I have been asked the following question from a Victorian volunteer firefighter:
Our small CFA rural brigade owns a “slip-on” firefighting unit comprising water tank, pump and hoses. This can be loaded onto a volunteer’s ute for fire suppression during the fire season. Many brigades in Victoria have these. This unit has been in use for many years, and was particularly useful on Black Saturday and its aftermath.
Our Brigade purchased a red/blue flashing light for the slip-on unit. We thought we were doing the right thing for safety reasons. The local CFA hierarchy now say we cannot legally use it. Have we done our dough?
Australia is meant to have national road rules, but like all good national schemes, there are in fact minor differences state to state; for Victoria, the Australian Road Rules are in the Road Safety Road Rules 2009 (Vic), a ‘regulation’ made under the Road Safety Act 1986 (Vic). Rule 306 is the same across the country, it says:
A provision of these Rules does not apply to the driver of an emergency vehicle if-
(a) in the circumstances-
(i) the driver is taking reasonable care; and
(ii) it is reasonable that the rule should not apply; and
(b) if the vehicle is a motor vehicle that is moving-the vehicle is displaying a blue or red flashing light or sounding an alarm.
The difference across the States and Territories comes with the definition of what is an emergency vehicle. In Victoria, an emergency vehicle is:
(a) a vehicle operated by or on behalf of and under the control of—
(i) an ambulance service created by section 23 of the Ambulance Services Act 1986 or listed in Schedule 1 to that Act; or
(ii) an ambulance service created under a law in force in another State or in a Territory of the Commonwealth that the Minister, by notice in the Government Gazette, declares to be an ambulance service to which this paragraph applies;
(b) a vehicle operated as an ambulance by the Australian Defence Force;
(c) a fire service unit under the control of—
(i) the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board; or
(ii) the Department of Sustainability and Environment; or
(iii) the Country Fire Authority; or
(iv) the Australian Defence Force;
(ca) a vehicle being used to convey the Fire Services Commissioner for the purpose of enabling the Fire Services Commissioner to control the response to a major fire;
(d) a vehicle under control of the State Emergency Service;
(f) a vehicle being used to convey a member of the Australian Army engaged in connection with emergency ordnance disposal procedures;
(g) a vehicle under the control of the Shepparton Search and Rescue Squad Inc. or the Echuca and Moama Search and Rescue Squad Inc.;
That is a much more restricted list than say, NSW where an emergency vehicle is any vehicle driven by an emergency worker. Relevantly in the context of this question, the vehicle has to be ‘under the control of… the Country Fire Authority’. We are told that the unit in question is being operated by CFA volunteers, that the slip on unit is owned by the CFA brigade but the ute is privately owned. The red and blue lights go on the slip on unit and not the vehicle per se, but of course once the slip on unit is ‘slipped on’ the lights are part of the going vehicle.
If the vehicle is being used bona fide to fight fires, is operated by a CFA volunteer, with the blessing of the local CFA and the brigade captain, subject to direction and control of the incident controller (regardless of whether that is the local captain or a larger IMT) then it is a vehicle under the control of the CFA and is therefore an ‘emergency vehicle’.
That, however, is not the answer to the question. What lights can be fitted to a vehicle are set out in the Road Safety (Vehicles) Regulations 2009 (Vic) (also a ‘regulation’ made under the Road Safety Act 1986 (Vic)). The rules contain detailed provisions for the fitting of lights and reflectors. Clause 118 of Schedule 2 says (emphasis added):
(1) In this clause—
exempt vehicle means—
(a) a police vehicle; or
(b) an emergency vehicle; or
(c) a transport enforcement vehicle; or
(d) an Australian Protective Service vehicle; or
(e) an Australian Customs Service vehicle; or
(f) an Airservices Australia vehicle;
special use vehicle means—
(a) a vehicle built or fitted for use in hazardous situations on a road; or
(b) a bus fitted, before July 1999, with a sign telling road users that the bus carries children.
Special use vehicles to which paragraph (a) applies:
1 Tow trucks;
2 Vehicle breakdown service vehicles.
(2) A vehicle must not be fitted with a light or reflector not mentioned in the Vehicle Standards without the written approval of the Corporation.
(3) Subject to subclause (4), a vehicle must not be fitted with—
(a) a light that flashes;
(b) a light or reflector that—
(i) shows a red light to the front; or
(ii) shows a white light to the rear; or
(iii) is shaped or located in a way that reduces the effectiveness of a light or reflector that is required to be fitted to the vehicle under the Vehicle Standards.
