It’s an all-too-familiar sight – a speeding ambulance or firetruck is approaching, and amidst a long lineup of pulled-over cars is one that keeps driving, oblivious to what’s going on. It’s easy to imagine how much worse the problem is when the first responder is in their personal vehicle, using a single flashing green light instead of the brilliant red and blue flashing lights.
In 2017, Ontario’s Bill 174 made changes to an old law that specified only police vehicles (not firetrucks or ambulances) could use blue flashing lights in addition to red flashing lights to indicate an emergency. This decision was made in part because it was deemed that motorists are more likely to pull over and heed the authority of emergency vehicles if all emergency vehicles use the same light colours as police vehicles. After all, few motorists would dare disobey the police.
It’s safe to assume that if changes made by Bill 174 were put in place to acknowledge that fire and ambulance vehicles do not get the respect warranted by the severity of the emergencies to which they respond, then personal vehicles with a small green flashing light surely get less respect. In small communities such as North Grenville, fires and other emergencies requiring a response from the Fire Department are the responsibility of volunteer firefighters. When they respond to a call, they may be on their way from work, a family gathering, or their own bed. Being able to get to the station or the scene quickly can literally make the difference between life and death for someone experiencing the most tragic day of their life.
A North Grenville resident recently visited the Times office to report that he has observed all too often people ignoring firefighters who are driving with their green lights flashing. Why do people ignore these lights? Logically, it has to be either indifference or ignorance. To combat indifference to the flashing green lights, fire departments have often used the campaign of “it could be your house we are going to”. This message, while likely effective at encouraging motorists to get out of the way when they see a firefighter, can perhaps be seen as a commentary on the selfishness of many people. Motorists should be able to make the right choice and pull over even if it helps someone else, rather than themselves. But we nevertheless must cater to people’s self-centred natures in order to guarantee a clear path of travel for firefighters.
The other reason motorists may not pull over for a firefighter displaying a flashing green light is ignorance. This could be ignorance of what the flashing green light means, or ignorance of the fact that there is a firefighter behind them in the moment owing to another problem, such as distracted driving.
North Grenville Fire Chief, John Okum, weighed in on the green lights issue. “The use of a green light does not give a firefighter the same authority as an emergency vehicle,” said Chief Okum. “The green light provides notice to other drivers that an emergency exists, and it is a volunteer firefighter responding to the emergency. The green light is considered a courtesy. Drivers should pull over if safe to do so and allow the responding firefighter to continue.”
Chief Okum explained that in some circumstances, the responding firefighters are notified that their assistance is no longer required, so motorists may suddenly see the use of the green light discontinued. Given the importance of firefighters reaching the scene of an emergency efficiently, Chief Okum shared a message with North Grenville residents. “If you observe a vehicle emitting a green flashing light, please pull over if safe to do so and allow the vehicle to continue,” he said. “It is a volunteer firefighter responding to a call for help. Please help us to help you!”
Want to help do your part to make sure firefighters can do their jobs? Know the law, pay attention behind the wheel, and have compassion for what someone else is going through. Someone else will almost certainly be glad you cared.