Highway Incident Safety: The Hits Keep Coming!

Fire apparatus blocking at the scene of a roadway incident.

By Jack Sullivan  

A fire chief was struck and killed by a vehicle in Louisiana on an interstate. A Philadelphia fire truck was struck and five firefighters injured while on the scene of another highway incident. These are among some of the recent incidents that bring to mind the imminent dangers firefighters face when working on the roadway.

“D” drivers are everywhere today. “D” drivers are the ones who are drowsy, drugged, drunk, distracted, disgruntled, or just plain disrespectful when it comes to emergency scenes. If you have been responding to emergency calls for any length of time, you have most likely met one or more of these “D” drivers. They are making our job at roadway incidents more hazardous than ever before. Highways are IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health) areas!  

Here are some recommendations for operating at roadway incidents of all types. Remember–even when we do everything “right,” bad things can still happen. These steps will help make your scene safer, but like everything else we do in the fire service, there is still a high probability of a driver entering your work area. In 2001, James Joyce, the Commissioner of the Chicago (IL) Fire Department at that time, said firefighters responding to calls need to operate “as if someone is trying to run them over.” That is still good advice today.

Awareness Training – Make sure all your personnel, especially your newest recruits, have a basic level of awareness about the hazards of working around moving traffic.

Standard Operating Guidelines – Develop a document for you department that provides your firefighters and company officers with some guidance about operating at highway incidents. Those guidelines should address proper positioning of apparatus; a list of information needed during an initial size-up and on scene report; proper lane terminology that is used by all responding agencies in your area; a description of the type of personnel protective equipment to wear at highway incidents of all types; the use and deployment of temporary traffic control devices (i.e. flares, cones, and/or warning signs); and proper use of emergency warning and scene lights at incidents. It doesn’t matter if you call the document a safety bulletin, standard operating procedure, or guideline The goal is to get the guidelines in writing, because that document will become the outline for regular in-service training on this subject.

Multi-agency collaboration, communication and cooperation – There are a number of agencies involved with even the simplest roadway incidents. Law Enforcement, fire, EMS, DOT, towing and recovery, and safety service patrols routinely work together at highway incidents. Make sure there is good, ongoing communications between those agencies and that all operating procedures are in synch. Exchange procedures and organize joint training, especially for company officer and supervisory level personnel. Ongoing collaboration and communication between agencies leads to smoother, safer, and more effective highway incident operations. Establish those relationships before your personnel find themselves working together on an incident for the first time on an interstate at 0:Dark:30. Good operational procedures shared by all responding agencies will lead to safer operations for everyone.

Annual Training – Fire departments train constantly on a variety of basic subjects, and it’s critical that you include highway incident safety training in your annual rotation of in-service training subjects. Everyone who responds to emergency calls must be familiar with the highway safety guidelines established as outlined above. Review the standard guidelines at a minimum, discuss previous incidents and close calls, discuss what worked well, and identify those things that need improvement. Use tabletop exercises to illustrate proper positioning of emergency vehicles and discuss alternatives to various problems that can crop up. Consider arranging a joint tabletop training session with mutual aid departments and other agencies you work with on a routine basis. Invite your law enforcement counterparts in for a joint review of any recent highway incidents. These joint training sessions and after-action reviews can provide an opportunity for positive reinforcement of good procedures and a chance to iron out any issues observed in previous incidents. These joint sessions also go a long way in developing interagency relations.

Public Education – Almost every state has some kind of Move Over law that requires motorists to move over when approaching emergency vehicles on the roadway or slow down if they can’t safely move over. Even though these laws are well-intended, they have not removed the hazard from working on roads and highways. We should use our community relations activities to help educate drivers about how to act or react around emergency vehicles. We need to reinforce what they should do when approached by an emergency vehicle responding to an emergency. We also need to teach them what to do when they see flashing emergency lights along the highway and explain why we park our rigs on an angle at an incident. Describe the hazards presented by highway incidents and stress the importance of their actions when they see emergency personnel working. Encourage them not to be a “D” driver and to give their full attention to the highway and their surroundings when traveling. It’s critical and could save a life–maybe even yours.     

Training and Information Resources – The Federal Highway Administration has developed a Traffic Incident Management training program designed for multi-agency audiences. This four-hour class is available in all states through your state department of transportation or state police. It is an excellent introduction to the subject of highway incident safety and serves as a standard for awareness level training for any firefighter, EMT, police officer, or other emergency responder. Contact your local office for the DOT or state police to learn about instructor-led training opportunities in your state. This training is available at no cost to students.      

The International Association of Fire Fighters (www.iaff.org) offers an Emergency Vehicle and Roadway Scene Safety Program that also covers the subject well. Course content and support materials can be found here at no cost: http://www.iaff.org/hs/EVSP/home.html

The Emergency Responder Safety Institute (www.respondersafety.com) has a broad set of resources related to roadway incident safety. In addition to ongoing news reports of struck-by-vehicle incidents nationwide, there is also an extensive resource section of the Web site that has reference material and numerous training aids. Additionally, for those of you who have difficulty accessing instructor-led classroom training on the subject of Highway Incident Safety, there is an Online Learning Network that offers training modules about a variety of topics including Blocking Techniques, Advance Warning, Traffic and Scene Control, Personal Protective Equipment, Special Hazards and Training Techniques and Resources. The resources and training materials are offered free of charge and have been developed by the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman’s Association with financial support from FEMA/U.S. Fire Administration grants, the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Highway Administration.

Jack SullivanJack Sullivan, CSP, CFPS is the Director of Training for the Emergency Responder Safety Institute, a diverse group of seasoned emergency services personnel dedicated to reducing emergency responder deaths and injuries from struck-by-vehicle incidents. Jack has 25 years’ experience with fire and emergency medical services having held the ranks of Lieutenant, Asst. Chief, Deputy Chief and Safety Officer. Jack is a Technical Member of the National Committee of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) and he is currently assigned to the Temporary Traffic Control Committee that is responsible for Chapter 6-I of the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). He is also a Principal Member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Traffic Control Incident Management Professional Qualifications (NFPA 1091). Jack is a Master Instructor for the Federal Highway SHRP 2 National Traffic Incident Management Train-the-Trainer program. You can contact Jack by e-mail at: ResponderSafety@gmail.com

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