Apparatus Placement: Scene Safety At Highway Incidents

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Historically, firefighters have been killed or injured while working at the scene of highway incidents. And there is an increasing awareness of the dangers of fireground operations on or near highways. The purpose of this column is to reduce some of the life and injury risks associated with these fire department operations.

The issue of vehicle placement and scene safety can be broken down into five segments:

1. Placement Of Apparatus

Apparatus placement should be based upon a pre-set plan. Part of that plan, the standard operating guidelines (SOGs), must be to make the area safe for the responding manpower before you commit to the required emergency activity. The plan requires flexibility to vary with the degree of exposure and include other responding agencies such as law enforcement, EMS, roadway maintenance and towing services. As part of the pre-planning and training, consideration should be made for the special, traffic warning and control equipment that may be required and how it will be transported. For volunteer groups, the plan must include placement of private vehicles.

Whenever possible, apparatus should be parked completely off the roadway. However, some incidents force response vehicles to be parked in traffic lanes. As a general rule park your vehicles completely off the roadway or block the entire lane. Do not partially block a lane, not even by one foot. When a space exists between your vehicle partially blocking the lane and the dotted line or next lane, approaching drivers will study the space to see if they can squeeze through or have to shift over. The fraction of a second spent doing that evaluation can be enough to cause a crash into your vehicle or provoke a sudden lane change. Removing all doubt about the lane obstruction achieves a more efficient response from on-coming drivers.

In special instances a barrier vehicle, usually a full-sized unit like a pumper, is used to block a lane when approaching traffic presents a significant hazard to scene equipment and workers. The barrier vehicle should be positioned before the actual event, and be integrated with the safety zone discussed here. Since this is a high-risk exposure, fire/rescue/EMS personnel should not be working in its proximity. It does not routinely supply equipment at the scene and should have a large, directional, traffic arrow described below, and amber warning beacons or amber filament flashers. The rear of the vehicle should be constructed to display alternate yellow and black retro-reflective/fluorescent diagonals. Park all responding vehicles on the same side of the roadway.

For two-lane roads with opposing traffic, when the accident is off the roadway, the first on-scene unit should park on the shoulder of the same side as the accident. If there is not room on the shoulder, block the entire lane. The rest of the response should follow suit and park on that same side. This may allow enough space to permit other apparatus to navigate through the immediate area because the first vehicle on the scene may not carry the appropriate equipment. When the accident blocks a lane, consider shutting down the roadway. Turn off all flashing lights except amber rotating beacons or amber filament flashers. Do not employ any strobes. (An arrow display may not be useful.) The greater the number of flashing lights on the scene, the more light colors displayed and the more intense the flash brightness, the greater the likelihood of a motorist driving into the scene and apparatus. (See “The Case For Amber Emergency Warning Lights,” Firehouse®, February 2002.)

On a wider highway or interstate with two lanes in each direction, parking on the shoulder closest to the incident eliminates the need for emergency personnel to cross an active highway. Park your vehicles completely off the roadway or block the entire lane. If you need more room to work safely, shut down both lanes. When you are situated, turn off all flashing lights except amber rotating beacons or amber filament flashers and large directional arrows. Do not employ any strobes. If the accident occupies a lane or lanes, parked apparatus before the scene may be a barrier for those lanes.

On a roadway of three or more lanes in each direction and the incident is in any of the outside lanes, apply the methods as discussed in “two lanes in each direction,” as stated above. However, if the event occurs in the middle lane, the first unit should assess the scene to determine the best shoulder to use. The lane between this shoulder and the accident as well as the accident lane should be blocked at the appropriate time. Barrier vehicles can perform this function, but must be coordinated with the safety zone as it is established. It is important not to work in an island where traffic is passing on either side of the event. Close as many lanes as necessary to provide for a safe scene.

Special considerations must be applied when the accident is at the juncture of an on-ramp or exit. Less motorist stress occurs when closing an on-ramp. Some drivers may try to force their way to the exit. Place sufficient traffic control warnings well in advance of the scene. A barrier vehicle may need to be employed since closing an exit ramp can create confusion for those intent on leaving the main road.

An extremely dangerous situation is to place apparatus on both sides of the highway and expect through traffic to pass between them. This is like driving through a canyon with no escape route to either side. Civilian drivers are confronted with distractions present on both sides, while their primary visual and driving task is to look forward in the lane of operation. If it is necessary to have emergency vehicles on both sides, very strong consideration must be made to shut down that route to all but emergency-related activity.

Volunteer departments may have the added element of members responding in their personal vehicles. If it is necessary to respond directly to the scene, park on the same side well beyond the incident. Be far off the roadway into the median or shoulder and turn off headlights and emergency lights. As a general rule, the fewer the vehicles on the scene, the safer it will be. Private, volunteer-owned vehicles should not routinely be used for scene access. We do not enter a structural fire without protective gear and a safety team in place. We must use the same approach at a highway incident.

2. Establish A Safety Zone

Establishing a safety zone is important and requires manpower. As soon as possible, estimate how far back to warn approaching motorists. The distance from the scene to the start of the safety zone is dependent on the traffic speed and density, obstructions and weather. The more complicated the situation, the greater the distance from the hazard to the first warning. As a general rule, using the largest vehicle on that highway, driving at its maximum speed (always above the posted limit), compute the stopping distance. Usually tripling that distance is the minimum range to start warnings. A tractor-trailer truck going 65 mph with aggressive braking has a total stopping distance of about 500 feet. The initial location of a first warning device would be no less than 1,500 feet. Conditions could lengthen the safety zone to a half mile or more.

