Problems of Speedway Fire Protection

Problems of Speedway Fire Protection


Thruway personnel receiving firemanship training with the new specially designed and built apparatus, one of 23 all-purpose rigs which will be used for fire and other emergencies along the 427-mile highway

Experiences of the fabulous New York State Thruway may serve as guide in planning fire safety programs for the nation’s multi-billion dollar highway project


Prepared with the assistance of the New York State Thruway Authority, B. D. Tallamy, Chairman; Holden A. Evans Jr., General Manager; Warren M. Wells, Director, Department of Operations; and Arnold G. Fisch, Traffic & Safety Engineer.

SOME 20 YEARS AGO, the motoring public was satisfied to drive from community to community, not being too concerned with the total distance covered each day. Then as motoring grew and the need for more and better highways grew with it, far-seeing officials of New York State envisioned the day when one could motor all the way from New York City to Buffalo without halting for a single stop light.

After some planning, a road development program was initiated in the central part of the state where some 25 miles of dual-lane roadway was built. However, the cost of such a super-highway soon exhausted the capital fund budget of the State Highway Commission and it became necessary to consider other means of financing if a complete net of super-highways such as had been proposed, was to serve the public.

To meet this challenge, the New York State Thruway Authority was established and authorized to issue bonds, the obligations of which were to be met by the collection of highway tolls.

The Board was granted wide authority of operation. The responsibility for the creation and development of the superhighway was charged to three commissioners who were appointed by the Governor to serve terms of three, six and nine years. Power to do whatever was necessary to build and operate the road was granted by the legislative act creating the Authority.

The authority of the Thruway Board however, did not extend to other units of state government who were restricted in their power to enter into contracts. This was most noticeably true with fire districts which could not enter or consummate agreements at a fixed rate to extend fire protection to an area of the Thruway which was outside an established fire department, or which were within another fire department but could not be protected by that department because of its inability to enter upon the Thruway at the point of the incident (due to lack of access roads).

Statistics of the Thruway

Costing approximately $1 billion, the New York State Thruway is presently the longest continuous toll speedway in the nation. Total mileage is 562 of which 427 are for the New York to Buffalo section.

The four-lane concrete highway, with its stabilized shoulders to the right of all lanes for emergency parking, bisects 19 counties and carries the traveler the entire distance without a traffic light. Curves and grades are light. There are bridges with ample clearance at 507 sites between New York and Buffalo.

An unusual feature is the 6-lane, 3mile long Tappen Zee Bridge over the Hudson between Tarrytown and Nyack, which cost $60 million.

Thruway speed limits are 60 mph for passenger cars and 50 mph for trucks. Over 20,700 acres of land (an area larger than Manhattan) were acquired for the enterprise. A 20-mile belt along the Thruway route contains 80 per cent of the State’s population, 15 per cent of the area in which are located 79 per cent of the state’s motor vehicles, 83 per cent of its trucks, and all of its seven cities of 100,000 population or over.

There are 50 interchanges between New York and Buffalo with service areas (gasoline stations) and restaurants about every 25 to 30 miles apart. Some 15 section-maintenance buildings dot the route.

For the year 1955, the total trips on the Thruway were 14,287,393; the miles traveled by vehicles amounted to 918,501.982. Of these, 9,809,893 were by passenger and 1,285,850 commercial units. Total tolls for the year were $12,732,834.

The 1955 fatality rate on the Thruway, per 100 million miles, was 3.83. Of 1,643 accidents investigated that year 26 persons were killed in 24 accidents, and 581 injured. The number of emergency calls of all kinds, including fires, for the year was 46,309. Those involving wrecks totalled 342. There were 111 fires reported during 1955, the first full year of the Thruway operations.

Of these 111 fires investigated, 42 involved passenger cars, 58 trucks and two buses. There were 9 miscellaneous fires, including those involving buildings (see tabulation).

Fire protection

Fire protection on the Thruway is provided two ways: Immediate, or what might be termed “first-aid” protection is afforded by police, maintenance and other Thruway sources, equipped for the task. For such operations the Authority has equipped all of its patrol and many of its maintenance and other vehicles with two large 20-pound fire extinguishers and other fire equipment.

Professional fire protection (called for serious fires and/or accidents), is furnished by fire companies adjacent to Thruway interchanges under the state’s county fire mutual aid plans.

