Safe Parking #6: Limited-Access Highways

March 1, 2004
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.

When done properly, by the time traffic actually passes the main activity area where the crash or vehicle fire scene is, vehicles have slowed to a manageable speed, are moving smoothly in the open lanes, and are following each other in a controlled and predictable manner.

Remember, the ambulance, first-due engine and possibly your heavy rescue unit, if that is what you send to crash scenes, should not be used as this upstream second blocker. Those units need to be close to the patients and the wrecked vehicles. The first-due engine should already be in a blocking position within 100 feet upstream of the crashed vehicles and the ambulance and heavy rescue should be in the downstream shadow.

Privately Owned Vehicles

One of the familiar line-of-duty death (LODD) scenarios that occur every year is that of the lone responder struck and killed while walking across a superhighway. And just as typically, the individual who was killed had driven his or her privately owned vehicle (POV) to the scene.

An example of this is the story behind the June 2003 death of 38-year-old Deborah Toler of Copperas Cove, TX. Toler had just completed her EMT class the month before and had yet to take her state certification exam. She was killed as she attempted to cross U.S. Highway 190 on foot. While driving east on Highway 190 with two of her five children in her car, she observed two vehicles that had collided, parked along the opposite, westbound lanes.

Toler pulled her car off onto the eastbound right shoulder of the highway. She got out of her vehicle and started to cross the highway on foot. Traffic in the lane closest to her stopped to allow her cross. As she darted across the highway, she was hit by another vehicle traveling in the inside lane, police said. Her two sons, ages 11 and 12, saw the accident as they waited in her car.

A similar incident, also in Texas, occurred several months earlier, also involving a personal vehicle and a responder killed as a pedestrian. Twenty-year-old Charles Lance Mathew, a LaBelle-Fannett Volunteer Fire Department lieutenant, was struck and killed by an 18-wheeler as he crossed Interstate 10. On March 18, 2003, at approximately 2:37 A.M., the county sheriff's office received a report of a traffic incident with minor injuries in the eastbound lane of Interstate 10 near milepost 833. Mathew's fire department was dispatched. Mathew reported on his fire department radio that he was going directly to the incident scene. Fellow members observed him drive past the fire station in his personal with the emergency four-way flashers activated. Mathew arrived at approximately 2:59 a.m., and he parked his personal vehicle on the inside, westbound shoulder of Interstate 10, directly across from the original incident. Mathew alighted from his dark grey truck and walked across the grassy median toward the original incident wearing normal street clothing and a baseball cap.

As the driver of an eastbound tractor-trailer approached the scene, he moved to the inside lane, Lane 2, and slowed to 48-50 mph. As he passed the incident scene, the truck driver checked his right mirror to see if he had cleared the scene and when he looked back to the front he saw Mathew step out into the eastbound lane of traffic. The driver of the tractor trailer was unable to stop and struck Mathew with the right front part of the truck-tractor just to the left of the center divider line. The driver came to a controlled stop on the shoulder 598 feet past the point of impact. There were no skid marks left during the stop.

Mathew was thrown by the impact to the grassy median about 170 feet east of the point of impact. Responders on the scene checked Mathew, but realized he had sustained catastrophic injuries and was obviously deceased.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report is available online on this LODD incident. One of the NIOSH recommendations from this incident is that fire departments should consider limiting or restricting the response of their members in privately owned vehicles (POVs) to incidents on high-volume, limited-access highways.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard NFPA 1500, Chapter 6.2.3, states that "the fire department shall enact specific rules and regulations pertaining to the use of private vehicles for emergency response." NFPA 1500, Chapter, states that "these rules and regulations shall be at least equal to the provisions regulating the operation of fire department vehicles." (LODD information courtesy of the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office, LODD Investigation 03-262-03. Further information is available here.

Minor, Intermediate or Major

The most recent revision to the DOT's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) includes a new section, 6i, specifically written for emergency traffic control at a variety of highway incidents:

  • Minor - One-minute to 30-minute duration
  • Intermediate - 31 minutes to two hours
  • Major - Exceeds two hours in duration

For all incidents lasting 30 minutes or less (flat tire, disabled vehicle, out-of-gas situation, medical emergency inside a parked vehicle, etc.) emergency responders only have to complete the following:

  • Apparatus safe parking protocols to block
  • Deploy advance warning sign per NFPA
  • Deploy cones or flares if necessary
  • Report estimated duration of incident within 15 minutes on being on scene
  • Totally clear scene in 30 minutes or less

If the emergency responders' presence on a street, road, highway or expressway will exceed 30 minutes:

  • Notify local highway department because its response and setup time can take up to two hours from time of call
  • Establish appropriate buffer and transition areas
  • Establish extended advance warning area
  • Assign a trained flagger where appropriate

The Safe Parking "Pre-Plan"

To put all the information that has been presented in this unique University of Extrication series into practice will require department adoption of a safe parking policy or guideline based upon the model standard operating procedure (SOP) available for downloading at . While that policy is being formulated for your department, highway safety equipment can be acquired, especially Class III vests for everyone who will work in or near moving traffic.

As all this is being set into motion, members can begin classroom and hands-on training and practice in safe parking concepts and skills. One interesting way to begin this training process is to identify the 10 most dangerous intersections or sections of highway that your department responds to on a regular basis.

Based on frequency of calls to that location, police reports of accident frequency, highway department statistics of high traffic volumes, past history of serious injury or entrapment, or known unique hazards of working that intersection or section of highway, drawings of your "top 10" hazard highways to the scale of toy cars can be made. Several sheets of large flipchart paper with the outline of streets, intersections, on or off ramps, etc., can form the basis of the tabletop training prop.

Using toy vehicles purchased at local retail stores, safe parking drills addressing your department's "top 10" target intersections and highway list can be accomplished at any time. Trainers place several civilian-looking toy vehicles at a location on the tabletop drawing and then assign members to act as the "drivers" of the toy emergency vehicles responding to the scene. They must place their small vehicle at the scene as they would if it were the real thing.

Ambulances, fire trucks, chief's vehicles, police units, even a heavy rescue rig can all "respond" to the scene again and again. Participants can graphically see how difficult it is to control the situation at an intersection compared to a straight stretch of highway. They can become familiar with your department's safe parking "pre-plan" for your 10 most hazardous highway locations within your district.

Tabletop safe parking training is a progressive and proactive way to address the safety of your members when they work in or near moving traffic.

Sources of further information:

  • website
  • VFIS program
  • Texas State Fire Marshal investigations

TASK: Upon study of this material, the responder will be able to explain department procedures for responding to and working at incidents on limited-access, high-volume, high-speed highways and at any of the "top 10" target intersections in the response district.

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