Firefighter roadside safety: An expert’s advice

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Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

In 1998, Jack Sullivan was a volunteer on a Pennsylvania fire department when 10 members were hit by a semi while working a roadside incident. That incident was key in forming who he'd become.

Today, Sullivan is a leading expert on roadside safety. His long string of credentials include director of training for the Emergency Responder Safety Institute, technical member of the National Committee of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, a master instructor for the Federal Highway Administration's Traffic Incident Management Training Program, a principal member of the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Traffic Control Incident Management Professional Qualifications, and a managing partner with the consulting firm Loss Control Innovations.

Oh, and he was both a career and volunteer firefighter for 25 years, serving on three departments; he held the deputy chief rank.

So when Chief Sullivan talks about responder safety on roadside incidents, people listen. And that's exactly the subject he'll be tackling in August during his session What Fire Chiefs Need to Know about Highway Incident Safety at the International Association of Fire Chief's FRI conference.

He'll be presenting with Northville Township (Mich.) Fire Chief Richard Marinucci. Early registration deadline for FRI ends July 15.

Training teaser
The problem, Chief Sullivan says, is the presentation only lasts 90 minutes and the issue is complex. The best he hopes to do is inspire attendees to take real action within their departments.

"I'll be like the hawker outside a circus tent," he said.

Part of what Chief Sullivan is hawking is awareness of the problem. Roadside safety is not one of the fire service's sexy, most-talked about topics, he says. Yet, every time firefighters respond, they have a chance of being struck by a vehicle.

During his FRI presentation, he will be stressing the importance of training, cooperation with those in other municipal departments and that even the best practices are not foolproof.

From a training standpoint, Chief Sullivan envisions a world occupied by an army of trained roadside safety trainers. And that vision is well under way.

He is working on just such a train-the-trainer program. His goal is a modest 100,000 trained trainers; and they are half way there already.

Working together
During the session, Chief Sullivan will also be stressing the importance of having constant communication with other branches of government, such as police and public works. Roadside safety plans need to be developed together, so that everyone is on the same page when on scene.

Likewise, he says, it is important for fire chiefs to be active members of local transportation committees.

He'll also delve into some best practices taken from the road construction industry. Their use of tapering traffic and informing motorists are things first responders can and should incorporate into scene safety.

It is not enough to simply place a rig as a block. Too many rigs are being hit, and that can be reduced with things like trailers with directional arrows telling motorists exactly what to do, he says.

He'll touch on the proper PPE to wear on scene and look at fire truck visibility — with special attention to why increasingly brighter emergency warning lights are not improving firefighter safety.

In the end, he's hoping attending fire officers come away with useful roadside safety tips, and more importantly, a commitment to become further educated on this less-than-sexy safety topic.

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