Jack Sullivan: Strategies & Tactics for Roadway Incidents

BY Jack Sullivan

Every time you get dispatched to a run of any kind, one of the first things you’ll do when you arrive on scene is step out of your rig. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fire truck, a chief’s buggy, an ambulance, or any other emergency vehicle. When you step out of your rig, you’re stepping into the second most dangerous place for firefighters to work–the highway.


Highway Incident Safety: The Hits Keep Coming!

“D” Drivers and Other Hazards at Highway Operations

We have done a lot to improve our defensive tactics at roadway incidents over the years. We still have work to do. Let’s take some time to review the basic strategies and tactics that will help protect your personnel at an incident on any kind of roadway.

Safe Positioning

One of the earliest decisions you’ll make on arrival at the scene is where you should position your rig. The act of parking at an incident scene is known as blocking, safe parking, or safe positioning. First-arriving units need to set up a defensive block using the “Lane + 1″ rule. Block traffic in the lane of the incident plus at least one additional lane next to the incident lane to allow for safe operations. If the incident is on the right shoulder, block the right shoulder and the next adjacent lane to the left.  Depending on the scope of the incident, you may need to block more lanes, or maybe the incident has already blocked additional lanes. If the incident is in a left lane or shoulder, you’ll need to block that lane plus at least one additional lane to the right at a minimum. Park the unit at an angle with the front wheels turned away from the incident work area and the chocks set. Parking the rig at an angle helps approaching motorists understand that your rig is stopped, parked, and not moving. When your rig is parked in line with high-speed traffic, distracted motorists might not realize you’re not moving until it’s too late.  If the incident involves fire and lines will be pulled, help ensure the safety of the pump operator by positioning the rig so the operator will be on the protected side of the rig (downstream side). If you’ll be deploying extrication tools, consider their location on the rig, and angle the unit to protect that area. Some fire departments send extra units to roadway incidents to act as a safety block oriented in the direction they want traffic to pass the scene.

For more guidance on Safe Positioning see the online free training module:
Blocking Procedures at Roadway Incidents – http://learning.respondersafety.com/Training_Programs/Blocking.aspx

Size-up Report

Simultaneous with positioning the rig, the officer will need to do a quick size-up and provide an on-scene report. Confirm the location of the incident with appropriate address or landmark. Announce which lanes are involved and/or blocked. How many vehicles are involved? Report any easily identified hazards (downed wires, leaking fluids, road conditions, and so on). It’s also very important to give positioning instructions to units still en route to the scene. Tell them in advance in which lane you want them to position (left, right, center, or lane number, as appropriate in your area). Do you want them “upstream” before the incident in the direction of travel or “downstream,” beyond the incident? If circumstances suggest the incoming units should be placed in a block right (angle unit to the right) or block left (angled to the left) position, make sure to tell responding companies. Lane designation terminology should be consistent across all disciplines in your area.

Emergency Lights

Once the rig is properly positioned, the driver/operator should adjust the emergency lights for the conditions at the scene. Turn off forward-facing white lights (i.e., high-beam headlights or wig-wags.) If you are on a multilane highway with a physical barrier in the median, consider extinguishing all forward-facing emergency lights. Law enforcement determined long ago that forward-facing emergency lights attract unnecessary attention of the drivers traveling in the other direction. Fire and emergency medical services (EMS) agencies should consider the same tactic. Activate any traffic direction arrows on the rig oriented in the correct direction. As floodlights and scene lights are deployed, make sure they are not creating glare hazards for motorists moving past the scene in either direction. We want to illuminate the work area but not create additional glare hazards in the process. As more temporary traffic-control devices are deployed, consider reducing the amount of emergency lighting at the scene.

Bigger, brighter, faster emergency lights do not necessarily make the scene safer; in many cases, too many warning lights cause driver distractions and visibility issues contributing to firefighter struck-by-vehicle incidents. Modern emergency warning lights cause significant glare issues for drivers moving in the area of an incident, especially at night time. If your unit is equipped with a high-power/low-power switch for emergency lights, make sure the driver/operator selects the correct position for the ambient light conditions.      

Temporary Traffic Controls

The main warning lights on our apparatus do not tell motorists how to navigate safely around our incident scene or even if it is safe to do so. Deploying cones and/or flares will help guide drivers past the incident scene, and advance warning signs will help get their attention.  Cones should be orange in color with two reflective bands and 28 to 36 inches tall. Build your taper by setting cones out 150 to 300 feet behind the rig starting at the fog line or shoulder. As traffic flow permits, starting with the cones farthest from the rig, move the cones into the traffic lane in an angled line all the way back to the rig. Stretch your cone taper farther (for higher speed highways) by alternating flares in between the cones: cone – flare – cone – flare, etc. Spacing between the flares and cones should be about the same as the posted speed limit (example: 35 feet between devices for 35 miles per hour (mph) and 55 feet between devices for 55 mph-speed-limit roadways).

