As technology continues to advance in the fire service, certain safety precautions still need to take place regardless of what computers and on-board safety systems tell us. There is no doubt that the new systems and technology being added to fire apparatus are an asset. However, they should not be relied upon as the "final" answer to start operations.

With the advancement of aerial devices, many new features have been added. Proximity sensors/switches have been added for stabilizers indicating "fully extended" or "firm on ground." There are also sensors in the turntable that can limit rotation in a "short jack" operation and switches/sensors located on the ladder device itself showing rung alignment, number of feet extended, etc.

In the manufacturer's operator's manual, there should be a statement that reads: "Your apparatus includes aerial interlock devices, sensors and other electrical devices that may malfunction and require repair. A malfunction may prevent further aerial operation. If this happens, you can override the interlocks."

What operators/drivers of these type of apparatus need to realize is that these sensors can fail or malfunction. Electronics do not last forever; they are not indestructible. The driver/operator needs to remain diligent in knowing the apparatus and recognize when something is malfunctioning or is not going as planned.

The place to find out if there is a malfunction is during the morning or weekly checkout — not on the fire ground during emergency operations, even though a malfunction can possibly occur on the scene. During the routine daily or weekly checkout, when the device is "flown," operators/drivers need to assure that all sensors, operating levers, overrides and EPUs are functioning properly.

They need to be intimately familiar with all the procedures, buttons, levers, lights and controls so they can troubleshoot a problem at any given moment at any given time. It needs to be second nature.

This is because when you have firefighters operating on the device 10 to 105 feet in the air (or possibly more) or if civilians are being rescued, getting them safely to ground when an issue occurs is of the utmost importance.

Case in point: During a driver checkout, a driver was deploying the stabilizers to "fly the bird," the aerial device. Once this driver had confirmed that all the sensor lights for the stabilizers were showing that they were fully extended and firm on ground, they proceeded to the turntable controls to begin to raise the ladder out of its cradle.

As the driver engineer instructor, I asked the driver, "Are the stabilizers firm on ground?" Since the driver had seen the LED indicator lights as showing that they were, he stated, "Yes." At the point, he began moving the ladder, and he failed the checkout.

This was because one of the stabilizers was 18 inches off the ground and not "firm on ground." Even though the sensors showed it was, it was not! Even though this was a "technical" or "equipment" malfunction, it did not excuse the fact that the driver was about to operate the device in an unsafe manner.

Per the driver engineer exam checkout guidelines for our department, during testing, if the driver does not go around the apparatus and visually inspect each stabilizer to assure it has been fully deployed, and physically kick the stabilizer pads with his shoe to assure they don't move since the stabilizer is pushing it down on the ground and holding it firmly in place, it is considered a critical failure, and the test is over.

The driver was informed of this, but he was allowed to continue in "practice" mode since the time has been set aside anyway. The driver(s) that fail are allowed a second attempt (on another day) to retest. However, if a failure occurs after the second testing attempt, they are removed from their driving position and cannot rebid another position until six months have passed, plus complete the appropriate remediation per policy.

If a short jacked situation is needed, that is OK. However, what is most important is to assure that the stabilizer is "firm on ground."

I would always tell my drivers that the best computer they have is the one between their ears: their brain. Even though modern-day computers assist us in many ways, they are not fail-proof. Your brain is with you 24/7/365 and does not need batteries. It's the same reason why the most technologically advanced fighter aircraft in our military still have a human pilot in them because of the decisions and reasoning that need to occur for any given scenario.

Everything is not predictable, and there are exceptions even though what we see and hear may tell us otherwise.