By Robert Avsec
By now, most of us are familiar — or should be — with using our emergency vehicles as a shield against oncoming traffic to protect first responders and civilians while operating on a roadway. In addition, we use emergency warning lights and other items such as road flares and traffic cones to capture the attention of oncoming drivers.
Despite these efforts, we still see far too many stories such as this one that came out of Prince George’s County, Md.
“For the second time within a month, a piece of fire apparatus was struck by a motorist while operating on the scene of a motor vehicle crash on a high speed, limited-access highway,” said fire department chief spokesman Mark Brady.
Scope of the problem
This is not a new phenomenon. In March 2012, the U.S. Fire Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency published the revised document Traffic Incident Management System; it was first published in August 2004 and later revised in April 2008.
In it the authors stated that from 1996 to 2010, 70 firefighters were lost as a result of being struck by a vehicle while engaged in emergency operations. These are what are known as secondary incidents — the primary incident being the event that brought first responders to the scene in the first place.
A Department of Transportation report indicates that approximately 18 percent of all traffic fatalities nationwide occur as a result of secondary incidents. This secondary collision is often more serious than the first, especially if it occurs between free-flowing and stopped traffic.
To reduce and prevent the frequency of firefighters being struck while operating at emergency roadway incidents, it’s important to understand some of the common causes that lead to these secondary incidents.
- Reduced vision and driving conditions from heavy rain, ice, snow, fog, curves and summits.
- Lack of situational awareness. Firefighters fail to recognize the dangers associated with emergency roadway incidents because of insufficient training and lack of experience.
- Failure to use high-visibility apparel. Too many firefighters continue choosing to rely on their structural firefighting ensemble for visibility while working at secondary incidents on roadways. The reflective striping is minimal protection compared to that provided by safety vests that conform to DOT standards.
- Improper apparatus positioning
- Failure to establish a temporary traffic control (TTC) zone. Many fire departments don’t have sufficient training, equipment or SOPs for correctly setting up a properly marked TTC zone or, if they have them, fail to follow them.
The big picture
The safety of first responders when working at the primary incident is one of several significant issues that arise from the motor vehicle crash, and each issue has its own proponent, for example:
- Fire: Hazard control.
- EMS: Patient care and transportation of the injured.
- Law enforcement: Crash investigation and traffic management, first to protect first responders and then to get traffic flow back to normal.
But we’re all on the same team, right? Not all the time, unfortunately, because too frequently we hear of incidents where fire officers are taken into custody by police on the crash scene because of conflicting priorities. Why?
Law enforcement personnel are very cognizant of the likelihood and severity of secondary collisions. This often translates into one of the causes of friction that sometimes occurs between police and other emergency responders at the scene of roadway incidents.
The police are under pressure to keeping traffic flowing and clear the scene as soon as possible, as this helps to minimize traffic delays and reduce the possibility of a secondary collision. In their view, the more apparatus and people brought to an incident, the more time it will take to eventually clear the scene, putting more sources of contact for secondary collisions on the roadway.
The needs of both agencies must be balanced. This needs to be done in pre-incident planning and interagency cooperation. Trying to iron these issues out while standing in the roadway at an incident is rarely successful.
Arriving on scene
The scene safety officer has two possible first tactical priorities to initiate when arriving on scene. The officer must communication with on-scene law enforcement to establish a temporary traffic control zone or deploy resources to establish that zone and coordinate that effort with the first-arriving law enforcement officer.
To establish a safe, effective and efficient zone, block with first-arriving apparatus parked at an angle to protect the scene, patients and emergency personnel. Angle parking will help deflect a vehicle that strikes the apparatus away from first responders.
Block at least one additional lane and block so the pump panel is down stream. Also, block the most critical or highest traffic volume direction first and consider asking for additional law enforcement assistance.
Ensure that all personnel wear proper PPE, this includes a DOT-approved Class III vest and helmet. When full PPE is required, like during extrication operations, DOT-approved Class III vest must be worn over PPE.
Establish more-than adequate advance warning by deploying a minimum of five traffic cones at 15-foot intervals; expand the safe work zone as necessary.
Direct the ambulances to park within shadow of larger apparatus and in a position that makes leaving the scene easy. Position the ambulance so the patient loading area faces away from the closest lane of moving traffic. And make sure that all patient loading is done within a protected work zone.
At night or in reduced-light conditions, turn off vehicle headlights and Opticom or other traffic-management systems. Apparatus headlights can blind oncoming drivers. Provide overall scene lighting and illuminate cones with flares.
Place cones or cones illuminated by flares upstream of the blocking apparatus with the last cone approximately 150 feet upstream of the apparatus. Establish flagger position equipped with portable radio to monitor approaching traffic and sound emergency signals when necessary. It is also important to establish a staging area remote from TTC for additional apparatus and vehicles.
For all incidents, ensure proper transfer of command to law enforcement agency on scene. Pay as close attention to picking up as you do when deploying at the scene initially. Deploy two-person teams to pick up traffic cones and warning devices; one person acts as lookout and the other picks up equipment.
Firefighters can be sitting ducks on roadside incidents — the statistics and anecdotes bear that out. But they don’t have to be. Positioning the apparatus to protect firefighters and ensuring firefighters are aware and equipped with PPE will reduce the chances of secondary incidents.
About the author
Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his “management sciences mechanic” credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va. Contact Robert at Robert.Avsec@FireRescue1.com.