Q&A: Building a ‘superhighway to safety’ for firefighters operating on roadways

Chief Nathan Trauernicht details how firefighters can participate in the 2020 Safety Stand Down


Before COVID-19 and social unrest, 2020 was already off to a difficult start, with multiple first responders killed in roadway crashes.

Although the theme for the 2020 Firefighter Safety Stand Down – Building a Superhighway to Safety: Protecting Our Responders on Roadways – was selected long before these tragic events, the focus on roadway safety was suddenly on many firefighters’ minds.

FireRescue1 connected with Fire Chief Nathan J. Trauernicht, chair of this year’s Safety Stand Down, taking place June 14-20, when departments are encouraged to suspend all non-emergency activity to focus on emergency incident scene. Chief Trauernicht detailed this year’s initiative, a joint effort between the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).

In January 2020, an Alabama fire truck was severely damaged after being struck by a pickup truck while blocking off a crash scene. (Photo/Chicksaw FD Facebook)
In January 2020, an Alabama fire truck was severely damaged after being struck by a pickup truck while blocking off a crash scene. (Photo/Chicksaw FD Facebook)

FireRescue1: What was it about roadway incidents that made this topic the central focus?

Chief Trauernicht: The last several Stand Downs have focused on firefighter health – topics like annual medical physicals and cancer prevention. We enter a high-hazard environment every day by opening apparatus doors and stepping onto active roadways. While several national efforts, including the Traffic Incident Management System (TIMS), are working to improve safety of responders, there is still more work to be done. That recognition lead to the selection of the topic for 2020.

With social distancing restrictions impacting how fire and EMS providers conduct training in the era of COVID-19, how should personnel observe the Safety Stand Down this year?

Public safety personnel are working hard to adapt to training in a COVID-19 environment and this year’s topic is perfectly suited for that shift.

The IAFC and NVFC have gathered several resources that can be delivered online to support physical distancing requirements.

The hands-on training encourages crews to get outside and, with proper space, practice concepts like blocking, use of temporary traffic controls, flagger controls, establishing safe work areas, and proper use of warning lights to protect roadway operations.

Fire Chief Nathan J. Trauernicht, chair of this year’s Safety Stand Down.
Fire Chief Nathan J. Trauernicht, chair of this year’s Safety Stand Down.

Are roadway incidents one of the leading causes of LODDs that are non-health-related?

In 2003, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) announced a goal to reduce firefighter fatalities by 25% within 5 years and 50% within 10 years. It also committed to doing research that would support that goal.

The consistently high annual percentage of fatalities related to fire department response and roadway scene operations prompted the USFA to look at several aspects related to these collisions in an effort to improve responder safety.

From 1996 to 2010, vehicle collisions claimed 253 firefighter lives, and another 70 firefighters were lost as a result of being struck by a vehicle. Between 1996 and 2010, vehicle collisions/struck-by incidents accounted for 22% of all fatalities.

When looking at a summary of firefighter injuries occurring during response to and return from incidents, between 1995 and 2010, the most statistically interesting finding in these numbers is the fact that while vehicle-related deaths account for a fairly significant percentage (second-leading cause overall) of firefighter deaths, they actually account for only a small percentage of overall firefighter injuries.

These numbers tend to mirror the fire service’s experience with cardiac-related injuries and deaths. Heart attacks and strokes are the leading killers of firefighters. On average, these events are responsible for 40–50% of firefighter deaths annually. However, cardiac events account for less than 2% of all firefighter injuries.

What this tells us about both cardiac and vehicle-related events is that while they tend to be lower in frequency in the grand scheme of overall firefighter casualties, when they do occur, they are serious events.

What practices can departments implement immediately to help improve roadway safety?

There are several:

  1. All responder agencies should ensure that responders are trained annually on the hazards of roadway incident operations and the strategies and tactics that protect personnel operating at incident scenes. At a minimum, all responders should complete the basic training outlined in the National Traffic Incident Management & Responder Safety program available for free in each state and online from the Federal Highway Administration and the Responder Safety Learning Network.
  2. Fire departments should strive to comply with "Chapter 9 – Traffic Incident Management" of NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program. All personnel who are responsible for establishing and maintaining temporary traffic controls at incident scenes should strive to comply with the provisions of NFPA 1091: Standard for Traffic Incident Management Personnel Professional Qualifications.
  3. All responder agencies should communicate, collaborate and cooperate with other responding agencies in their region. Joint training for multi-discipline personnel is encouraged on at least an annual basis and preferably more frequently. All agencies should participate in regular Traffic Incident Management Committee meetings on a local or regional basis.
  4. All responder agencies should strive to provide the most effective temporary traffic controls and advance warning in the earliest stages of all incidents using available emergency vehicles, emergency warning lights, and temporary traffic control devices as outlined in training and local procedures.
  5. All responder agencies should provide their personnel with appropriate PPE, including uniforms, high visibility apparel, footwear and head protection suitable for the task at hand. Departments should require personnel to wear high-visibility garments whenever they are exposed to moving traffic.
  6. All agencies should educate motorists about "Move Over" laws, which are now in place in all states, and the proper way for drivers to react to emergency vehicles either traveling to or working at emergency scenes. Free public education materials are available from the Emergency Response Safety Institute.
  7. All agencies and states should record, report and track struck-by-vehicle incidents involving emergency responders on a quarterly or more frequent basis.

What do you see as some of the biggest obstacles for departments trying to manage roadways safety risks?

The largest obstacles that I see are rooted in how we prioritize risk mitigation efforts related to operating in roadways. It is not as “flashy” as addressing many of the other occupational risks that we face. The cultural and operational engraining of practices in roadway safety is needed to keep each other protected in our day-to-day operations – done so in a manner that they become second nature.

The other obstacle I see is the evolution of distractive technology that often outpaces our ability to find solutions to prevent that tech from unnecessarily putting us in harm’s way.

What is the chief’s role in roadway safety?

The chief’s role in roadway safety is to develop the policies and protocols, form the partnerships, provide the training, and set the expectation for how our teams will operate safely on the road.

It also starts with modeling the behaviors we want to see. Are the chief’s vehicles part of thoughtful blocking and setting up a safe traffic incident management area or are they just parked randomly? Are the emergency warning lights on the chief vehicles helping to alert and direct traffic away from responders? Are all chiefs wearing a hi-vis vest whenever operating on a roadway? These are just some of the questions to ask yourself to know if, as a chief, you are fulfilling your role.

What drives you to feel passionate about this issue? Have you ever had a close call on a roadway?

I, like so many in our industry, have dedicated a lifetime to supporting the profession and working to make sure that everyone goes home. My personal passion for this issue is part of a greater passion to take care of firefighters. Our work is inherently dangerous, so anything we can do to reduce risk, while still providing exceptional service, is incumbent up on us to enact and champion.

We all have had close calls on roadways of varying significance. We all remember times when we had to quickly jump out of the way, pulled a coworker out of the way of an oncoming vehicle, or heard the sound of brake screeching as a driver tries to avert us. It is a risk that has touched each and every one of us.

Are there any specific resources from the IAFC or NVFC that you’d like to share related to roadway safety?

We have partnered with the Emergency Responder Safety Institute to provide a number of resources that can be accessed by visiting the Safety Stand Down 2020 resource page.

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Here are some highlights of what you can do to recognize and participate in this year’s Stand Down:

All Week: Take the National TIM Training Certificate Challenge

  • Challenge your personnel to complete the National TIM Training Certificate from the Responder Safety Learning Network. Set a participation goal and reward if the goal is met. Personnel can prove they completed the certificate by printing and showing the National TIM Training Certificate to their supervisor or commanding officer.

During Your Weekly Training Session, Drill Night, or Down Time on Shift

There are many different ways to use the topic plans described below:

  • Training Session Focus: Select one or more topics described on the website as your department's training focus for the Stand Down week's training session or drill night.
  • Full Week of Activities: Do a "weekly plan" where you select one online activity from one topic on each day for the entire week from 6/14 (Topic Plan 1) through to 6/20 (Topic Plan 7). Pick the activity in each topic that most closely fits your role in the department.
  • One Topic: Commit to completing one online activity in one topic some time during the week. Select a topic and activity most relevant to your role in the department.
  • By Opportunity: Read the topics and activities available on the website and select some according to opportunities in your department. For example, during a shift change or at a group meal, play one of the suggested Roadway Safety Shorts. If you have an officers' meeting, go over SOPs or play a TIM in a Minute from the Roadway Safety Teaching Topic Packages on a procedure of particular interest in your department.

Get more ideas and learn how to participate at the Safety Stand Down 2020 resource page.

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