Fire EMS, Fireground Safety, Health & Safety

Engine Company EMS: Firefighters Directing Traffic

Firefighters on roadway with fire apparatus

By Michael Morse

Photo courtesy Tim Olk (olkee.smugmug.com)

While on scene of a traffic crash, a pedestrian struck, or any number of roadway emergencies, the question of whether to direct traffic often arises. Because of the lack of nationally accepted standard operating procedures, firefighters often freelance on scene. While firefighters have limited control over traffic flow at crash scenes, in most places it may be perfectly legal for a driver to ignore a firefighter directing traffic. A lack of proper training in directing traffic puts the firefighter, his crew and the public at risk.

Directing traffic is not as simple as it seems. An untrained person without authority to control traffic stands a very good chance of making the situation worse. At some incidents with low traffic volume, it may be prudent to assign a member to traffic control when law enforcement is not available. Using common sense, it is possible to keep the crew and EMS patients (if any) safe and keep the traffic flowing.  Operations on busy, complex roadways are difficult enough without the worry of traffic control. The method preferred on these roads for many engine companies is stopping traffic altogether. By placing the apparatus strategically, we are able to keep ourselves and the patient as safe as can be expected while working on the roadways.

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At life-threatening incidents in busy areas, there will be need to get involved with traffic, especially during fluid situations where the police have yet to arrive on scene. Scene safety is our first priority; at times that will include controlling traffic. These are difficult moments that few of us have trained for. The difference between life and death for both the firefighters and the victims could mean knowing our strengths, obligations, and limitations concerning potentially deadly situations on roadways before we are confronted with the difficult decision to put ourselves and our crew in harm’s way to protect citizens at risk.

If you choose to direct traffic, remember this: chances are you are legally on your own if you cause an accident. In all likelihood no jury in the world would convict a well-intentioned firefighter who was attempting to direct traffic when another accident occurred, but there are no guarantees.

Things to Consider

  • When in doubt, DON’T DIRECT TRAFFIC!
  • Only direct traffic if needed, and only if it is safe or imperative to do so.
  • The more reflective gear the better; a reflective SLOW/STOP sign is a great tool.
  • Use a flashlight.
  • Use hand gestures that are simple, visible, and universally understood.

There is no half-hearted way to direct traffic. If you make the decision to get involved, it is imperative that you are all in for the job at hand. People will not respond to a disinterested person telling them what to do. You have decided to be an authority, so you need to act the part. Be visible. Be direct. Be understood.

Things to Do

If all fire/EMS personnel are engaged with our job and the scene is safe and secure, then traffic should never be a priority for the fire service. Although it is understandable to ignore traffic problems during rescue operations, sometimes it just makes more sense to help control the inevitable back-ups and congestion that occurs if, and only if, we have available personnel who are trained and equipped to do so.

By keeping things as uncomplicated as possible, we can assist with traffic control at non-critical incidents with very little risk. The public certainly appreciates the effort, and every bit of goodwill we can muster counts at budget time. People will remember one of two things when they are stuck in traffic–the firefighters who were standing around while they were inconvenienced, or the firefighters who kept things moving.

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Michael Morse is a former captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD), an author, and a popular columnist. He served on PFD’s Engine Co. 2., Engine Co. 9, and Ladder Co. 4 for 10 years prior to becoming an EMT-C on Rescue Co 1 and Captain of Rescue Co. 5.