If available, warning signs can be deployed well in advance of an incident scene to warn approaching drivers of the emergency vehicles parked ahead. Florescent pink signs with black text work very well at getting drivers’ attention. Generic messages like “Emergency Scene Ahead” work best in a variety of situations. Signs should be 4- x 4 feet’ for high-speed roadways. In some areas, the second-in fire rig will deploy the advance warning sign. Safety officers or duty chiefs can also be used to deploy advance warning signs as they approach the scene. If Department of Transportation safety service patrols are operating in your area, coordinate with them to deploy the temporary traffic controls. In most cases, they can deploy signs, cones, flares, and maybe even arrow boards, which are very effective traffic-control devices.    

Review the free online training module:
Advance Warning – https://learning.respondersafety.com/Training_Programs/Advance_Warning.aspx

Personnel Safety

Train personnel to disembark on the protected side of the rig whenever possible. If it’s not possible, they should check mirrors for approaching traffic, crack the door open, and look for vehicles before stepping out. Stay close to the rig, and move quickly to the protected side of the apparatus. Reinforce with the crew that they need to be constantly aware of their surroundings and avoid any “zero buffer” areas where they are unprotected from passing traffic.  

Personnel not engaged in firefighting activities should be wearing high-visibility garments (i.e., vest, jacket, coat, and so on). High-visibility means florescent and reflective for better visibility in daylight and nighttime conditions. Vests can be worn over turnouts if necessary. Many fire departments have personnel install vests on their bunker gear in the station. When they are dispatched to a run, if they will be packing up, the vest can be easily removed when they take a seat. Break-away features on the vests help facilitate easy removal.

Some areas of the country have specially trained personnel known as “fire-police officers.” Their job is to provide traffic and crowd control. In addition to high-visibility personal protective equipment as described above, it is also important that any personnel assigned to direct traffic at an incident be equipped with the appropriate tools for the job including stop/slow paddles, flashlights with red wands, flags, and temporary traffic-control devices mentioned previously.

For more details on personnel safety while directing traffic, watch the online training program:
Safe Fire Service Traffic Control Practices – https://learning.respondersafety.com/Training_Programs/Safe_Fire_Service_Traffic_Control_Practices.aspx   


Personnel should be trained on roadway incident hazards and safety procedures before responding to their first emergency scene. Roadway incident safety training should be based on local standard operating procedures or guidelines and should be included in the annual in-service training schedule.

There are lots of free roadway incident training resources available at www.respondersafety.com, a Web site devoted specifically to preventing struck-by-vehicle incidents involving firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and other emergency responders. The respondersafety.com Web site also offers free online training modules about all aspects of roadway incident safety including blocking techniques, advance warning for traffic control, model practices and procedures, roadway incident command, and other subjects. Click on the Learning Network icon on the main Web site page.

The most recent trend in roadway incident safety training is multiagency joint training with the other disciplines in your area. Law enforcement, transportation, mutual- aid fire and EMS agencies, and towing and recovery personnel training together for roadway incidents is a very effective way to provide for everyone’s safety and more efficient operations.  The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is deploying the National Traffic Incident Management Train-the-Trainer program nationwide. This 12-hour workshop is designed to provide experienced trainers with content and training aids to teach multiagency emergency responders about commonly recognized practices and procedures for handling roadway incidents. The main goals of the program are, first and foremost, responder safety and also quick clearance of incidents. Emergency responders from all disciplines countrywide have embraced the program. Keep an eye out in your area for a program announcement, and be sure to send your best trainers when the opportunity presents itself.

If you need some readily available training aids related to roadway incident safety, there are loads of free resources available at http://www.respondersafety.com/Resources.aspx. They include reference material and Power Point programs with speaker notes and student handouts.

Where do we go from here?

Some firefighters think that highway incident safety refers just to personnel wearing high-visibility vests. Not true. Highway incident safety is a combination of multiagency training and relationships; commonly accepted practices and procedures aligned with state and federal standards, laws, and guidelines; ongoing regional collaboration; and extensive use of temporary traffic-control devices. No one specific activity can guarantee your safety at roadway incidents. Consistent use of appropriate practices and procedures along with the other measures outlined above will absolutely improve the chances of your personnel and apparatus returning safely from a roadway incident response. Develop a roadway incident guideline for your agency, and use that as the basis for your department training. Review your guidelines with law enforcement and transportation and/or public works agencies. Make sure your guidelines do not cause conflict with any other agencies. Provide orientation training for new personnel, and make sure roadway incident safety is part of your annual in-service training schedule at the station.

Finally, review your procedures and training material each year to make sure they is still current and in compliance with all local, state, and federal laws; standards; and guidelines. Make changes as needed, and convey those changes to your personnel. Work to improve roadway operations with your firefighters, and help them understand just how dangerous it is to work roadway incidents. Always watch your back!


JACK 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. He has 25 years of experience with fire and emergency medical services and has held the ranks of lieutenant, assistant chief, deputy chief, and safety officer. He is a technical member of the National Committee of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) and is assigned to the Temporary Traffic Control Committee responsible for Chapter 6-I of the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). He is also a principal member of the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Traffic Control Incident Management Professional Qualifications (NFPA 1091). He is a Master Instructor for the Federal Highway SHRP 2 National Traffic Incident Management Train-the-Trainer program.



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