10 Tips for Firefighter Safety at Highway Incidents

Aug. 29, 2016
Jack Sullivan shares ideas to increase responder safety at roadway incidents, including size-up, managing personnel and TTC.

Fire departments need to train and prepare their firefighters and EMT/paramedics for emergency responses to incidents on highways (high-speed, limited access roads) and other roadways in their response area. Vehicle crashes, vehicle fires, medical emergencies, brush fires, hazardous material spills/leaks and natural disasters are all examples of emergency calls that put firefighters at risk of being struck by vehicles while operating near moving traffic. Long before you are dispatched to one of these incidents, the department should be preparing for roadway incident responses.

Fire departments should have a policy, procedure or guideline document in place that provides personnel with goals and objectives, and strategies and tactics for highway incidents. That document should be the basis of highway incident safety training for all personnel in the department. That training should happen during recruit school and/or department indoctrination training before new firefighters ever respond to a highway incident. In-service training should follow at least annually to review highway incident response procedures and discuss recent incidents.

Fire department leadership should be involved with regional Traffic Incident Management (TIM) committees that involve all agencies that work highway incidents in your area including law enforcement, mutual aid fire, rescue and emergency medical services, transportation, 911 call-takers and dispatchers, and towing and recovery operators. The TIM committees should be working on highway incident pre-plans as well as multi-agency training and practice exercises for highway incidents so all agencies have a coordinated response and interagency communications are clear and smooth.

Highway incident response

Here are 10 practical tips for responding to highway incidents: 

