Highway Incident Task Force Provides Road Map for Emergency Response

BY FRANK LAFFERTY JR.

For many years, emergency responders in Camden County, New Jersey, encountered difficulty providing prompt, predictable service on limited-access highways that pass through the area. The problems ranged from inadequate staffing of fire companies responding to incidents to fire chiefs revamping response plans and not using the closest resource to the incident. In some cases, departments sent more apparatus than necessary, creating unsafe, congested conditions on the highways.

These and other difficulties strained relations between the New Jersey State Police, neighboring fire departments, and emergency medical providers. The need to interact with resources from other counties responding to incidents on the interstate highways added another dynamic to the problem.

To resolve this situation, the New Jersey State Police and the Camden County Fire Chiefs and Fire Officers Association partnered with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), the federally designated metropolitan planning organization for the region. The DVRPC works to foster regional cooperation in a nine-county, two-state area. Representatives from city, county, and state agencies work together to address key issues, including transportation, land use, environmental protection, information sharing, and economic development. The DVRPC is an independent entity, able to bring the stakeholders to the table to confront their differences while helping them realize that they all have a common goal.

TASK FORCE COMMITTEES

The DVRPC developed an Incident Management Task Force for the highway corridor in Camden County, including routes I-76, I-676, and I-295. The task force was comprised of four subcommittees:

  • A policy and procedure committee, which drafted operating guidelines for all areas of operation on a limited-access highway.
  • A training committee, which developed a comprehensive training program for all those participating in incidents on limited-access highways, including local fire departments, local EMS providers, local police departments, New Jersey State Police officers, and local towing contractors.
  • A conflict-resolution committee, which assisted in resolving any issues that occur on a limited-access highway or are a result of a response on a limited-access highway. This committee served as an arbiter to listen to the facts, evaluate the disagreement, decide if any of the operating guides were violated, and then provide coaching for the offender and the organization.
  • A contract committee, which outlined the specific response areas and determined the closest resource to the limited-access highway, as well as the resource best equipped and trained to respond to incidents on this highway. This committee also drew up formal contracts outlining the scope of the response, and it required the chief of each department to sign and agree to all policies enacted for operating on the limited-access highway.

The operating guidelines created by the policy committee call for a unified incident management system (detailed below) to be deployed at incidents on limited-access highways. The guidelines also specify that the New Jersey State Police have statutory authority over all incidents that occur on highways covered by the operating guidelines document.

UNIFIED INCIDENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM IS REQUIRED

Key provisions of the operating guidelines document include

Incident definition. An incident is defined as any nonrecurring event that causes a reduction of roadway capacity, such as traffic crashes, brush fires, or vehicle fires. Improving the overall traffic incident management process will improve the safety of responding agency personnel, reduce the chance of an associated traffic accident and minimize the amount of apparatus and number of personnel responding onto the highway.

Unified Incident Management System. The New Jersey State Police have statutory authority over all incidents that occur on highways covered by this document. As such, the senior trooper on the scene is the incident manager. In accordance with the incident management system, the senior fire department officer is designated as the fire branch (FB). This designation is used throughout this document to delineate the responsibilities of the senior fire department officer. However, since the New Jersey State Police do not have the ability to communicate on the Camden County frequencies, the senior fire department officer will continue to use the command designation when communicating on the radio. A plain text designation will be used for highway responses (i.e., “Route 42 command”).

Lane Identification. Lanes will be numbered in an ascending order from high-speed lane to low-speed lane (left to right). For example, on a three-lane highway, lane one will be to the left (high-speed land) and lane three will be to the right (low-speed lane). Shoulders will be designated as “lane-one shoulder” or “lane-three shoulder.” Acceleration and deceleration lanes will be designated as such.

Recommended Equipment. This shall include DOT-approved reflective stripping to the rear and sides of the vehicle; a lighted-arrow stick or sign board, mounted as high as possible on the vehicle, for maximum visibility; a minimum of five DOT-approved reflective traffic cones; and a sufficient number of class III vests for responding personnel.

Incident Response. A minimum of four firefighters is recommended for incident response; three is the minimum requirement. Responders should arrive only in officially marked vehicles (no personnel vehicles). Companies should be assigned responsibility for a specific area of the highway and will be directed to enter the highway by a designated ramp (photo 1). Responding apparatus will transmit their response by radio and will communicate the total number of personnel on their apparatus. As a general rule, full-size apparatus should use normal entrances and exits to reverse their direction of travel. The use of the median or paved U-turns should be reserved for life-threatening emergencies and other extenuating circumstances. All response plans for the entire length of the affected highways are duplicated in each communication center, to ensure that the same resources are sent regardless of which communication center originates the call.


1. Responding companies are assigned responsibility for a specific area of the highway, and will be directed to enter the highway by a designated ramp. Ramp locations are indentified as specified on ramp designation signs like this one on I-295. (Photos by DVRPC.)

Actions On Arrival. All forward-facing white lights will be canceled. Crew members will dismount apparatus on the side opposite traffic. A safety zone shall be established to permit members to remove equipment and not be exposed to traffic.

Traffic Control. Traffic control is the responsibility of the state police. Should the state police not be present, the initial responder may need to address traffic control until they arrive. Never permit traffic to pass an incident on both sides (photo 2). Use of buffer lane(s) is recommended during times of light traffic, when traffic is moving at a high rate of speed


2. Guidelines for limited-access highway incidents specify that traffic should never be permitted to pass an incident on both sides.

Operating On-Scene. The first engine company responding in each direction will enter the highway and announce over the radio it is entering. One additional fire apparatus in the direction of the reported incident will enter the highway stage on the shoulder well prior to the incident. Apparatus will stage off the highway unless specific instructions are provided. Any hoselines needed to suppress fire will be taken from the first (primary) engine to arrive (this will permit other apparatus to be moved and the impact on the traffic flow to be decreased).

General Safety. Responders should as much as possible use apparel that will enhance their visibility (DOT class III vest). Personnel should monitor traffic at all times and use a forward spotter whenever members are working near live traffic lanes.

Departing Scene. Incident termination must be managed with the same aggressiveness as initial actions. Apparatus equipment and personnel should be removed from the highway promptly, to reduce exposure to moving traffic and minimize the impact on traffic.

THE KEY TO INCIDENT MANAGEMENT SUCCESS

The development of the Incident Management Task Force has improved the safety and efficiency of the response to limited-access highway incidents in Camden County. The guidelines created by this task force have been used by other organizations across the country.

The success of this approach can be attributed to several factors: the involvement of an outside nonemergency agency in the task force formation; the DVRPC’s ability to serve as an independent facilitator; the work of all four subcommittees; and the continuation of task force meetings and subcommittee reports on a quarterly basis, which has permitted all stakeholders to exchange information and continually evaluate the work of the task force.

FRANK LAFFERTY JR. is a 22-year member of the fire service. He has spent 17 years with the Haddon Heights (NJ) Fire Department, where he is assistant chief, department training officer, operations officer, and fire marshal. He is a New Jersey Department of Community Affairs Level 2 fire service instructor and adjunct faculty of the Camden County College through the Camden County Fire Academy. He also is a life member of the Barrington (NJ) Fire Company in Barrington.

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