Byline: Walter C. Jones
ATLANTA | Their job is to protect the public, but police, fire and rescue personnel are involved in crashes that trigger hundreds of accidents each year in Georgia, some resulting in fatalities. Now a state program is working to reduce that number.
According to figures from the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, there were 2,475 collisions involving on-duty officers in 2011. As a result, 386 Georgians were injured and three died.
The most notable of the wrecks killed the wife of Atlanta Braves trainer Jeff Porter one block from the Capitol on New Year's Eve. The officer involved, Trooper First Class Donald Crozier, was fired, but records released to the media show he had been in 20 crashes in his patrol car in his 10 years with the Georgia State Patrol, seven of them determined to be his fault directly.
The new effort involves classroom time, online simulation and realistic challenges in a mock-up trainer the way pilots learn and hone their skills.
The Georgia Department of Public Safety is working with the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, which has purchased two trainers that will begin operations early next month for a course developed by the Georgia Public Safety Training Center.
Every trooper will undergo the program and, starting in South Central Georgia, as many as 10,000 law-enforcement officers and local first-responders will be trained each year. The first 1,000 students have already gone through the initial segment in Perry.
"I think it's safe to say, the more we can train on operating emergency vehicles the better," said Terry Norris, executive director of the Sheriffs Association. "It's just an underlying need to drill into deputy sheriffs and troopers the need for safety."
This is not the first effort to increase safety.
About two decades ago, the law-enforcement community nationally began to address the number of crashes associated with high-speed pursuits.
Agencies began changing their policies to allow officers to break off pursuits if continuation would endanger the public more than allowing a suspect to escape.
"When I started patrolling in the 1970s, you would pursue until the wheels fell off," said Frank Rotondo, executive director, Georgia Chiefs of Police.
After changing the policies, agencies then stepped up their training of recruits and refreshers for veterans to ensure they understood the new approach.
"Like firearms training, you can give them a proficiency rating, but you have to tell them when and when not to use the weapon," Rotondo said.
BYSTANDER INJURIES SPIKED
The State Patrol reports that troopers broke off 13 percent of the 464 pursuits last year. In those chases, 393 vehicles were damaged because nearly half of the pursuits resulted in crashes, even though the average only lasted about 5 minutes over 5 miles.
Wednesday, a car with three occupants died when it crashed during a pursuit in Camden County that a state trooper was leading. One passenger died instantly when the Dodge Charger struck a tree and broke in two, a 16-year-old girl died two days later and the driver was still in a Jacksonville hospital Friday in serious condition.
Last year's pursuits brought four deaths, all of them classified as the "violator." Still, seven officers, 29 bystanders and 73 other violators were injured. Half of all pursuits were over a misdemeanor. …