As firefighters, police officers and medics rush to scenes or respond to roadside accidents, it’s unfortunate — but hardly uncommon — for accidents involving emergency vehicles to happen.
In response, one metro Detroit fire department has adopted a new alert system in partnership with the GPS navigation app Waze that is designed to prevent emergency vehicle accidents.
Grand Rapids Police/Fire was the first Michigan department to equip its vehicles with the HAAS Alert System, but the Rochester Hills Fire Department followed suit a couple of months ago — the first department in metro Detroit. HAAS Alert, which stands for “Heedful Audio Alert System,” notifies motorists of approaching emergency vehicles.
Rochester Hills Fire Chief Sean Canto told the Free Press that accidents involving emergency vehicles happen far too often, adding that Rochester Hills ambulances have been struck and their battalion chief’s vehicle has been struck twice.
“If it’s not a fatality, it’s a career-ending injury,” Canto said.
“Intersections (are) the most dangerous thing for us … especially the way new vehicles are made, because you can drive down the road and have a police car or somebody behind you, and you barely even hear because they’re so tight and they’re so soundproof.”
Emergency vehicle accidents have long been a concern for first responders:
- A 2012 study published in the Annals of Advances in Automotive Medicine notes the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) has reported that motor vehicle crashes are the cause of death for 20-25% of line-of-duty fatalities annually,making crashes the second-highest cause of death for firefighters.
- According to a 2015 report published by EMSWorld.com, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration analyzed data over two decades and found that29 fatal crashes involving an ambulance happen in the U.S. annually — with an average of 33 annual fatalities.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that on average,more than one police officer has been killed on America’s roads per week.Between 2006 and 2016, 64 motor vehicle-related officer deaths (including crashes and officers struck by cars while on foot) were recorded.
A little black box
However, Canto is hoping that “a little black box” attached to Rochester Hills emergency vehicles can prevent accidents.
“What it does is, it sends out a signal,” Canto said. “If a person is on Waze, it will actually show and say, ’emergency scene up ahead,’ ‘traffic accident up ahead.’ ”
As soon as an emergency vehicle turns its lights on, Canto said the signal starts transmitting. So as units are responding, he said, drivers will get notifications if an emergency vehicle is either up ahead or approaching.
“It kind of gives (users) the heads-up,” he said.
The hope is that when users get the notification, they can use the app for seeking out an alternate route and avoiding congestion, Canto said.
For now, the Rochester Hills Fire Department is still in its trial phase, with two ambulances and their battalion chief’s vehicle equipped with the system. Canto said his goal is to start the process of installing the system on the rest of their vehicles next month.
Canto said bringing the system to other law enforcement departments and first responders in metro Detroit would be a bigger initiative. He added that he has shared information about the system with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department.
“If we can notify people ahead of time that we’re there or we’re coming through there, and keep our personnel safe, that’s my biggest goal — to make sure people aren’t getting hurt,” he said.
How to get these alerts
Waze is the only mobile navigation app offering real-time notifications via the HAAS Alert System.
However, according to a Waze spokesperson, the app has over 500,000 users in Michigan, who can also report accidents, road closures and emergency vehicle sightings within the app.
Canto added that he receives monthly reports confirming that Rochester Hills users have been receiving their emergency alerts.
“Waze is the first navigation app to offer the HAAS Alert service and increase safety and expediency for first responders in Michigan and across the country. Waze’s global community of more than 30,000 map editors works together with first responders through our Connected Citizens Program to contribute real-time shelter and road closure updates within the app,” a Waze spokesperson said in a statement to the Free Press.
While the Waze app allows user reporting, Canto said an advantage of having the HAAS Alert System in place is that notifications for equipped emergency vehicles in Rochester Hills are automatic.
“If I’m coming down Rochester Road in a fire engine and I’m approaching an intersection and there’s Waze users sitting there, they’ll get notified,” he said.
“A vehicle approaching from the rear, a vehicle approaching from the intersection, they’ll know about it, and if there’s an accident up ahead, that’ll start notifying people automatically. They don’t have to go on the Waze app and click accident seen here, they’re already going to know.”
Chief Operating Officer for HAAS Alert Noah Levens said in a statement to the Free Press that the company is in “active dialogue with other navigation apps, car companies, and traffic data providers to bring real-time safety alerts to more drivers and road users.”
The company’s vision, Levens said, is for their alerts to become a standard safety feature for all connected cars and autonomous vehicles on the roadway, so smarter driving decisions can be made and dangerous situations that lead to collisions can be prevented.
“Traffic’s not getting any better,” Canto said. “If it’s something we can do to keep the community and our personnel safe, it’s definitely worth it.”