Safe Parking #6: Limited-Access Highways

Understand the special safety considerations, practices, and procedures necessary when working in or near moving traffic at unique highway locations.


SUBJECT: Safety Procedures When Working In or Near Moving Traffic
TOPIC: Special-Consideration Highway Locations
OBJECTIVE: Understand the special safety considerations, practices, and procedures necessary when working in or near moving traffic at unique highway locations
TASK: Upon study of this material, the responder will be able to explain department pre-plan procedures for responding to and working at highway incidents on limited-access, high-volume, high-speed highways and at any of the "Top 10" target intersections within the response district

You may call it the expressway; your partner may call it the interstate. It may be known as the thruway, the tollway or by other names in your local area. What it is to you is a firefighter killer. A multi-lane, divided highway, having a high posted speed limit, lots of traffic day and night, few access points to get on and off, and few if any intersections is technically a limited-access highway - the leading type of highway incident location known to kill emergency responders.

More firefighters and EMS personnel have been struck and injured or killed on limited-access highways than any other type of roadway system in the U.S. Contributing factors such as higher speeds, heavy volumes of traffic plus a greater possibility of heavy trucks approaching the scene make these roadways extremely dangerous. Two major reasons for responder deaths on these highways have emerged. Lack of proper advance warning to approaching traffic is one of the major causes. Attempting to cross the multiple lanes of the highway to get to the other side on foot was the last thing many dead firefighters were trying to do as they were struck and killed.

There are ways to improve our safety on these big roads. By department policy, we can forbid responding directly to a limited-access highway scene in a privately owned vehicle (POV). We can forbid stopping in lanes traveling in one direction and crossing the highway's grassy median or concrete barrier to access a crash or fire scene in lanes of traffic traveling the opposite direction. That's a sure way to get killed! We can also send a second major apparatus to establish an additional upstream block that increases the advance warning at the incident scene.

The Second Company to Block

When a call is received for an incident on a limited-access highway, an additional apparatus should be dispatched along with the first-due companies. A tandem-axle ladder truck is preferred due to its long length and heavy weight. In lieu of that, a tanker (tender) is a good vehicle to send. If no ladder truck or tanker/tender is available, the recommendation is made to add a second engine company to your initial assignment.

The primary function of the crew members of this second vehicle is not to work at the crash or vehicle fire scene. Their principal function is to establish a second upstream block possibly as far as a half-mile from the main activity area. They block whatever lanes of the highway must be shut down and any additional shoulder areas with their large vehicle. They assume their vital blocking position and set up so that their apparatus and its warning devices make approaching motorists aware that there is an emergency scene ahead. Traffic cones can be extended downstream of the blocking apparatus towards the activity area to keep vehicles out of the shadow area. Cones and a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) fluorescent pink retro-reflective sign can also be deployed upstream to further expand the advance warning area.

All slowing of approaching traffic, lane changes and merging of traffic should happen upstream of this additional blocking company. One or more police or highway department vehicles should be working upstream of this blocking company to assist with advance warning and upstream traffic control.

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