The passenger side of a Rochester Hills Fire Department vehicle sustained serious damage following a car crash due to a distracted driver.

The passenger side of a Rochester Hills Fire Department vehicle sustained serious damage following a car crash due to a distracted driver.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Fire Department pilots new tech for drivers to avoid emergency vehicles with Waze app

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published May 1, 2019


ROCHESTER HILLS — Danger lurks around every corner for emergency responders.

They aren’t fazed when charging into a dilapidated building engulfed in flames or assisting patients with severe trauma and infectious diseases, but when responding to a call on the roadway, firefighters know never to turn their backs on the deadliest threat they encounter — traffic.

Each year in the United States, there are over 60,000 collisions involving emergency responders, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of all the firefighter fatalities within the last decade, the National Fire Protection Association says 1 in 5 actually occurred while they were in transit to or returning from a call.

Rochester Hills Fire Chief Sean Canto said collisions with passing motorists are an alarming trend that is becoming all too common for his team.

“The worst place for us to be is out on the road,” he said.

These days, the department’s common roadway safety practices — such as activating flashing lights and sirens, having a safety officer on the site, creating a buffer zone by parking a fire apparatus diagonally behind an emergency scene, and using cones to direct traffic away from the scene — aren’t enough to protect against distracted drivers.

“The truth of the matter is people don’t pay attention, and we have some really dangerous intersections in the city of Rochester Hills as far as traffic is concerned,” Canto said. “People are texting. I’ve seen people putting on makeup, reading the newspaper, reading a book and talking on their phone.”

Battalion Chief Jerry Yurgo said his truck has been hit twice in the last year — once on Auburn Road and once on Crooks Road — and Fire Engine 21 was also hit last year, on Crooks Road.

“In one of those instances, in the battalion vehicle, the collision smashed the whole passenger side, so the firefighter that was in the passenger seat had to crawl over the console to get out the other side,” Canto explained.

Yurgo urges motorists to be alert, slow down and move to the right when they see an emergency vehicle.

“Every day people are not pulling to the right, which is the law, but they are also cutting us off, slowing us down, pulling in front of us, following us. We even see people run red lights to try to beat us. We see it on a daily basis,” he said.

In an effort to provide more protection for personnel, the Rochester Hills Fire Department is piloting a new device created by the Chicago company Haas Alert. Company officials say the digital device will help drivers using navigational apps to better steer clear of emergency responders.

“Collisions between emergency vehicles and civilian motorists are the leading cause of injury and death to first responders and can cost cities millions on average every time an incident occurs,” Haas Alert CEO Cory Hohs said in a statement.

Canto said the device — a small black box about 4 inches wide — currently helps improve safety for firefighters and motorists by sending out alerts when responders are en route to a call or are on the scene through a popular navigation app called Waze.

“Once we turn the lights on in our trucks, this sends out a signal automatically and will notify people that they are approaching a scene or that an engine is approaching them,” Canto said.

Officials from Haas Alert say the system could eventually be incorporated into other navigational apps, as well as systems used via built-in car dashboard displays — such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. The company is also currently working with deaf and hard-of-hearing rideshare drivers to deliver the safety messages.

The Rochester Hills Fire Department is about a month into the 90-day pilot program, which allowed for the installation of the devices in three company vehicles: two engines and the battalion truck. If the pilot program is successful, Canto hopes to equip the department’s entire fleet with the digital alert devices sometime in the future.

For more information, call (248) 656-4720 or visit