How to minimize roadway hazards on residential or rural roads

Near-Miss Report underscores the dangers of distracted or dangerous driving on all types of roadways


By International Association of Fire Chiefs

By Andrew Beck

You are at the station watching a thunderstorm drop buckets of rain on your town when you are called to assist at a vehicle accident in an intersection.

You arrive to find a two-vehicle accident in the middle of a flooded intersection. Police units are also coming to close and direct traffic around the intersection. The drivers of both vehicles are stable, and you can quickly get them into EMS rigs for transport.

A firetruck blocks the partially flooded I-10 Highway Monday, Jan. 10, 2005, in Santa Monica, Calif. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
A firetruck blocks the partially flooded I-10 Highway Monday, Jan. 10, 2005, in Santa Monica, Calif. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

You return to your apparatus, and as you retrieve a piece of equipment from a compartment, you hear a vehicle approaching, get splashed by water, and feel a nudge to your hip. You look up to see a car hydroplane through the intersection and continue on its way without stopping.

Another member of your company quickly runs over to make sure you are OK, and you realize that the car bumped you as it slid through the intersection. You are OK, just a little shaken up. You never thought you would have been involved in a struck-by incident while in town, having previously only worried about that occurring on a divided highway at high speeds.

Near-Miss Report on roadway hazards

A Near-Miss Report that was sent to the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System told the story of an incident just like this:

“We were dispatched at the request of a police officer to respond to multiple vehicles stalled in the water. When we arrived, there were two vehicles stalled on the avenue in approximately two feet of water. One vehicle was eastbound, the other westbound and on opposite sides of the intersection. A firefighter was positioned at the west end of the scene and assigned to move traffic south into a parking lot to divert around the flooded intersection. At approximately 2000 hrs, a pickup with one occupant was eastbound on the flooded avenue. The driver was operating the vehicle in a reckless manner, driving at speeds above the posted speed limit through puddles of water that had formed on the street. I believe, due to water on the windshield, that the driver was unable to see the firefighter attempting to direct the vehicle to stop. The firefighter moved to the raised median when he realized that the vehicle was not stopping and was increasing speed. The vehicle passed the firefighter at approximately 40–45 mph (estimated) and missed him by less than 12 inches.”

Check out the rest of this Near-Miss Report: Firefighter Nearly Struck While Conducting Traffic Control.

Methods for improving roadway safety for first responders

Incidents like this serve as a reminder that we face the risk of being struck anytime we operate on a roadway, regardless of what kind. We typically focus on training and prevention for responses to higher-speed divided highways. These carry the most risk, but we can’t forget to use the same tools when responding in town or on a lightly traveled rural road. After all, if that road only sees “a couple of cars a day,” all it takes is one of those cars to hit one of us for it to be a very bad day.

When we respond, one of the easiest ways to make sure we can prevent being struck is by blocking. Using apparatus to block the lane or shoulder where we are working can provide a safe area downstream that will be protected by that apparatus. If a vehicle strays into the response area, striking the fire truck will slow or stop it, and prevent it from directly encountering responders on the scene.

Using frontline apparatus can be the quickest and easiest solution but can also present a significant problem should that truck be involved in an accident and taken out of service. Smaller agencies do not always have large reserve fleets, and having an apparatus unavailable for an extended period could present a significant issue.

Other options include dispatching other equipment out to the scene or obtaining different types of vehicle for traffic management. Could Department of Transportation (DOT) trucks with traffic crash attenuators respond to some of your incidents? Another possibility would be to purchase an apparatus that is older and would not have require maintenance of a fire pump and tank.

Blocking is essential because it will work to protect us on the scene, regardless if the oncoming drivers see our lights and making devices or not. Drivers are becoming more and more distracted as time goes on. It’s not just cell phones and texting either. Navigation systems, in-car touchscreens, vehicle status information and other systems are competing with our attention as we drive. These systems can create a situation where no matter how well we mark the scene, if the driver isn’t looking out the windshield in time, none of that matters.

Another tip to help keep responders safe: Ensure that the scene marking is far enough upstream of the accident. This can be accomplished with temporary signs to place while approaching the scene. Additional apparatus can be dispatched to the scene as well to act as marking devices if needed, or law enforcement units could locate far upstream with lights on to warn oncoming traffic. Remember, law enforcement may not have extra staff to accomplish this, and they will also likely have a job to do at the scene related to accident investigation, limiting their availability for upstream traffic-marking.

Some urban areas have a highway safety or courtesy patrol with a brightly light vehicle that could assist with this function. In a city or residential road environment, blind corners, hills or other obstacles to vision can mean that even though it’s a lower speed area, the risk can be quite high.

Roadway hazard resources

The Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System is a free, anonymous system that is part of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). The system allows firefighters to submit reports from incidents where there can be lessons learned so those lessons can be shared with other members of the fire service. Check out the program and submit your story today to help everyone learn to work safer.

A great place to go for training on all the different components of roadway safety is the Emergency Responder Safety Institute. They offer online training, and also provide handouts and videos that can be used to make sure all members of your agency are on the same page when you respond out to the street.

Taking a minute to review safety items before your next roadway incident can mean the difference between being struck and nudging your agency toward a safer day.

About the Author

Andrew Beck has been a member of the program staff for the IAFC’s Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System since 2015 as an instructor, reviewer and subject-matter expert. Beck started his fire service career in 2002 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working in wildland fire operations. He then worked in wildland fire for the U.S. Forest Service from 2003 to 2006, when he transitioned to structural fire with the Mandan City (ND) Fire Department. He is currently the training officer, managing department training programs and live-burn operations. Beck teaches thermal imaging at various regional fire schools and is a live-fire instructor for the state firefighter’s association.

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