The Scene Is Not Safe: Protecting Your Responders


Every year, dozens of firefighters, EMS providers, and law enforcement officers are struck and killed on our roadways. Hundreds more are injured; many never return to work again. On the very first day of 2008, Maryland Police Corporal Courtney Brooks was struck and killed by a vehicle while placing flares at the scene of a crash on Interstate 95. Consistently, from year to year, traffic fatalities remain the leading cause of police officer line-of-duty deaths. Responders arriving at an emergency scene must know how to use their vehicle as a traffic-control device. The availability of a large, durable, highly mobile barrier, such as a strategically placed piece of fire apparatus, saves lives. Arguments against the presence of America’s fire service at traffic crashes and roadway incidents are not only absurd, they border on suicidal.


Very shortly, the United States Fire Administration (USFA) will release Model Procedures Guide for Highway Incidents. This guide will outline recommendations for Traffic Incident Management Systems (TIMS) critical for safety at roadway incidents. Setting up a safe work area at roadway incidents is priority number one after arriving safely on-scene. The early availability of a large maneuverable barrier in the form of a 25-ton fire vehicle to shield responders from traffic is priceless. Stage the apparatus in a protective manner to block traffic from entering the lane where responders are operating. Positioning apparatus at a different angle from the flow of traffic sends a psychological signal to drivers that something is not right, hopefully encouraging them to reduce their speed.

(1) An engine blocks the work zone on this Chicago highway. Additional apparatus block traffic several hundred feet up the highway. (Photos by Steve Redick.)

Despite every effort to control traffic, place warning devices with an awareness of stopping distances, wear reflective gear, and minimize disruption of traffic flow, secondary crashes continue to occur. Vehicles will skid out of control into the incident lane, drive into an incident scene as though it were invisible, and mow down responders in traffic. A search of “highway incident” on the National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System database produced 47 reports over the past several years of secondary collisions under incredibly unbelievable circumstances. Experience teaches that we must expect the unexpected. Every member operating on a roadway should be protected by a blockade—the bigger, the better.


Wildland firefighting employs the LCES safety system as one method of protecting firefighters operating in a hazardous and highly unpredictable environment, not unlike our roadways. Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones translated into roadway incident operations are a good start for every responder at a roadway incident. After staging apparatus in a protective manner, post a lookout with a vantage point to see not only traffic but all members operating on the roadway. The lookout should have instant radio communication with every member on the scene so that he can immediately warn all responders of any approaching dangers. Every responder working at a roadway incident should maintain a continual situational awareness for exactly where they could run, dive, jump, or roll should a speeding vehicle suddenly enter their immediate space. Safety zones are equally important. Too often, responders lose track of where traffic has been stopped or diverted. Knowing at all times what areas are protected would help prevent responders from being struck when they unexpectedly walk in front of traffic passing by an incident scene.


(2) Multiple fire vehicles block traffic on the scene of a rush-hour tractor trailer crash in Chicago.

There is no need to wait for the USFA Traffic Incident Management System guide to be released. A visit to the Responder Safety Web site ( will provide you with a plethora of tools, videos, Power Points™, and other materials on operating at roadway incidents, including several free training DVDs that you can order online. You can also view reports and keep abreast of progress in Traffic Incident Management Systems at the National Traffic Incident Management Coalition Web site (

(3) Fire, police, and towing vehicles block traffic at this Chicago rush-hour expressway rollover crash scene.

Working in or near moving traffic is extremely hazardous. Use of fire apparatus as traffic control devices can reduce the danger and prevent responders on-scene from becoming statistics instead of returning home.

MIKE McEVOY Ph.D., REMT-P, RN, CCRN, is the fire EMS technical editor for Fire Engineering, a critical care nurse, an instructor in critical care medicine, and a co-chair of the Resuscitation Committee at Albany (NY) Medical Center. McEvoy is also the EMS coordinator for Saratoga County, New York, and chief medical officer for the West Crescent (NY) Fire Department.

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