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Ruthless Preemption

In the past several years, I’ve traveled on area roads from several different perspectives. I’ve traveled as a motorist. I’ve also traveled in an ambulance as a first responder. And more recently, I have been on the roads as a cyclist. Many will nod their heads in agreement when I say that the way people many drive in this area is simply appalling.

In Fire/Rescue, our portable radios are equipped with an “emergency” button. This bright orange button allows us to depress it and to command the attention of dispatch and every other radio user on the air in the County. Obviously, it is intended to be depressed only in scenarios involving an immediate threat to life. Once depressed, if there is no response or a distressed response to the dispatcher, a massive police response ensues.

And once depressed, all other radio traffic on the air is inhibited until the “emergency” is cleared from the radio – a feature known as “ruthless preemption.” Depressing the “EB” button, as we call it, is a way of saying that what is happening to the user is so important, all other communication should stop until the dispatcher deems the situation is to be managed.

Many people (too many) in this area drive with ruthless preemption.

When I was in EMT training at the Academy, one of our instructors, a long-time paramedic in Montgomery County, was teaching a unit on responding to what we call “PICs,” (what the rest of the world calls “car crashes”). He set up a scenario for us – someone blows through a four-way stop, and T-bones another car on the driver side as it proceeds into the intersection. It is rush hour, and the driver of the T-boned vehicle is pinned and has serious injuries. The sky is clear and the wind is low, so you request a helicopter be dispatched to the scene. You begin clearing the intersection according to protocol for the incoming chopper.

“Then,” he paused, “because we need this to depict such a scene in Montgomery County,” he recruited several volunteers to act as the responders and he assumed the role of a bystander in his car on the scene. “EXCUSE ME!,” he shouted, “How long is this going to be?” He tapped his foot. “I am late for work and I am VERY important!” Everyone chuckled, and then, blushed: it is true, and it is pretty embarrassing if you live here. This is what first responders really think about us.

I learned the hard way that this is not hyperbole when I started running calls myself. One incident sticks out in my mind in particular — a night when it was pouring — the rain was coming down so hard you could barely see more than a few feet in front of you — we were called to the inevitable Beltway PIC. The engine blocked the scene properly to keep traffic away from where the involved vehicles were in the left lane, and the EMT who was our driver staged our ambulance properly. I looked out of the window of the cab for an opportunity to get out, and despite doing everything “right,” I was almost clipped by a driver who passed the engine and got into the third lane before passing the accident scene (this is a violation of traffic law, of course) and gunned it. I was passed whisper close by a vehicle doing about 45 mph in a torrential downpour, wearing a traffic vest and high visibility gear.

Who could suck all of the oxygen out of the air and engage in such ruthless preemption? I never saw that driver’s face, but I did see the face of a driver who cut off my husband and me while we were riding our bikes one day. We were taking the lane, riding abreast, and he passed too close and cut right in front of us. Neil decided to engage him, and he pulled up alongside him at the next traffic light. The driver rolled down his window and said, “There’s no bike lane here! Get off the road!” About 100 feet in front of us was one of the “share the road” signs that instructs drivers that cyclists are authorized, by law, to take the lane.

If you see people driving in an unsafe manner, whether around first responders, cyclists, pedestrians or other motorists, I encourage you to let them know – calmly. A few months ago a guy passed unsafely while I was riding my bike on Beach Drive. At first, I was enraged, and I chased him to the light. I made the “roll your window down” gesture, and he did. Fortunately, the rage left me and I said to him, quite calmly, “I see you have Virginia plates. In Maryland, the law is you are to pass cyclists at a distance of at least three feet. You passed me with two feet at most, and it was completely unsafe.” He blinked for a moment, and then apologized. “I had no idea I was that close to you. I’m really sorry.”

Maybe, just maybe, we can prevent someone else from engaging in ruthless preemption with deadly consequences.

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1 Comment

  • Excellent piece – as always – Deana. I worry about engaging, though with those ruthless preemptors. I think the disregard for life can extend dangerously in those situations. Be safe and may the angels always watch over you!

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