In addition, to further strengthen fire protection, particularly in areas where municipal, public protection is not immediately available, 23 pieces of special fire fighting apparatus are being installed. One of these, together with a 1,000 gallon water tanker, constitutes the Tappen Zee Bridge fire protection.

Initial fire fighting is usually done by the Special Police Thruway Detail of the N. Y. State Division of Police, which patrols the route day and night. In 19.55. this force numbered 130 men, operating some 138 radio patrol vehicles out of 25 police patrol posts.

Last year, these troopers traveled 5,559,095 miles, investigated 2,170 complaints and made 7,654 arrests. They investigated 1,653 accidents and 111 fires on the highway, many of which they extinguished. In others, they worked alongside municipal fire fighters, volunteer and paid.


July 4, 1954 to May 10, 1956

Total Incidents of All Kinds

1954 (6 months period) 38

1955 (12 months) . 178

1956 (Through May 10) 87

Total incidents 303

Type of Incidents

Cars ……. . . 88

Trucks (and truck tires) . 104

Grass and brush 47

Buildings………… 4

Bus 4

Hay (Also involves vehicles) 3

Trailers 6

Miscellaneous 50

Total incidents 303

No. of times public fire departments called—71

No. of times public fire departments refused calls—3

Balance of incidents involved fires that were extinguished by police and/or maintenance or other Thruway personnel, or by vehicle drivers or others.

Fires were the direct result of accidents in a number of cases, some resulting in the death of persons or animals. Twenty-five of the fires involved tractor-trailer trucks, some of which caused heavy property loss. A number of trucks involved in incidents were loaded with chemicals or other combustibles.

Fultonville and Canajoharie, N. Y., Fire Departments operate on tractor-trailer fire caused by blowout on left rear tire which caught fire Trader and contents were a total loss.A hot tire started this tractor-trailer fire. Note how fire communicated to interior. A good stop was made by Leeds and Cairo, N. Y., Fire Departments after truck driver was unable to control blaze with hand extinguisherFire consumes born and adjacent storage buildings of farmhouse over 100 feet from shoulder of the Thruway. About 50 feet of right-of-way was burned offTrailer-tractor with four horses left highway, hit bridge pier, overturned and took fire. Driver and one horse died of burns. Henrietta, N. Y., Fire Department extinguished fireJet aviation fuel makes hot fire on Thruway. Tractor-trailer load went off road, jackknifed after rolling over. Fire burned for approximately nine hours while two fire companies, without necessary foam, stood by to protect exposures

The fire fighting and rescue equipment of these special police detail cars may be of interest. It includes the following: One-quart size vaporizing liquid extinguisher; one Karboloy extinguisher; one dry chemical extinguisher (20-pound); one pair asbestos gloves; one first aid kit; one crowbar; one disposable blanket; 100 feet of Vfe-inch rope; four 4-foot looped steel rods for roping off emergency areas; one axe; flashlight; one 100foot steel tape measure.

Each vehicle operated by a commissioned or non-commissioned officer also carries an asbestos blanket. The asbestos blanket and gloves were added in 1955 and are reported highly useful. Noncommissioned personnel also c arry presstype cameras and photographic equipment, for photographing accidents and fires.

Communications facilities

Rapid, accurate communications are vital in fire and accident control along such a vast enterprise as the Thruway. A special communications system was designed and installed b> the New York Telephone Co. It provides instantaneous communications 24 hours a day between police, administration, maintenance emergency and toll-operated cars, and Thruway headquarters. It involves the use of radio telephone, telephone and teletype.

There are 48 base radio stations in the radio communications system which operates 475 mobile radio units. Five of the Thruway headquarters have teletype machines. Communication center is located in Elsmere, N. Y., where the entire radio system is monitored 24 hours a day. Here, large magnetic maps are used to spot weather conditions, accidents, fires and other vital information.

The radio traffic is handled by radio divisions, three of which are in continuous individual service at all times. All radio transmission is automatically recorded on magnetic tape recorders.

While the present Thruway communications system is highly efficient, plans for further improvement are under consideration. These include the use of closed circuit television; limited coverage radio broadcasting; radar-controlled speed signs for traffic control. The installation of automatic signaling devices is also being investigated. These devices would enable a patron with a disabled vehicle (whether from fire or other emergency) to transmit coded signals to the nearest State Police or Thruway vehicle.

Ambulance service

At the present time 45 ambulance services are providing protection along the super-highway. These are all private or municipal services, not a part of the Thruway Authority. They operate by agreement, and are individually assigned to specified sections of the route.

