By Michael N. Ciampo
Working alongside ma- jor expressways has made for some very interesting motor vehicle accident experiences. We all know when we’re dispatched to these highway incidents that they can range from a minor fender bender to an intricate extrication. Plus, it’s always amazing how many times the wrong location or direction of travel is given. Often, you arrive at the “reported” location and you don’t find a thing and call and wait for the dispatcher to provide additional information.
To help locate the accident and access it on major highways, many departments have units respond in from opposite directions. This often puts the units traveling on the opposite side of the accident on scene quicker because other units are stuck in gridlock behind the accident. Although it may be dangerous to operate over the median, the first-arriving units can give a quick size-up of conditions. Of course, their initial action should be to make the scene safe for their operations. If that means reducing the lanes of travel or completely shutting down the highway to have access to all the victims, then do it! Once the situation is sized up and traffic cones and flares are in position, then the highway can be reopened to allow access through the area. Remember, it’s just as important for the units parked on the opposite side to place their apparatus in a blocking pattern and have the necessary warning devices behind them also!
Pulling up to the scene of a two-tractor-trailer (one empty flatbed and one box trailer) and two-car accident with reported victims trapped can be a lot for the initial officer to size up. In this case, the right two lanes of a three-lane highway were strewn with auto parts, and the vehicles were scattered in all directions. As we approached the scene, we positioned the apparatus with the nose sticking out into the middle lane and the rear end close to the curb. This prevented vehicles from passing or squeezing by on the right-hand side and striking us, and it allowed us to unload the extrication tools from that side of the apparatus without fear of being struck by a passing vehicle. The members on the opposite side of the crew cab had to use caution while exiting with the passing traffic. Using hand signals and flashlights will often slow some drivers down, but we have to keep our eyes open for the distracted drivers and “rubberneckers.”
As we walked quickly around the entire accident scene and performed a size-up, we were lucky to find none of the tractor trailers resting on top of or penetrating the vehicles. However, victims were pinned in both autos, which were a good distance apart. Quickly we relayed the following information back to the chief: Multiple victims were trapped in two separate vehicles and needed to be extricated, and we needed additional hydraulic rescue tools and ambulances. In many departments, it is standard operating procedure that once an extrication with hydraulic tools begins, another unit with a hydraulic tool is dispatched in case a tool fails or to assist in the extrication. While sizing up the vehicles to decide where the crew should start working, the focus shifted to how many individuals were trapped in the vehicle, their physical and emotional state, access into the vehicles to assess the patients, and which extrication would be simpler to perform.
The decisions were made, and our extrication operations began as the chief arrived and wanted a quick verbal size-up. We told him there were four vehicles involved, there were two tractor trailers with no one pinned, one tractor trailer had a minor diesel fuel leak from a saddle tank and one member was assigned to dike the area (to contain a spill with absorbent materials) and attempt to stop the leak, both drivers were shaken and refused medical aid, two victims were trapped in one auto and one in another—both requiring extrication and with moderate to severe injuries, and a hoseline was being stretched for safety.
Then the chief asked, “What’s in the trailer?” Hopefully, he didn’t see our blank stares.
At this incident, the trailer had no placards; they weren’t required for the load it was transporting. However, that didn’t mean its cargo was unimportant to us. Somewhere in between the walk around the scene and viewing all the destruction, the trailer just blended in, and nothing jumped out at us. It was just a huge metal box without any markings, placards, or signs of anything wrong with it. Unfortunately, without any visible clues, it was simply overlooked. Quickly, once we realized we missed it, we interviewed the driver and found out that he was carrying an assortment of materials that posed no risk. After the accident, we realized that in the future, finding out what is being transported in the trailers, even if no placards are on the outside, is vital to our operations.
Our next tractor-trailer accident involved the tractor portion on top of a delivery van. One of our initial questions to the driver was, “What are you transporting in the trailer?” His reply was, “Flowah.” We said, “Flour?” He replied, “Yes.” Relaying that information to the chief, we began our extrication of the pinned driver without any fear of what was in the trailer. After the extrication was completed, the driver handed us the shipping papers from beneath his seat; they said, “Flowers.” Seems we’ll always learn from our experiences!
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.