Safe Interstate Highway Response

While I wrote this, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) said goodbye to Firefighter Steven H. Pollard. While operating at an auto accident on a divided highway, he fell in the gap between the two elevated roadways as he tried to cross over the barrier to the travel lanes going in the opposite direction. Like so many FDNY members who have made the ultimate sacrifice, his death will not be in vain. We must learn from this tragedy to ensure we don’t suffer the same fate.

In Leeds, New York, a few years ago, a similar tragedy occurred. A Long Island, New York, firefighter, heading home after spending time with his family upstate, encountered an accident on the bridge crossing the Catskill Creek on New York Route 23. He parked on the eastbound structure that night and thought he was hopping the concrete barrier to the westbound lanes. Tragically, the two spans were separate; and, as his family sat in their car, he fell to his death (photo 1 shows that bridge). This was a fine example of a brother doing what we do, helping others!

If you have roads with separated spans in your first-due area, your training usually emphasizes blocking the scene for safety. We need to take into account all the other unknown factors when operating on an interstate and other divided highways.

General Overview

I have served 29 years with the New York State Thruway Authority, which covers major Interstate 87 (I-87), and am responsible for maintenance and emergency operations on that interstate in New York, currently in the Catskill section. Twice I was operating vehicles on I-87 that were struck by vehicles with inattentive drivers. One motorist who struck my vehicle had to be extricated from his vehicle. I have responded to thousands of incidents on the interstate highway as a firefighter and as a state highway manager.

Emergency operations on an interstate and other divided highways are different from those on a city street or a back road. Traffic generally moves 10 to 20 miles per hour (mph) faster than the posted limits. Truck and trailer combinations of up to 160,000 pounds are common. Distracted driving is a constant reality that poses a danger to first responders. We can encounter large stretches with no highway lighting or any lighting from nearby cities. We encounter people from all over the world moving all kinds of illegal cargo, including human cargo. Inattentive drivers are striking and seriously injuring or killing first responders more than ever. We are losing too many in the firefighting family to interstate accidents. Whether it’s a tragedy like the FDNY incident above or being struck by passing vehicles, we must honor our departed colleagues and learn from their tragedies. Following are some quick points to ponder that can help your department remain safe at an interstate scene.

Photos by author.

(1) Photos by author.

Points to Ponder

Shoulders. Interstate highways have a right shoulder/breakdown lane. When approaching a scene on the shoulder, remember that people in stopped traffic will get out and wander around. Look out for people who may step in front of your apparatus when you are driving on the shoulder. Use your siren even if traffic is stopped. People may step out from their cars and be unable to hear what is happening around them because of idling engine noise or because they are wearing ear buds.

Some interstates have a full left shoulder/breakdown lane; most do not. On those that do have a full left shoulder, the above precautions still apply. For those that have a 2½-foot-wide left asphalt shoulder with grass or stone beyond that, it will support apparatus the same as a fully paved shoulder would within 10 feet from the solid yellow line. However, although it will get you to the scene, don’t expect to travel on it at 30 mph as you would on the right side. Stone and grass don’t offer you the ride quality of asphalt or the strength and durability to keep pounding on it. If you go more than 10 feet from the solid yellow line, all bets are off. Although you could try it at your own risk, I have seen many epic fails such as engines trying to cross the grass median for a car fire and becoming stuck. Do not depend on being able to drive the apparatus on the terrain more than 10 feet from the solid yellow line unless it is marked safe for emergency vehicles with “Emergency Vehicle Traffic Only” signage.

Time of day traffic volume. Know and understand your traffic counts during rush hour vs. 2 a.m. In rush hour, we know that traffic will most likely grind to a halt. This is dangerous for folks stuck in the queue but safer for us when working a scene. It eliminates the danger of vehicles approaching us at interstate speeds; most times, they will be driving at 30 mph or more slowly. Outside of rush hours, depending on the situation, traffic may be more free flowing approaching the scene. This is when we can find ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation and when using blocker trucks becomes important.

Use interchanges to approach site. Whenever possible, use interchanges to turn around or enter and exit the interstate. When using crash gates that allow access from outside roads directly to the interstate and marked U-turns, make sure traffic yields the right-of-way operating in the travel lanes and shoulders.

If you are closing a lane for protection, you must close the entire width of the lane. Never close only half a lane! Traffic will avoid merging until the last possible chance, even if a fire apparatus is in the lane. Taking only half the lane encourages erratic and unpredictable behavior right up until the last possible point to merge.

Blocking lanes. Many departments use apparatus positioned across the lane or lanes in which they want to block traffic. This is a necessity in an emergency. Do not use any piece of apparatus involved in the operation as the blocker vehicle. Jurisdictions that run many calls on interstates should consider using an attenuator crash trailer or vehicle when possible (photo 2). Speak with your local Department of Transportation (DOT) representatives, who may be able to staff such a truck during normal hours and respond to assist you rather quickly. Also, for major incidents, the local DOT may respond after hours to provide this vehicle and take over traffic safety management for the incident.