The maintenance staff

An important part of the Thruway team’ concerned with fire protection is the Maintenance Staff. The New YorkBuffalo route is divided into four Maintenance Divisions, with 13 Section Maintenance buildings, strategically located.

In 1955 the Maintenance staff numbered 641. It is seriously concerned with safety along the vast route and its personnel and equipment are usually on hand at accidents and fires of any consequence.

Training in fire fighting

Inasmuch as Thruway Police and Maintenance personnel are the first to be involved in fire of an description on or along the Thruway, the Thruway Authority considers it essential that they be thoroughly trained for the task—at least for first aid fire fighting. Such a training program is being carried forward, utilizing where possible, the facilities of the Bureau of Fire, Division of Safety, Michael Prendergast, Director. Actual training is under the direction of Charles Fales, Chief, Bureau of Fire.

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Thruway procedures for handling fire equipment and personnel

As said above, every effort is made to extinguish fires by the Thruway personnel and equipment. However, it is the inflexible policy to call outside fire fighters for any fire of serious proportions, or any incident which would indicate their usefulness. Should an emergency, including fire, occur on or adjacent to the Thruway within the fire protection district of a municipal fire department (paid or volunteer), and that department respond to a call sent it by a passerby or someone traveling the Thruway, its services will be welcomed by the Thruway Authority, even if it should be that the Thruway personnel have the situation well in hand.

Reporting a fire

When a fire occurs on the Thruway right-of-way, the incident is reported by radio, usually by police radio car to the Thruway radio system dispatcher at division headquarters.

The official vehicle or station reporting the incident gives the dispatcher the exact location of the fire by nearest milepost and lane, the type of fire (vehicle, structure, brush, etc.) and its extent.

When the report of a fire is received, the dispatcher immediately sends a State Police Thruway Detail patrol car and emergency service equipment to the scene (if one is not already present). If the fire is reported as serious or extensive, the dispatcher contacts the toll station nearest to the location of the county fire coordinator in the county in which the fire is located, and the toll collector on duty in turn, calls the fire coordinator by phone and requests assistance. The county fire coordinator dispatches fire equipment located in the vicinity of the Thruway toll station nearest to the scene of the fire.

In this connection, it is well to remember that the State of New York is organized on a statewide mutual aid basis. Coordinators and deputy coordinators are appointed by county authorities in each county and they are charged by law with administering and maintaining the mutual aid and training programs of their respective areas. This includes the operation of the county fire control center which is in almost every case the focal point for the dispatch of reinforcements in time of serious fire or other disaster, and for protection of highways, parkways and thoroughfares which may not be owned by the counties, municipalities or communities through which they pass.

The collector assigned to an entrance lane at the station where the public fire force and personnel will enter is alert to their arrival and offers all possible assistance in expediting them through the lane.

As soon as the equipment and personnel have entered the Thruway through the portal, the collector will:

  1. Notify the Thru way dispatcher
  2. Issue Class 9 non-revenue tickets for each piece of apparatus or vehicle carrying fire fighting personnel; these tickets are turned over to the collector on duty in the lane through which the equipment and vehicles of personnel will later exit.
  3. Make a notation of the incidents on his Unusual Occurrence Report, giving the time and serial numbers of the entrance transactions.

When the collector on duty at the exit lane hears the trooper at the scene of the fire advise the dispatcher that the fire equipment and personnel have left the scene, he is alert to their arrival and assists them through the lane. As soon as the equipment and personnel have exited, the collector will:

  1. Notify the dispatcher
  2. Process the Class 9 tickets obtained from the entrance collector, using his own identification plate.
  3. Make notations of the incidents on his Unusual Occurrence Report, giving the time and serial numbers of the exit transactions.

The Thruway’s mobile radio network keeps all emergency and toll units in touch with what is going on.

Procedure for handling fire forces on trips for off-Thruway emergencies

Under the previously mentioned State Mutual Aid Plan, fire equipment and personnel may be dispatched by the county fire coordinator to assist at the scene of a fire or other disaster in another county or community.

In certain cases, it may be advantageous for these responding fire forces to travel via the Thruway to reach the scene. If the Thruway is to be used in this connection, the fire units involved are expected to make every effort to advise the nearest toll station of their entry, in order that there may be no undue delay at that point. In some cases, the county fire control center, which handles the dispatching of mutual aid forces, may alert the Thruway authorities to the movement of men and apparatus.

