Safety Stand Down Preps FFs on Hazards of Roadside Calls

June 17, 2020
The safety week's organizers want to equip first responders with the tools and techniques to safely navigate open road emergency scenes, which can be even more treacherous than a four-alarm fire.

You don't have to look hard to find examples of firefighters and EMS workers caught in a horrific accident while working the scene of a previous crash.

  • Feb. 8 : A pickup truck strikes a Houston fire apparatus being used as a blocker while firefighters work at a previous accident scene.
  • Feb. 12: An El Paso, TX, firefighter is seriously injured after he is involved in a hit-and-run crash at another highway scene.
  • March 9: Four Marion, AR, firefighters are injured when their apparatus is struck by a tractor-trailer while at a crash scene.

For many firefighters and emergency workers, an accident scene on an open roadway has become treacherous and can elicit more tension than a raging four-alarm fire. This year's national Firefighter Safety Stand Down week—a joint effort between the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC)—shines a spotlight on the hazards and aims to equip first responders with the tools they need to stay safe when other drivers aren't being cautious.


"For me, when you look at a fire scene, I'll take a house fire over a pasture fire or wildland fire any day because I have some control and some ability to read what's going on in that structure," said Steve Hirsch, chair of the NVFC. "It's not 100 percent safe, it's not foolproof, but it's fairly contained, and I have ways to kinda control my risk there. A wildland setting, there are way too many variables for me to have any control whatsoever.

"And let's move that to the third rail of a roadway incident. You have absolutely no control over what those other folks are doing out there. Absolutely no control. But there are things you can do to mitigate that."

In 2019, there were 49 fatal roadside scene accidents involving responders, according to Hirsch, who points to two factors that contribute to make open road emergencies so deadly. The first is driver distractions.

"They've got their cellphones. They're texting. They've got their stereo turned up way high, adjusting the various buttons they have in their vehicles. There are a lot of distractions for drivers out there and that makes it more deadly for first responders," he said.

And while distractions might be the catalyst for a roadside mishap, it's the second factor that can turn working roadside scenes into a fatal experience for firefighters.

"Obviously speed is what kills," Hirsch said. "Distraction is one thing, but speed also affects us in a big sorta way."

During the Safety Stand Down week, organizers want to remind first responders about what they can do to protect themselves at these emergency scenes. Hirsch breaks it down into four categories:

  • Visibility: Firefighters and rescue workers should always be wearing reflective safety vests at the scene of any open road emergency, day or night. They also should be vigilant about setting up advance lane markings for drivers.
  • Blocking: Apparatus should be set up properly to provide a physical barrier between firefighters and other vehicles.
  • Awareness: First responders need to be aware of their surroundings to try to limit surprises and to better react to unexpected events.
  • Speed: While vehicles traveling at high speeds can be a hazard during road emergencies, firefighters working swiftly to clear a scene is an asset.

But simply reminding first responders about these key areas isn't enough. Departments need to practice their execution, as well.

"It's not just important to talk about those things but for firefighters to get out and practice those, practice beforehand," Hirsch said.

One training tool to help first responders is a relatively new device for departments: drones. Hirsch said his volunteer department in Kansas has deployed a drone during roadside training drills as a way to give firefighters a bird's-eye view of all the moving parts at an open road emergency scene.

The Safety Stand Down's website also provides valuable resources for first responders. And while departments are urged to use this Safety Stand Down week to focus on roadside safety, Hirsch emphasizes that firefighters need to remember and reinforce those lessons throughout the year.

"Year in, year out, people are still going to be driving on the roadway," he said. "Traffic might've went down in the last months, but there are still going to be people at risk."

And that's true even during a COVID-19 pandemic which has reduced traffic on our highways. While the number of roadside incidents involving first responders hasn't been moving at the same rate as last year, fewer drivers on the road hasn't necessarily meant fewer dangerous drivers, according to Hirsch.

"In my real-life job as a prosecutor, I've seen way more tickets of people going over 100 mph (during the pandemic) than I have seen in the past," he said.

Although the Safety Stand Down week is centered around firefighters and emergency workers, Hirsch said the public could use the same reminders about roadside safety. In fact, more could be done to let drivers know to be more careful when they come to emergency scenes on the highway, he added.

"We're probably not doing as good a job of getting the word out to the public," Hirsch said. "We've got the 'move over' laws. That helps. We probably need to do a better job of educating the public to be a little more aware and perhaps not be so distracted. But that may be easier said than done.

"And when it comes right down to it, if we aren't able to teach the motoring public to be a little more responsible, then it's our responsibility to make sure our people are safe and that they go home when they get done with the incident."

About the Author

Joe Vince | Assistant Editor – News

Joining Endeavor Business Media in 2018, Joe was the new editor for and now serves as the assistant editor of Before starting at Endeavor, Joe had worked for a variety of print and online news outlets, including the Indianapolis Star, the South Bend Tribune, Reddit and

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