The best warning device for initially alerting approaching drivers is a very large lane-change arrow. Using a pick-up truck with the arrow board mounted above the bed is a consideration. It is parked on the shoulder, not partially obstructing the lane. The arrow should have all amber bulbs blink on and off at the same time, and not by sequencing. The arrow head should have a large, five-bulb head and be high enough to be seen above the tops of cars using the road. What may be a novel approach is adding a common emergency vehicle siren mounted on the top of the arrow board and facing oncoming traffic, operated intermittently by a traffic control official near the board, using a remote control switch. (This warning board is a quarter-mile or more from the work site.) The sequencing arrow sticks currently in vogue are not effective and have little value.

Starting just past the arrow, large traffic cones marked with both fluorescent lime-yellow and retro-reflective material should be placed on the shoulder first and then diagonally into the lane being blocked. It should be a gradual placement so drivers have time to safely react and the lane is made traffic free. Continue cone placement along the dotted highway line up to, through, and past the scene, before tapering back to the shoulder, thereby reopening the lane. Law enforcement or fire police may direct traffic away from the closed lane by standing inside the traffic free zone. Generally, the cone spacing should be close enough to discourage a civilian driver from weaving back inside the safety zone. The faster traffic is moving, the greater the spacing. A barrier vehicle can be parked inside the cone pattern and just prior to the scene. Cones are much more effective than flares. An inattentive driver who misses the arrow signal may be alerted by the thumping of the cones against a bumper or fender. No flare will provide the sound and physical feel of cone strikes. Additional drawbacks to the use of flares are their need to be replenished and the requirement of manpower to provide that task, the smoke produced by flares can act like fog and diminish visibility, and flares are a source of ignition. At night, using light towers shining down on the scene provides additional safety advantages. The benefits of personnel being able to see what they are doing are apparent. Also important is that scene illumination enhances the hazard visibility from a great distance. The elevated lights draw attention and act as early warning devices which do not disable drivers as some emergency warning lights do. Scene illumination also makes individuals more visible, especially as they move about.

At the end of any of the activities falling within the scope of this paper, termination of lane control should start at the scene after the personnel and equipment are released. To reopen the roadway work backward from the scene toward the initial cone placement. Turn off the arrow last. As soon as a firefighter dismounts from the apparatus, he or she becomes a pedestrian.

3. Safety Precautions

The safety precautions of responding personnel begin prior to the apparatus leaving the station. Personal protective equipment (PPE) must be worn. Working in traffic requires maximum visibility and the retro-reflective/fluorescent tape helps make the firefighter more visible, night and day. The tape on helmets and cuffs is critical.

Although emergency personnel arrive by vehicle, they become pedestrians with heightened vulnerability as soon as they exit their transportation. When climbing down from the apparatus at the scene, do not get off the side of the truck into a traffic lane, but rather onto the road shoulder. (An exception can be for the front-seat officer or the driver, but requires extra alertness). Because you as a pedestrian can see an approaching vehicle does not mean the driver can see you. The driver’s attention may be drawn to any number of distractions in your proximity. At night, you can spot headlights far down the road, but by the time they illuminate you, the driver will not have enough distance and reaction time stop. Therefore, always wear protective gear, be aware of approaching traffic and do not stray from the safety zone.

Good samaritans and onlookers must fit into the pedestrian safety plan. The good samaritan may be relieved of his or her activity when an equal-level provider is ready to assume patient care. If possible, the good samaritan needs to be identified and this data entered on the patient care sheet or the incident report. Onlookers should be encouraged to leave for scene control and enhanced safety.

4. Special Actions

Special actions are emergency events to which the fire service regularly responds, but are beyond routine firefighting. Among them are hazardous material exposures, mass-casualty events, major highway damage, helicopter landing zones and environmental occurrences. For these calls, lane control and safety zone extent depend on the expanse of the problem. Worthy of heightened awareness, fog and smoke cause extremely dangerous situations that can materialize in just a few moments. A simple grass fire can rapidly lead to significant visibility problems. This can happen prior to or while the emergency vehicles are operating at the scene. Pre-warning the driving public is essential and can require a safety zone that starts several miles prior to the obstruction. Unlike other incidents which usually occupy a fixed location, fog and smoke have no boundaries and the scene can shift or expand quickly. At times, immediate highway closure is appropriate and can encompass both directions of travel. Barrier vehicles are very vulnerable in this situation.

5. Command And Control

The priorities of the fire service may not dovetail with those of police. While the fire service requires a safe work zone, law enforcement may want maximum traffic flow. The incident command structure will help integrate the needs of agencies with dissimilar goals. Interagency meetings should be on a scheduled and continuing basis, for not only do needs and situations change, but the command structures also realign. New leaders need to be brought into the process and up to speed. Regular meetings allow for an orderly change of authority. The command and control of incidents involving highways depend on complete SOGs, proper apparatus parking and placement, appropriate traffic control device location, well-trained and well-equipped personnel, and the flexibility to cope with large scene complications. Be sure your SOGs are continually updated and integrated with timely drills and exercises encompassing the range and combinations of situations that can occur in your district.


Stephen S. Solomon, OD, an active firefighter for 43 years, is fire commissioner for the Town of Owego, NY, Fire District. His original research, published by the National Safety Council, The American Optometric Association and Ergonomics in Design, discusses safe fire vehicle operation and includes the use and misuse of sirens and audible devices, flashing lights, vehicle colors, retro-reflective materials and driver training. Dr. Solomon has completed the New York State Fire Training Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC) and helped write the Emergency Vehicle Accident Avoidance curriculum for the New York State Department of Health. His textbook Emergency Vehicle Accidents – Prevention and Reconstruction was published by Lawyers and Judges Publishing Company in 1999. Dr. Solomon has presented his studies to the National Academy of Sciences – Transportation Research Board, and he has presented seminars across the country on emergency vehicle accidents.

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