When the fire equipment and/or the vehicles of fire personnel approach the entrance station with flashing red or blue lights “legally” displayed:

The collector on duty will issue a Class 9 non-revenue ticket and hand it to the operator of each vehicle with such legally displayed lights. The collector is to note the names of the fire units and circumstances, on his Unusual Occurrence Report, and then notify the dispatcher that the equipment and vehicles have entered the Thruway and will exit at a specified station. The dispatcher will then advise the exit station of the approaching fire units. The collector on duty at that station will be on the watch for the vehicles and prepared to process them through the exit lane. When all of the vehicles have exited, the dispatcher shall be advised.

In certain large-scale operations, response of fire forces may be by convoy, as was the case during last year’s flood emergencies, and before that, the extensive civil defense exercises. It is no small undertaking to assemble, dispatch and control large fire forces for efficient convoy even without the limited amount of routine red tape that must be followed in operating along the Thruway. This is particularly true where such movements occur on holidays or during the rush hours. Then it is important that those in command of dispatching and directing the movement of the fire forces work in close cooperation with the highway authorities. An oversight or other carelessness anywhere along the line may result in serious delay and annoyance to the responding forces, not to speak of the inconvenience of travelers.

Fire equipment and/or vehicles of fire personnel on normal trips

On the Thruway, fire equipment or the vehicles of fire personnel traveling without regulation signals such as flashing red or blue lights indicating that the trip is not of an emergency nature, shall be handled in the normal manner. Toll and exit tickets are processed just as they would be for pleasure cars and commercial vehicles, the usual toll being collected. It might be added that no fireman should be caught using his red or blue lights when he cannot prove he was on official fire business.*

The Thruway Authority issues the following instructions to its employees:

“It should be carefully noted that fire equipment and the vehicles of fire personnel proceeding to an emergency, with legally displayed flashing red or blue lights, are to be processed with the minimum of delay. The Authority specifically intends that fire equipment and personnel traveling to an emergency shall be granted free passage. The normal toll shall be paid for fire equipment and personnel when making a normal trip not in connection with an emergency.”

Thruway pays for services

Beginning March 1, 1956, the Thruway Authority offered fire fighting forces along the route of the cross-state superhighway up to $200 a year to help fight fires on the Thruway.

Warren M. Wells, the Authority’s Director of Operations, notified the coordinators in each of the 19 counties along the route, offering $50 for the first call on each calendar year, $35 for each additional call, up to a maximum of $200 annually. Payment will be made to the responding municipality, fire district or fire company.

This is said to be in direct line with the voluntary payments made by both the New Jersey Turnpike and the Pennsylvania Turnpike to local fire companies which answer calls along their expressways.

* In New York, volunteer firemen may display a blue light on their private cars. This does not entitle them to speed or ignore red lights or stop lights, and such signals can only be used when responding to an alarm.

The Thruway Authority also agrees to defray the cost of extinguishing agents used by fire fighters in coping with Thruway fires and to replace damaged or lost minor fire fighting equipment.

Miscellaneous problems faced

Many questions arise concerning Thruway fire protection beyond the major one of liability coverage. Most of these concern details of communications dispatch and response with which the Thruway Authority is not directly concerned.

Fire Crews—The volunteer companies have somewhat different problems than those of the full-paid departments, which roll on call, with their regular crews. It is recommended by some authorities that upon receipt of a call a volunteer unit should delay its response until it has received a full crew to man the rig. Other authorities prefer to dispatch the apparatus just as quickly as the driver can get it on the road, leaving it to the individual firemen to follow along in their cars.

This procedure is not viewed as happily by the Thruway Authority as having the unit respond with full crew, ready to go to work, providing the entire company membership will not come roaring along in their private cars. In a word, the Thruway officials have their own strategy for meeting emergencies on the highway. Police are stationed as quickly as possible on both sides of the incident to control and direct all traffic including responding fire forces. The fewer cars of firemen that use the highway, the easier it is for the police. They are instructed to permit the fire fighters to come as close as is considered expedient with their cars, which are to be located off the roadway. If the volunteer fire department can work out a response plan that will insure the minimum effective full crew responding either with the apparatus (which is preferable) or following it into action, this is the sort of Utopia the Thruway Authority would like.

