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Limiting Cars’ Lights, Siren Use May Prevent Police Crashes

LAPD system allows only 1 car to respond in full ''Code 3'’ mode
- Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer

San Francisco - The patrol car smash-up that killed a San Francisco police officer might have been prevented by a policy adopted by other agencies that generally allows only one responding squad car to use lights and siren at a time.

The “washout” factor -- a phenomenon where competing lights and sirens essentially cancel each other out, leaving officers potentially oblivious to other patrol cars -- is believed to be at least partly responsible for Wednesday’'s wreck that claimed the life of rookie Officer Jon C. Cook and left rookie Officer Nick Ferrando in critical condition.

Two Los Angeles agencies that have had similar fatalities have adopted policies limiting who can respond with lights and siren to eliminate the danger from “washout” and limit the risk brought by many cars rushing to the calls.

San Francisco Police Chief Fred Lau said that he will be asking his training experts to examine the issues involved.

“I’'m sure we’'re going to look at it, and if it’'s something that’'s going to make officers and residents safer, we’'re going to seriously consider it,” Lau said.

The Los Angeles Police Department has a long-standing policy of restricting emergency -- “Code 3" -- lights-and-siren calls to one, primary squad car.

The department suffered a triple fatality in December 1988 when two patrol cars collided in a rush to answer a robbery detective’'s call for help in downtown Los Angeles. One car was speeding the wrong way on a one-way street.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’'s Department has a similar policy. It also requires its officers to clear each lane of traffic visually “lane by lane” -- even while using lights and sirens to assure a safe crossing.

The Sheriff’'s Department suffered the loss of two deputies, killed in 1978 as each rushed with lights and siren blaring to a burglary call in the desert town of Lancaster. Under the department policy, other cars may respond with lights and siren only if approved by supervisors.

Sgt. Bob Reid of the Los Angeles police emergency vehicle operations center said his department normally designates one car to go Code 3. He said the only time there might be multiple sirens is when there are police vehicles responding to different calls.

Los Angeles County sheriff’'s Sgt. George Grein said his agency -- which operates on a one deputy per car patrol system -- has set out a similar policy limiting the number of deputies going Code 3 to one car unless otherwise authorized.

“It depends upon the nature of the call,” he said. “There is a concern about limiting it, there’'s always the potential for there being a collision and the idea is to limit the risk.”

San Francisco police Lt. Henry Parra said his agency does not have such a policy, but supervisors regulate how many units go Code 3. He was not aware of the one-unit response rule in place in Los Angeles.

“This is the first I’'ve ever heard about this process,” he said. “If somebody responds, we would like people to see safety in the numbers, but I’'m curious about what they do at the LAPD and the sheriff’'s.”

Parra said SFPD’'s new recruits undergo a 40-hour course that is nearly double the state minimum to make sure they are attuned to the sound of rival emergency vehicles. He said they learn “lane by lane” clearance, but it is not set as part of the department’'s written policy.

Parra said he will look at other departments’’ practices in the wake of the fatal crash. “We’'re struggling to come up with resolution of this,” he said. “I’'ll take anything they can think of to make us safer, I’'ll tell you that,” he said. “There’'s nothing better than prudence, training and experience, life experience, to make a good officer, a good responder.”

Parra said he and his staff have done soul searching since the crash. “Here you have a young guy dead, another guy just hanging on by his fingertips. You can only think about what a horrific thing had transpired.

“Frankly, I’'ve lost sleep over this,” he said. “I know we did our job and we did it well -- we gave them all the tools. Do I wish I was sitting next to them in the car? Yeah.”

John Painter, a consultant in Texas who specializes in analyzing police- involved accidents, said a one Code 3 responder policy helps to prevent mishaps in the rush to respond to a call.

“It is good policy to have only one unit responding Code 3,” he said. If one unit does use its lights and siren continuously, he said, a secondary unit could make sure it went as rapidly as possible to the call, stopping at red lights, looking both ways before using its overhead lights only to clear traffic.

He said the SFPD officers involved no doubt had the “the best of intentions. "

“These things don’'t happen very often. So, police officers get a little lackadaisical and these things can happen. They are zealous in wanting to catch the perpetrator, that’'s understandable, but you have to keep your head on straight.”

He said LAPD is a leading department in the nation in dealing with pursuits and emergency responses.

“They are always a good source to look toward, despite the problems they have had lately,” he said. “There’'s definitely some policy that needs to be cleaned up there.”