Photos by author.

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Another alternative for jurisdictions that run many interstate calls is to add one of these trucks to the fleet. It may be run like a two-piece engine. Depending on the staffing, the third or fourth firefighter would drive this vehicle to the scene and position it. That member would then work with the engine company, just as if he rode in on the engine.

It may be possible to collaborate with your state DOT or insurance company to assist in funding this vehicle and staffing for it. You may persuade your insurance company that a few thousand dollars spent for replacing an attenuator cartridge is cheaper than replacing a fire apparatus. The Grand Rapids (MI) Fire Department added an attenuator vehicle through a cooperative funding arrangement with the state transportation department. Some transportation departments and toll highway agencies will bill insurance companies for the cost of using these attenuator vehicles at accident scenes and to repair any damage from the scene.

A fire department can also offset the operating cost by billing insurance companies. If your department can acquire this vehicle, place it at a station that frequently responds on the interstate to maximize its use. It will protect the scene/site at which you are working and offer a much higher survival rate to those who have the misfortune to strike it. It is engineered to absorb energy from the striking vehicle. Replacing the damaged attenuator cartridge is cheaper than replacing a fire truck, and the unit can be back in service within hours depending on the severity of the damage. Check with your state DOT on its recommendation for spacing ahead of the scene.

Assign a traffic observer/spotter. In the general area of the operation, equip this member with a handheld air horn to activate if a vehicle strikes your blocker truck or appears to be headed into the incident area. This will give you the precious one or two seconds you may need to self-evacuate the area. These are the same horns used at high school soccer games. The observer’s sole job is to warn emergency personnel of an immediate threat.

Working on the shoulder. This is just as dangerous as working in the traffic lanes. Do not get a false sense of security; apply all of the above safety practices when operating at an incident on the shoulder area.

Use the lane-plus-one rule. I strongly urge applying the lane-plus-one rule in the Traffic Incident Management (TIM) and responder safety training programs. Do not put responders inches from a live lane while working a crash or fire. We all literally have watched citizens driving distractedly as they go by videoing or snapping pictures of the incident. The extra lane means a work area that is much safer for all. Although we may differ with police agencies on maintaining the flow of traffic, our safety is more important.

My fire department meets once a year with the New York State Police and the New York State Thruway Authority to ensure that we all understand each agency’s expectations and how to operate as a team. Both agencies meet regularly statewide with fire departments that respond to incidents on the Thruway.

In my department, we will stop traffic in all lanes in the direction of the vehicle fire until the fire is knocked down. Only then do we give lanes back. We recognize that stopping the flow of traffic can cause issues for the approaching traffic. So, we do this for as short a time as needed to accommodate the fire attack. This ensures that if steam and smoke from the fire attack go across all lanes, we don’t cause a driver to panic and crash. If traffic needs to be stopped in both directions so smoke and steam can’t cause a hazard, then stop it in both directions. Most of the time, that means three to five minutes of stop time for traffic.

Consider sight distance. For every incident, always consider the sight distance for oncoming traffic before it sees your blocker truck/incident scene, which can be reduced by curves, hills, and overhead structures. A tractor trailer pulling 80,000 pounds in ideal conditions takes more than 500 feet to stop. Many trucks pull double trailers (tandems) that necessitate a longer stopping distance. If the sight distance is not ideal, flares, police cars, or any other support vehicle placed 1,500 feet back on the shoulder before the incident site with lights activated will indicate that an incident is ahead. This should be in addition to the “emergency ahead” signs the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and the National Fire Protection Association recommend.

Weather. Inclement weather makes everything more dangerous. Spray from tires reduces visibility. Snow may increase the stopping distance drastically, and snow absorbs sound so that you will not hear oncoming traffic. When working in whiteout conditions at multiple vehicle pile-ups, it may take up to 10 to 15 minutes before vehicles will stop slamming into one another. If the police or a fire chief can get on scene before the apparatus and confirm that lanes are closed, you can travel in the opposite lanes to get to the front of the pile-up. I recommend starting a hazmat unit for pile-ups; you are almost guaranteed to have large fuel leaks and trucks carrying hazmats.

Bridge Emergencies

Unfortunately, I have been involved with many different scenarios: accidents, suicides, injured workers, medical emergencies, gas leaks, and a young teenage boy who tried to practice rope climbing under a bridge and fell to his death.