(4) Despite subclause (3) and any requirement of a third edition ADR, an exempt vehicle may be fitted with any light or reflector, and a special use vehicle may be fi fitted with one or more flashing yellow lights.
Emergency vehicle has the same meaning as it has in the Road Safety Road Rules 2009 (Vic) (see Road Safety (Vehicles) Regulations 2009 (Vic), Schedule 2, clause 3).
So that tells us –
- The ute with a slip on unit is an emergency vehicle;
- An emergency vehicle is an exempt vehicle;
- An exempt vehicle may be fitted with any light or reflector…
But, the fact that it may be fitted with any light or reflector does not mean that it is at the whim of the owner or driver to install whatever light or reflector they wish. There is still clause 2 – which says:
A vehicle must not be fitted with a light or reflector not mentioned in the Vehicle Standards without the written approval of the Corporation.
The vehicle standards are those standards set out in Schedule 2 of the Road Safety (Vehicles) Regulations 2009 (Vic). The standards do not mention red and blue flashing lights. It follows that red and blue lights are ‘a light or reflector not mentioned in the Vehicle Standards’. No-one can affix red and blue flashing lights to their vehicle – not the ambulance service, not the police, and not the CFA – without ‘the written approval of the Corporation’. The Corporation (ie the Roads Corporation (Roads Safety Act 1986 (Vic) s 3) can give the owner of an exempt vehicle permission to have any light or reflector but that does not deny that such permission is needed. Presumably the Corporation has given that permission to the CFA, police etc so that their vehicles are lawfully equipped with the red and blue lights. I would assume, however, that the Corporation does not give approval for each fire appliance, ambulance or police car. The approval is probably given to the organisation, such as the CFA to fit the lights to vehicles approved or owned by them or registered as a police, fire or ambulance vehicle. However it is done, it would effectively allow the CFA to identify the vehicles to which they will attach the red and blue lights. Assuming that’s true, if the CFA hierarchy do not approve the fitting of the lights, then it remains the case that fitting them, and using them, is illegal.
If we return to the question asked, the red and blue lights in question are on the slip on unit but they become part of the car when the unit is on. In the absence of ‘written approval’ from the Corporation fitting those lights is illegal.
We can now go back to the Road Safety Road Rules 2009 (Vic) r 306. If I am correct the ute with the slip on unit is an emergency vehicle. If it is being used for fire fighting purposes it is equipped with a red and blue flashing light, even if illegally equipped. Rule 306(b) says that one of the conditions for an exemption is
if the vehicle is a motor vehicle that is moving-the vehicle is displaying a blue or red flashing light or sounding an alarm.
If the vehicle is moving and is displaying the red and blue lights that condition is met; it does not say ‘legally’ displaying a blue or red light. Is it that simple? No, of course not. The other provision for an exemption is that it must be ‘reasonable that the rule should not apply’ and no court is going to accept that you should be granted an exemption under r 306 if you have illegally fitted red and blue lights and even more so if you have been told by the CFA not to do it.
Another view is that the lights are not fitted to the ute, they are fitted to a slip on unit and the slip on unit is not governed by the Road Safety (Vehicles) Regulations 2009 (Vic) as it’s not a vehicle. That’s true of course and you can put lots of things on a ute that are not a vehicle and the fact that it’s on a ute does not mean the load has to comply with vehicle standards (though the way it is loaded has to). To give an analogy, you can put a fire appliance on a flat bed truck and that does not make the flat bed truck a fire appliance, and there is no breach of the law, as the flat bed truck is not equipped with red/blue lights, even if its load is; but it would not be lawful to turn the lights on and it would certainly not be reasonable to assume that the driver of the flat bed truck enjoyed any exemption under rule 306 if the lights or siren were on. A slip on unit is different, by putting it on a ute it in effect becomes part of the ute in a way that a fire appliance on a flat bed truck is not part of the truck, so a court would probably accept that once the slip on unit was on, it became part of the ute, but even if it did not, it would not justify using the red/blue lights while the unit was on the ute.
That’s a long way of saying ‘yes, you have done your dough’; unless you get ‘written approval’ from the Roads Corporation or approval from the CFA acting under any delegated, written authority that they may have to put lights on CFA emergency vehicles.