Highway Safety: A Practical Approach

This is the 15th in a series of columns on emergency vehicle safety. The columns are a component of VFIS' "Operation Safe Arrival" initiative, aimed at heightening safety awareness and reducing the frequency and severity of incidents involving emergency response vehicles.

Since the invention of the automobile, emergency responders have been dealing with the problem of highway incidents. Never before has the danger to responders been greater than it is today. Our emergency vehicles are being struck and damaged in record numbers. More importantly, our responders are being struck, injured, and killed at an alarming rate.

So what is the problem? Has the speed and volume of traffic dramatically increased in our response areas? Is it the public's frantic rush to get from point A to point B? Are cell phones, car stereos, eating, or map navigation diverting drivers' attention? Could it be the emergency responders who fail to adequately inform the impatient public of the impending danger created by our mere presence? Is it our disregard for traffic flow, or our nearsighted approach to traffic while working at a highway incident? The answer is yes - the problem is found in all of these elements. So what can we do? What steps need to be taken to protect our responders and the public?

Planning

Planning is the most important factor prior to responding to a highway emergency. Plan for this type of incident well in advance, and equip responders with the proper tools to function in this environment. This begins with having the appropriate standard operating guidelines (SOGs) in place that address response to highway emergencies. Be sure to execute those SOGs at each and every highway emergency.

Next, coordinate your efforts with other agencies to avoid confusion on the emergency scene. Law enforcement, emergency medical services, highway departments, and even transportation authorities or public works can be essential to your safe operation. Meet to discuss and train with all possible agencies involved to ensure that everyone understands the overall process and the true meaning of unified incident command.

On The Scene

The first-arriving emergency vehicle needs to establish command and communicate the nature of the emergency to the other responding equipment. The first responders on the scene need to ensure that the traffic is controlled prior to placing themselves and others at risk. Establish a blocking position with emergency apparatus, to create a safe work zone, and instruct additional responders where to place and stage their apparatus.

A second unit's blocking position should be at least 150 feet (depending on road conditions) to the rear of the first apparatus. Although blocking the entire roadway is not always a popular decision, it must be kept as an option. The incident commander needs to quickly establish a command post, appoint a safety officer, and designate an accountability officer to oversee safe operation.

The use of warning signs, message boards, cones, flares, and personnel directing traffic is of vital importance. We can't expect someone who is traveling in the fast lane at 70 miles per hour to anticipate a stopped emergency vehicle in their lane of travel. Prior notification to the public traveling the roadway is essential. Depending on the situation, advanced warning may need to be placed as much as 2,500 feet (depending on road conditions and posted speed) prior to the incident.

Responders who place warning devices and assist with directing traffic need to be properly trained and equipped. All responders need to don Class III reflective vests or other protective clothing suitable to the conditions in which they are operating. Those who are not directing traffic need to stay within the protected work area.

Do not congest the work area with unneeded equipment; stage those vehicles off site until they are needed. When you increase the number of vehicles and personnel on the scene, it heightens your exposures and the chance of a secondary incident involving emergency responders. If emergency medical services is needed, place those personnel and apparatus within the protected area so they can triage, treat, and load victims safely. Call additional equipment as needed and instruct them where to place their apparatus. All emergency personnel should exit the vehicles on the downstream side, away from moving traffic, if possible. The reduction of emergency lighting can be helpful, as strobes and red flashing lights can blind, attract or confuse the general public. The use of amber lights, arrow boards, arrow sticks, message boards, and police vehicles seem to be effective in slowing traffic. The use of overhead lighting to illuminate the scene is preferable when visibility is limited.

When the incident is mitigated, the incident commander needs to limit your time on scene, which reduces your exposure. Clear up emergency crews as soon as possible, and keep in mind that this is a very dangerous task. Traffic must stay under control until the last cone is picked up and all emergency responders have left the scene. Always expect the unexpected so that you will not be shocked when it happens. Mr. Murphy is always just around the corner, waiting to implement his Law when we become complacent.

Highway incidents are very dangerous. Traffic volume and the speed at which vehicles are driven have increased dramatically. We need to deal with this threat using a systematic and thorough approach when planning, writing SOGs, and dealing with other involved agencies. This preliminary work will reduce the risk to our responders and the public. Take a practical approach to this very complex situation, and protect our most valuable asset, our emergency responders!

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