Barriers. All interstate bridges have rails or concrete barriers for protection. This creates a pinball effect if you have an accident while you are already working an emergency on a bridge. This means the vehicles involved will be hitting concrete or steel protection with no give, many times projecting the vehicles back to the travel lanes—unlike railed areas on the highway section of an interstate, where the rail is more forgiving and has deflection abilities (photo 3). A bridge rail or barrier is designed to prevent vehicles from breaking through and landing in the water or on the street below. This greatly reduces your safe area if a secondary accident were to happen while you are operating on a bridge deck.

Photos by author.

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Vehicle fires. There are a few curveballs to watch for on bridges. Larger bridges have constant breezes or crosswinds because they are over larger bodies of water, over deep canyons/ravines, or in a wide-open area with nothing to deflect the wind. These conditions will fan the flames and carry smoke across the travel lanes. If the fire is under an overpass and the heat and flames are reaching the structure above, shut down the bridge. The heat and flames may severely affect the steel beams. A DOT bridge engineer will need to be called to give the all-clear before traffic is allowed to cross the bridge again. Exposure to heat and flame is not good for steel and concrete. Also, many overpasses have electric or gas utilities running along the steel girders, which is an exposure possibility if a vehicle is burning under the bridge.

Injured construction worker. When the response involves an injured construction worker, always have nearby a knowledgeable person from the construction company who can answer the many questions that will come up. This person may also have a wealth of knowledge about rigging and operating safely on a bridge structure under construction.

Rescue/recovery. Rope enthusiasts or other people climbing on or under the bridge may get in trouble and need help, or you may need to recover a body. It is illegal for these individuals to use their ropes, but it happens. Often, this means rigging ropes or hiking down under large spans to accomplish whatever we need to do. Never use any tools or materials left behind from an old construction job site. They have been exposed to elements (in the North, water runoff mixed with rock salt) indefinitely and so they are not reliable. Many times, especially after a bridge has been painted, you may find that cables and rigging are still underneath the bridge, exposed to the elements. You will see this on larger spans where a construction inspector may not notice the equipment because the contractor had to pack up quickly and get out. I once had to remove one of these cables that had rotted and split. It was hanging 80 feet in the air over a road underneath the larger span.

Guardrail Safety

Struck rails are under stress. Anytime a rail is struck, it is under stress. If you must cut a guardrail, a cutting torch is the fastest and easiest way. Cut-off saws on rail hits are very cumbersome to move and not as effective. If leaking fuel is an issue, you may have to make cuts far enough away to ensure everyone’s safety. When cutting the rail, always ratchet-strap the damaged side to a rail post or some other sturdy object. When you cut the rail, be aware that stress and energy are released from the impact and cause the rail to spring a few feet; it can severely injure anyone nearby.

End treatments. End treatments on guardrails are like the impact attenuators mentioned above (photo 3). They are designed to absorb energy from the striking vehicle to decrease chances of injury and death. Be careful when cutting them, as stored energy will be released. When the end treatments function correctly, it’s amazing to see the damage that occurs to the vehicles and the end treatment and yet there is little or no injury to the occupants. However, if maintenance or a snow berm has changed the roadside grade, the end treatments may not have received the impact as they were designed to, and cutting them could release the components under stress.

Updated information on impact attenuators attached to guardrails is available in YouTube videos. In New York State, attenuators seem to get changed out every few years based on government testing. In some states, the design engineer may have a variety to choose from based on his preferences as long as they meet FHA criteria.

We have the TIMS program, which has started to take off the past few years, to draw on to some degree. There are so many variables when working an interstate emergency. Every stretch of road is different, depending on the geography and area of the country.

Since I began writing this, a New York State trooper and a state road crew were struck in two separate incidents. The trooper stopped to aid a disabled vehicle and moved the occupants to a safe spot behind the guardrail. A few minutes later, a loaded tractor trailer destroyed the trooper’s car and the disabled vehicle. Miraculously, no serious injuries happened.

A few days later as a maintenance crew was sealing cracks and joints, a tractor trailer entered the work zone and struck the attenuator truck. It received a glancing blow, at which time the four crew members reacted. Three dove and injured themselves self-evacuating, and the fourth employee was struck. His leg was injured. The extra split second of the blocker truck’s absorbing energy from the tractor trailer and slowing it down is what is supposed to happen. If the attenuator had not been there, four men would have been killed. This happens every day, and we must be vigilant. In both incidents, the trooper and the road crew did everything right and still were struck.

When on these highways, act on your instinct if it tells you to be more safety conscious. You can do everything right and still be struck. Let’s cover these incidents in our training programs and ensure that all members understand how to be as safe as possible.

Ed Dolan has been a chief officer for 16 of his 29 years with the Catskill (NY) Fire Department. For 18 of his 28 years with the New York State Thruway Authority, he has been responsible for specific geographical areas for maintenance operations and emergency response between New York City and Albany.

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