Wellington firefighters stop at red lights

10:23 am on 30 May 2016

Some firefighters rushing to emergencies in Wellington are now stopping at red lights for fear they might crash into someone and get prosecuted for it.

A fire engine on Wellington's Lambton Quay.

A fire engine on Wellington's Lambton Quay. Photo: 123rf

It comes after a volunteer fireman was charged with careless driving.

With lights flashing and sirens blaring, the volunteer driver said he was making his way to a house fire in Wellington, in his Operational Support truck, last year when he slowed for a red light.

Checking whether the coast was clear, and getting the okay from his officer in charge in the passenger seat, he said he went through the red light and collided with a car.

The woman driving that car was taken to hospital with broken ribs.

Under the law, the Land Transport (Road User) Rule 2004, fire trucks, police cars and ambulances are allowed to run a red light with their sirens and lights on, if they are on their way to an emergency and if they are driving at less than 20 kilometres an hour through the intersection.

The volunteer's lawyer Chris O'Connor said his client followed the law and the charge sets a dangerous precedent.

"What more [he] could have done is beyond me, aside of course from just completely stopping at the intersection and not going through it," he said.

"The problem with that is, they wouldn't get to the scene of an emergency as quickly as they might otherwise have done and the purpose of them being allowed to pass through intersections and red lights is to allow them to respond quickly to genuine emergencies."

Mr O'Connor said it could put lives at risk.

"We want our emergency responders such as ambulance drivers, police, fire, to get to the scene of an emergency as quickly as possible.

"If they're paranoid about being charged with offences such as going through red lights, carefully, then they are not going to get to the scene of emergencies as quickly as they should do."

A senior fire fighter, who did not want to be identified, said that was exactly what was happening in his brigade.

He said some fire fighters would now stop at red lights on their way to emergencies.

"Well from instances in our brigade, drivers are taking particular care, even to the point that, when they get stuck in traffic, they're turning their lights and sirens off and waiting for traffic to clear," he said.

He himself has been warning volunteers not to risk it.

"Volunteers, they're doing it for nothing...no volunteer can afford to lose their license and certainly, no one can afford to fight these sorts of cases through the courts. It involves a lot of money."

The United Fire Brigades' Association and the Professional Firefighters Union said they were aware of the case, but had not heard any reports of firefighters stopping at lights because of it.

Some fire stations in the Wellington region said their drivers often stopped at red lights on their way to emergencies when the roads and intersections were busy.

One volunteer fire fighter said sometimes he would turn off his siren if he came to a red light and traffic was blocking all lanes, so he did not pressure cars to move into the intersection or run a red light themselves.

The Fire Service said the case was one of only two it was aware of.

Paul Turner, the national operations manager for the Fire Service, said the other happened in Pukekohe in 2013.

"The police charged the driver of the fire truck involved in the accident with dangerous driving causing injury. The charge was reduced to one of aggravated careless driving causing injury in response to a guilty plea and the payment of reparation to the owners of other vehicles affected by the accident," he said.

Mr Turner said the Fire Service's internal policy relating to running red lights was that a truck should be going less than 10km per hour when entering traffic lights.

"If the way is clear they may accelerate up to 20 kilometres an hour through the intersection, provided the vehicle's lights and sirens are activated," he said.

Chris O'Connor said New Zealand should follow the United Kingdom's lead, where it was policy not to prosecute firefighters when they were attending an emergency call and their driving wasn't deliberately reckless.