Roadway Incident Operations and Safety: A 20-Year Review and a Plan for the Next 10 Years

Fire apparatus struck by car
A Delray Beach (FL) fire truck used to block the roadway and protect personnel was struck by a vehicle during this 2020 response. Photo courtesy Delray Beach (FL) Fire Rescue.

By Jack Sullivan

In November of 2018 a diverse group of experienced personnel representing the fire service, emergency medical services, law enforcement, safety service patrols, transportation agencies, towing & recovery services, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the insurance industry assembled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to discuss the broad subject of “Responder Safety at Roadway Incidents.” The meeting also served as a 20-year review of progress made since the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association (CVVFA) formed the Emergency Responder Safety Institute (ERSI) to specifically address firefighter safety issues at roadway incidents. We discussed at length what has been done and accomplished over the past 20 years, what still needs to be done, and what is required to achieve the goal of protecting all responders working at all types of roadway incidents nationwide in the future.


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“D” Drivers and Other Hazards at Highway Operations

The frequency of struck-by-vehicle incidents involving emergency personnel and their vehicles is growing. As of mid-November 2019, there have been 39 personnel (representing law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services, and towing and roadside mechanics) struck and killed at roadway incidents. In the fire service there have been about four times as many incidents involving injured firefighters and/or fire apparatus struck by vehicles. Statistics tracking all these struck-by-vehicle incidents are not completely accurate because after 20 years we still do not have an accurate way to report, track, and analyze all these incidents in a centralized agency. If anything, the statistics we have are conservative and probably do not fully account for all struck-by-vehicle incidents involving all emergency responders happening throughout the country.

Our first discussion was to review what has been successful in helping to protect emergency personnel at roadway incidents. Some of those successful factors included the following:

  • Improved awareness throughout the emergency services community about the risks and hazards of working in or near moving traffic in all kinds of roadway environments
  • Better collaboration, communication, and cooperation between various responder agencies at the national, state, and regional levels
  • A growing cadre of roadway incident safety champions who serve as instigators, catalysts, visionaries, and change agents
  • Passage of legislative initiatives such as “Move Over” laws
  • The identification and sharing of recommended practices for on-scene operations including advance warning, blocking/safe positioning, temporary traffic controls, and the use of high-visibility garments and personal protective equipment
  • Roadway incident safety and traffic incident management training developed and shared nationwide through instructor-led classes and workshops and online training systems
  • More and better public education efforts about Move Over laws and how to react to emergency vehicles of all types both responding to and working at emergency scenes
  • Increased usage of the internet and social media to spread safety messages
  • The integration of firefighter safety and traffic control principles into National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program, and the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD)
  • Increased development and use of fire department standard operating procedures or guidelines regarding road and highway incident response and operations

We also identified factors that have been less successful to date, including:

  • Data collection about secondary crashes, emergency personnel injuries, and associated property damage to emergency vehicles
  • Civilian diver education and modifying driver behavior
  • Enforcement of existing traffic laws like Move Over/Slow Down

More importantly, the group explored and tackled the question: “What is next when it comes to affecting emergency responder safety and traffic incident management”? The brainstorming highlighted many factors that are either emerging or already available but not widely implemented nationwide. They included:

  • The need for better civilian driver education and safety training, especially for new drivers
  • Institutionalizing roadway incident safety recommended practices into training and professional development for all disciplines
  • More consistent enforcement of existing traffic laws with more serious fines and penalties
  • More rapid development and deployment of connected vehicle technology of all types
  • The need for emergency responders to be involved with the design, deployment, and use of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles and technology
  • New and better technology for advance warning and temporary traffic controls for drivers approaching incident scenes     

Finally, the group spent a lot of time discussing what’s important for the roadway incident safety effort going forward, what’s needed to move to the next level, and how we accomplish these objectives. The following items were identified:

  • Better data collection, research, analysis, and sharing about responder fatalities, injuries, near misses, and property damage, as well as civilian fatalities and injuries at incident scenes through uniform means across all disciplines
    • Use of that data to validate of the effectiveness of recommended practices
    • Related research to determine effective messaging for driver and public education
  • Better and expanded buy-in by influential organizations and leaders to exploit those relationships to improve awareness and implementation of safety training, messaging, and driving behavior
    • Engage thought leaders to become influencers who are not just “supportive” but who are actively engaged and instigating change and improvements
    • Create more of a sense of urgency on this subject perhaps through personalization of the message and the mission
  • Encourage, maybe even require, the growth of traffic incident management committees and task groups nationwide as a model for interagency planning, cooperation, collaboration, training, and operations
  • Make roadway incident response and safety training a priority in every department across all disciplines
    • That training should be part of basic training and new worker orientation, as well as annual refresher training for all emergency responders
    • Develop and distribute new and improved instructor training material and tools to teach roadway incident safety
    • Perhaps offer incentives to prioritize roadway incident response training such as reduced insurance premiums, improved ISO ratings, a basic requirement to apply for Assistance to Firefighters Grants, and/or to fulfill state training requirements across all disciplines
  • Improve and expand public education on how to safely operate a vehicle around and emergency incident and how to lessen and/or prevent distracted driving
    • Implement and deploy a sustained marketing effort to keep the topic of responder safety in front of the public
      • Can be fashioned after previous efforts to reduce drunk driving and improve the use of seat belts
  • Improve enforcement of existing laws and assess significant penalties for infractions
    • Consider the development and deployment of new enforcement technology like automatic camera systems
    • Improve the cooperation with the judiciary to hold motorists accountable for failure to comply with existing laws

The final exercise for the group was to identify the three most critical success factors needed for responder safety going forward. Seventeen subjects (some of which were identified and described above) were considered, discussed, and ranked. The top three factors identified were as follows:

  1. Data collection, analysis, sharing, and distribution
  2. Better, more effective training and education for emergency personnel and civilian drivers
  3. Funding

The group felt that data collection was critical to understand and illustrate the struck-by incidents, near misses, line-of duty deaths and injuries, and emergency vehicle damage problems that plague roadway incident response. Data collection is also critical for prioritizing responder safety and to successfully secure the necessary funding to support the programs and initiatives required to move closer to the goal of preventing struck-by deaths, injuries, and emergency vehicle damage at roadway incidents. The lack of funding at all levels was identified as a major barrier for those agencies and departments who have the will to implement safe roadway incident response procedures but lack the resources, equipment, or staffing, like smaller and volunteer fire departments. Finally, although everyone agreed that roadway incident safety training and education has developed, improved, and expanded significantly in the last 20 years, there is a need to continue to improve and expand that training for all emergency responders on a continuing basis.

“D” drivers (i.e. drunk, drugged, drowsy, disgruntled, disrespectful, distracted, and dangerous) are a constant threat on the roads and highways we respond to every day. Even with all the factors that have been implemented over the last 20 years to protect firefighters and emergency medical personnel, the increase in the number of “D” drivers has rapidly defeated many if not most of our efforts to get their attention and request them to stop, slow down, and/or move over for emergency vehicles working at incident scenes. Many of the strategies and tactics we depend on for protection at roadway incidents are visually oriented, like flashing warning lights, high-visibility graphics on emergency vehicles, advance warning signs, cones, flares, blocking vehicles, and high-visibility garments. The reality is that nowadays many drivers aren’t even looking where they are driving so they don’t see any of those preventive measures until they run into or over them or our personnel. We need better and more effective measures to deal with the drivers of today – not the drivers we were dealing with 20 years ago.


The Past, Present, and Future of Responder Safety at Roadway Incidents
Report of Workshop Proceedings, Emergency Responder Safety Institute / Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association. March 2019

Jack Sullivan is a retired volunteer firefighter and fire officer with 25 years of service and currently is the Director of Training for the Emergency Responder Safety Institute. He is a subject matter expert on roadway incident safety and operations and promotes proactive strategies and tactics for protecting emergency personnel from being struck by vehicles while working on or near roadways. He is a Master Instructor for the FHWA Traffic Incident Management Train-the-Trainer Program and a Principal Member of the NFPA Technical Committee for Traffic Incident Management that developed NFPA 1091, Standard for Traffic Incident Management Professional Qualifications. He is a certified safety professional and a certified fire protection Specialist and recently retired from a 40-year professional career as a safety and loss control consultant.

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