9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Worst Case Scenario: Can't Stop! What to Tell a Caller with a Stuck Accelerator

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, March 2014, Part 2 of a 7-Part Series
Written by Angie Stiefermann, employed with the Jefferson City Police Department for 21 years as a CTO and for the last eight years as a telecommunications supervisor and instructor.  As a member of a department that encourages continuing education, Stiefermann feels a responsibility to do her part in educating others through affordable or free training with the APCO training partnership.

As a 9-1-1 calltaker, there are days when you find yourself saying, "Every day is something new," while other days leave you feeling, "I've heard it all."  There are definitely days that bring nothing new to the table, but occasionally even a seasoned calltaker is taken aback by a situation they've never experienced before or a routine call that takes an unexpected turn.

Last month's article focused on the unexpected call you could receive from someone who is locked in the trunk of a car.  This month I am going to examine how you can help someone who is operating a vehicle with a stuck accelerator or failed brakes.

A situation in which a motorist experiences a stuck accelerator pedal is rare, and receiving calls from a victim in this situation is even more rare.  This issue gained national attention following the massive Toyota recall in 2009 due to issues with stuck accelerator pedals, and the death of off-duty California state trooper Mark Saylor and three family members the same year due to a stuck accelerator.  Though you may never be faced with this scenario during your career, it's advantageous to be prepared to deal with it just in case it does.  What you tell a caller could save a life.

As with all emergencies, the caller's location should be ascertained and emergency services sent.  However, the operator should not become so focused on the location that they don't give the caller some tools to aid them in slowing the vehicle immediately.  Depending upon speed, roadway, time of day and traffic conditions, an operator may have several minutes or just a few seconds to help the caller.

Frantic callers are not always the best problem solvers, so it's important that dispatchers remain patient and start with the basics.  Considering the altered mental state of some callers, the reason for the acceleration may simply be that the driver is stepping on the gas rather than the brake.  The operator should initially ask the caller what happens when they take their foot off the pedal altogether.  If the vehicle slows, they should be directed to either put their foot down on the pedal to the far left or stay off the pedals altogether and allow the vehicle to slow on its own.

If that is not the issue then there might be a problem with the floor mat.  In the case of the off-duty trooper and his family, the cause of the unexpected acceleration was determined to be an improperly sized floor mat installed by the company that loaned the trooper the car.  If possible and safe, have the caller pull back the floor mat and ensure that it isn't lodged under the pedal.  If the floor mat cannot be dislodged, they should firmly and steadily step on the brake pedal with both feet.  They should not pump the brake pedal repeatedly, as this will increase the effort required to slow the vehicle.  If the foot brake alone will not bring the vehicle to a stop, suggest the driver slowly engage the emergency brake of the car.

Another suggestion is to shift the transmission gear to the neutral position and use the brakes to make a controlled stop.  In neutral, the operator should continue to have power steering.  If the operator is unable to put the vehicle in neutral, then they should turn the engine completely off.  Power assist to steering and brake systems will then be lost.

If the vehicle is equipped with an engine start/stop button, the caller should firmly and steadily push the button for at least three seconds to turn off the engine.  They should not tap the button, but hold it down firmly.  If the vehicle is equipped with a conventional key ignition, they should turn the ignition key to the ACC position to turn off the engine.  Make sure they do not remove the key from the ingnition as this will lock the steering wheel.

As you assist the caller with options to stop the vehicle, ascertain their speed.  Suggest that they turn on their hazard lights and bear down on their car horn to alert other motorists, particularly when they approach intersections and heavy traffic.

It is imperative that the caller do all that they can to slow and/or stop the vehicle; if they are unable to do that, then they should try to do all they can to protect the people around them.

This type of situation is never easy to handle, but we must be prepared to tackle this type of call so that we can do our best to protect our callers.  By reviewing these strategies, we have a better chance of providing help and guidance if we answer a call for one of these worst case scenarios.

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