Both Garrisi and Carlton told police that they did not see the other vehicle approaching until an instant before impact.

Sight distance at this intersection is very limited. While some observers did see lights or hear a siren as the fire engine approached, many witnesses who were stopped at the congested intersection did not. An audiologist from the University of Michigan confirmed that Garrisi would not have heard the siren approaching.

According to established scientific principles, if Garrisi saw the fire engine the moment it became visible, it would have taken him more than a second to perceive the danger and respond and more than a second for his vehicle to begin to slow. By the time he could see the fire engine, it was already too late to avoid a collision.

Violating traffic rules on emergency runs is unnecessary. Published studies show that adhering to traffic rules adds less than one minute to response time and, in the case of ambulances, does not negatively affect patient outcomes.

The manual used to train Carlton -- who was the elected safety officer for Battalion 11 -- was adopted pursuant to state regulations as the official training manual for Michigan firefighters. This manual required Carlton to make a complete stop before entering an intersection against a red light.

The Battalion 11 officer who trained Carlton in 2002 conceded that Carlton was trained to this standard and that Carlton received his own copy of the manual, which also explained why the limitations of lights and siren require a complete stop.

Metro had adopted a less restrictive policy that would only require a "rolling stop" at red lights. The department's policy was not as restrictive or precise as various national standards.

The NFPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Federal Emergency Management Association, like the Michigan training regulations, explicitly require that emergency vehicles make a complete stop before entering an intersection against a red light.

These standards were promulgated over several decades, in response to academic research and accident investigation that separately document the limitations on emergency warning devices and the unreasonable danger associated with entering an intersection against the right-of-way.

A 1970s-era Department of Transportation study established that emergency lights and sirens do not adequately warn intersecting motorists of the approach of an emergency vehicle.

Lights and siren do not warn motorists outside the line of sight or sound, in part because sirens do not "penetrate" modern vehicles well, even if extraneous sounds such as radio or snow tires are eliminated.

Metro made no determined effort to bring its drivers into conformity with modern standards or state training regulations. One battalion officer testified that he watched battalion drivers negotiate red lights at speeds above 25 mph but did not discipline the driver(s) involved -- despite teaching a course that required a complete stop.

The officers of the department conceded under oath that drivers should receive refresher training every year or two but, in fact, no mandatory training was provided to drivers after they were initially certified.

An experienced prosecutor must take into account the impact of his decisions on the public and the victims' family. Enduring a trial focused on the deaths of his family members would have been extremely unpleasant for the surviving widower and father. Matthew Garrisi was less interested in vengeance and more interested in exposing the problem presented by unsafe emergency driving.

Koop's solution of a negotiated plea to a lesser offense was acceptable to Garrisi and his family. Nothing was "swept under the rug" although the issues were not as thoroughly and publicly aired as they might have been.

In fact, if Koop had insisted on a trial and jurors had "nullified" the law and excused Carlton, as recently happened in a Sault Ste. Marie case, the regional standard for emergency driving conduct would have been lowered, rather than raised, by this incident.

For the family, such an outcome would have added insult to injury.

The Garrisi family would like to express its appreciation to Koop for having the courage to take up this prosecution, to press it with appropriate effort and to resolve it in a manner that fulfilled his public trust.

The editorial staff is correct in its desire to assure broad public discussion of these issues. Nevertheless, until the public attitude toward training, and if necessary prosecuting careless "Good Samaritans" changes, public authorities will have to take an incremental approach to punishing drivers and officers who exercise poor judgment.