  1. Dispatch the appropriate apparatus—Make sure your response protocols establish ahead of time what fire apparatus will respond to highway incidents. Many fire departments send units to address the emergency as well as an extra unit to act as a safety block and/or advance warning. Some jurisdictions send units in both directions on divided highways where the actual location of the incident has not been confirmed.
  2. On-scene positioning (blocking, safe positioning)—Personnel should be trained on appropriate positioning of fire apparatus at incident scenes. Apparatus should be parked on an angle for incidents involving multiple lanes (the shoulder counts as a lane!) and the driver/operator and company officer should collaborate to decide exactly where the first unit will park and at what angle—block right or block left. Remember to protect the pump operator at fire scenes. The first-in unit should provide instructions for other incoming units on where and how to position so the scene is managed from the very beginning.
  3. On-scene size-up report—The officer on the first-in unit should give a size-up report that confirms the type of incident, the actual location, any obvious hazards (i.e. wires down, hazardous materials, adverse weather conditions like fog or icy road surface, etc.) and indicate which lanes are effected by the incident or by the initial scene block. If the conditions observed on arrival indicate the need for additional agencies or resources to respond (law enforcement, safety service patrols, EMS or rescue units etc.) request or confirm their response. Dispatchers should relay appropriate information to regional traffic operation centers and other responding agencies.
  4. Scene safety—Be sure emergency lights are set up for scene safety. Turn off forward-facing white lights if not needed for operations (i.e. headlights and/or flashing white warning lights). In newer apparatus, this might happen automatically when the unit is put in park, but in older apparatus, the operator will have to manually control the emergency lights. Activate any traffic directional arrows on the apparatus. Be sure flood lights are set up to illuminate the work area while not creating glare hazards for other motorists in the area.
  5. Temporary traffic controls (TTC)—Follow your agency protocols for deploying flares and/or traffic cones upstream of the unit. Relay commands to other responding units about deploying advance-warning signs or have dispatch relay to law enforcement, safety service patrols or transportation units responding on what temporary traffic controls will be needed. Be specific about which lanes are blocked or if all lanes are blocked and detours will be needed. Update all units and dispatch periodically throughout the incident on changing traffic conditions due to additional lanes being blocked or some lanes being opened up after operations are complete.
  6. Firefighter safety—Make sure personnel are wearing appropriate PPE for the conditions on arrival—NFPA-compliant bunker gear for fire incidents or high-visibility gear if they are not potentially exposed to fire, heat, flame or hazardous materials. Remind personnel to dismount the apparatus on the side away from moving traffic if possible. Personnel should be wearing helmets to be more visible on scene. If staffing permits, a safety officer should be designated to monitor scene safety measures and coordinate with other agencies on temporary traffic controls and proper positioning of other arriving units.
  7. Establish ICs and/or unified command—Use agency protocols for incident command or unified command if multiple agencies and/or jurisdictions will be involved. Be sure that all agencies on scene are working with the same Incident Action Plan (IAP). The command post should be clearly indicated and the incident commander should be readily identifiable.
  8. Monitor and adjust TTC—The incident commander will be responsible for temporary traffic controls if that duty has not been delegated to another agency or safety officer. As the incident develops, there may be a need to adjust initial TTC arrangements. Of special concern will be motorists at the back of the queue or backlog who may be unprotected. Motorists on highways are not expecting to encounter stopped traffic unless advance warning has been established to advise motorists of an incident and traffic delays ahead. Motorists at the back of the queue are in danger of being struck by oncoming vehicles that cannot stop in time to avoid a secondary crash. Queue protection should be established to warn approaching traffic of the backlog ahead. Most often that responsibility is assigned to law enforcement and/or transportation agencies, but the incident commander must make sure that steps are taken to protect the back end of the queue. Other TTC measures might have to be adjusted during the duration of the incident and that responsibility should be specifically assigned to the most appropriate resource on scene. Examples include medical helicopters responding to the incident and any landing zones established or weather conditions changing during the incident that might require additional scene lighting, advance warning or traffic control devices.
  9. Manage non-involved personnel—Almost every incident will involve some personnel who are not emergency responders, but who want to help or be involved in some way. News media personnel might arrive on scene of longer duration incidents. Nowadays, we also have to deal with the “new media” which is virtually anyone with a smartphone, camera or drone. Family members who learn about an incident through official means or social media posts might arrive on scene (i.e. school bus incident with students on board). Other motorists in the area who are stopped in traffic might wander into the work area if not managed appropriately. Again, the duty of managing non-involved personnel should be delegated as appropriate given on-scene resources or it is responsibility of the incident commander. Assign personnel to direct non-involved personnel to a safe area and restrict their movement around the incident scene. Public information officers (PIO) if available can be assigned to interact with any news media personnel. Law enforcement should be involved with anyone who fails to cooperate with directions from emergency personnel.
  10. Incident scene demobilization—The incident is under control, injured parties have been packaged and transported, damaged vehicles are being removed and units are starting to go back in service. The danger is over and scene safety measures are no longer a concern. Wrong! Demobilization time is very dangerous and must be managed appropriately to prevent secondary incidents. Any temporary traffic control devices need to be removed in an organized manner. Blocking units should remain in place to protect tow operators, law enforcement and others who might be the last to complete their assignments. Fire units need to notify the incident commander when they take up and are ready to leave. Make sure all personnel are accounted for before units leave the scene. Notify dispatch when the scene is demobilized so they can advise traffic operation centers and maybe the news media for their traffic reports.

Highway incidents are still some of the most dangerous calls fire departments handle on an almost daily basis. “D” drivers (Drunk, drowsy, distracted, drugged and just plain dangerous) are a major hazard at roadway incidents. The steps you take upon arrival at a highway incident set the tone for the duration of the incident and literally can make the difference between life and death for firefighters, other responders and the motorists in the area of the incident. The incident commander leads the response and has the ultimate responsibility for the way the scene is managed. There is a lot to consider and we should not underestimate the dangers presented at highway incidents.

JACK SULLIVAN is the Director of Training for the Emergency Responder Safety Institute, a committee of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association. Sullivan retired from active service after 25 years as a firefighter, company officer and safety officer. He is also a Certified Safety Professional with 35 years of safety consulting and training experience. He works with several national committees on the subject of highway incident safety and teaches classes and workshops nationwide for emergency services personnel. Sullivan is also a master instructor for the Federal Highway Administration SHRP 2 Traffic Incident Management Train-the-Trainer program.

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