Cars of Volunteer Firemen—Written instructions covering the detail issued by one county fire coordinator read as follows:

“It is imperative that the fewest possible numbers of motor cars of volunteer, or other firemen attempt to use the Thruway iu responding to incidents on, or adjacent to the Thruway proper. Thruway Police will endeavor to halt all vehicles in the lane or lanes involved, a safe distance from the incident in order to enable fire and/or rescue operations to be conducted with least hindrance. Volunteers with blue lights on their cars will be asked to observe these regulations and cooperate by stopping their cars at least 500 feet from the incident, and parking them on the side of the road. Those firemen not immediately concerned with actual extinguishment and/or rescue operations may offer their assistance to Thruway Police in controlling traffic and maintaining order at the scene.”

“Orphan territory”—Another problem is that of fires in “orphan territory” i.e.: areas not regularly assigned to or covered by any public fire department. Meeting emergencies in such areas, usually part of unincorporated and unorganized fire districts, is a headache to fire officials under even normal conditions, without their having the added worry of fires along the Thruway right-of-way to contend with. Thruway personnel manning Thruway fire equipment, will soon be in a position to fight all but the most severe of such fires. Meanwhile it is to the credit of the public fire services that the majority will respond to an emergency call received from the Thruway even where the fire is on disputed territory.

In order to facilitate response of fire forces to Thruway incidents, counties have been given detail maps of the Thruway, with its entrances, barriers, bridges (overpasses and underpasses) service installations and other details thereon. Where any sort of access lanes are available, even though cut off by fence or gates, fire departments may use these if it will facilitate their response. Under these conditions, the gate may have to be forced, or the fence opened or broken. However, this procedure, although it may be followed as a last resort, is not recommended by the Thruway Authority because of the danger to the fire forces entering upon the fast lanes with their heavy traffic, and the fact that no police protection may be immediately available at that access point.

Summary—Another question that is sometimes confusing, is that of command at the scene of the incident. It is reported that the Authority considers that the chief of the fire department in whose district or area the incident occurs is in charge, just as he would be in a normal fire operation.

The question of jurisdiction in time of fire has been a sore one on other turnpikes where not only volunteer but paid fire departments have been at odds with highway police and other authorities. Thus far, fortunately, the records indicate there has been no such cleavage along the New York Thruway.

Problem of the “Zee” Bridge—The only exception to most of the foregoing operational procedures it that of the $60 million Tappan Zee Bridge spanning the Hudson River. During its construction several incipient fires occurred on the structure, most of these being extinguished by workers or Thruway police. The Tarrytown, N. Y., Fire Department, which protects the Westchester County approaches to the bridge has responded to several calls and willingly cooperates with the Authority.

The Thruway has installed special fire units however, to protect the costly bridge. Present facilities include a standard pumper (rented temporarily) and a 1,000-gallon water tanker. There are also Thruway vehicles of sorts carrying first aid equipment always close at hand. It is understood that when the new all-purpose fire units are received one will regularly be stationed at the Bridge. A Tarrytown municipal fire alarm box is located at the Westchester approach to the toll barrier and the department’s apparatus is equipped with radio on the County fire frequency.

Specifications of special Thruway emergency fire apparatus

Twenty-three all-purpose units adaptable to the requirements of the Thruway Authority are now being delivered for installation throughout the route. These were produced by the Young Fire Equipment Corp., Buffalo, N. Y., to design specifications which include the following;

The truck, mounted on a two-ton chassis, is equipped with a four-stage centrifugal pump rated from 120 gpm to 50 gpm for from 400 to 800 psi. It has a turret nozzle mounted on the cab roof, and remotely operated from within the cab, to deliver water fog, fog-foam, or solid stream discharges.

There are also two ground sweep nozzles mounted at the front bumper which can deliver water fog and fogfoam. Behind the cab, on electricallyoperated hose reels, are two 1-inch booster lines, each 250 feet long and equipped with fog nozzles. On the left side of the unit is a 114-inch capped and gated discharge opening.

The vehicle carries a removable 330gallon capacity water tank and has compartments for 5 gallons of wet water and 20 gallons of liquid foam. Proportioned can also be operated from within the cab. Besides the siren and flashing lights, the apparatus carries such additional equipment as a 20-pound carbon dioxide extinguisher, two 25-foot lengths of 1%-inch hose rated at 400 psi working pressure; electric hand lanterns, a 20-pound dry powder extinguisher, 12foot ladder, tool kit, hydraulic jack, a bayonet-type applicator and other equipment. Provision is made for radio.

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