Roadway Safety: How Can EMS Personnel Be Better Protected?
By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest
Since I first started in the fire service, there has been an increase in the number of accidents involving first responders on the roadways. People have suggested various causes, including increased coverage and more distracted driving.
Roadway Safety Starts with Knowing Rules and Regulations
The fire and police services are examples of the few agencies that in most cases close lanes or entire roads. They often do not need the signs, flares or other devices that change traffic patterns.
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Some people, however, will argue that the fire and police are no different from ordinary citizens. They maintain that first responders need to comply with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). This rule is often true and may even be enforced in some areas.
The Responder Safety Institute has a plethora of information on roadway safety rules and regulations. They also offer a training program that should be attended by all department personnel. Even better, the training program is web-based, and it won’t cost overtime for personnel to attend.
Regardless of compliance with the MUTCD, it only makes sense that departments try to comply with warning signage, the proper lead distance to merge and other rules of dealing with traffic accidents, since these regulations are based in the science of traffic patterns. Following current regulations would enhance both public safety and responder safety.
Public Safety versus Responder Safety
While most people in the fire department will argue there is no need to conduct a risk/benefit analysis when a decision must be made on the amount of roadway to close, there is some truth to the need for analysis. Each time the fire and EMS are on the highway, we disrupt traffic.
Unless there is a huge berm and an accident is in a field next to the highway, we often close lanes to provide a safe area for EMS personnel to work. So how much room is needed?
Some EMS responders will say it’s safest if the road is closed. However, when you are traveling at 75 mph or more on the interstate and the traffic is at a stop ahead of you, it won’t be long until another serious accident will occur ahead of the original accident.
If the first accident in this scenario involves minor injuries and the second involves a fatality, then we have not provided the best safety to the public. Company officers and command personnel must think strategically when deciding on the proper number of traffic lanes to shut. For example, they must consider the position of the accident, the location of the equipment needed on their apparatus and the tasks that will be undertaken.
Another issue is the size of the apparatus that some departments take to the interstate. Many first responders prefer to take a larger aerial apparatus, as the mass of these vehicles can absorb much more energy and provide better safety to personnel than a Chevy Tahoe.
With a larger apparatus comes the issue of needing to position it at an angle to deflect any vehicle from hitting the apparatus. To accomplish this in an aerial vehicle may require the closure of three road lanes.
Responding to Interstate Accidents
Some departments may take two apparatus to an interstate accident site, a practice which allows one to block traffic and one to provide a work area. Others may dispatch as many vehicles as a one-alarm fire if the accident involves an entrapment.
Many of these decisions will be dictated by the location of fire stations, paid staff and volunteer personnel. If the department is staffed with career personnel and no volunteer supplemental force exists, the department is often stuck with taking whatever vehicle the crew typically uses. If this is a fire engine, then the engine must respond to the accident site.
It is highly unlikely that a department could afford to purchase and equip a ladder truck to place next to a fire engine in an effort to allow the crew to take a bigger vehicle and block the roadway. In this case, dispatching multiple apparatus may be the best option.
Some departments have converted their reserve apparatus to use as a blocking vehicle, which allows an older vehicle to be hit well in advance of the work vehicle. This is a good idea; it can be equipped with signage boards to help prevent the hose deployment on regular apparatus from being impeded.
However, many departments struggle to staff regular vehicles with sufficient personnel. Using a second, older vehicle for blocking purposes requires someone to drive it to the accident scene and set it up a good distance from the accident.
If EMS staffing allows four personnel to be available for an accident, this tactic could work. But if there are only three people available, the third person must drive the blocker apparatus. That leaves only the officer and the driver, which significantly reduces EMS capability if fire suppression or rapid extrication are needed.
Which apparatus should be parked in front of an accident site? Ideally, that would be the blocker apparatus. However, this is not a reality everywhere. It may be necessary to have a command car be the farthest away from an accident scene. While a command vehicle will not provide the mass and deflection capability of an aerial apparatus, the noise of the crash can at least alert EMS personnel to move to safety.
A secondary engine could also be used as a blocking vehicle, providing that there are no plans to utilize the equipment on the vehicle. If a firefighter tries to remove items from a compartment and does not pay attention to the oncoming traffic, he or she is in the worst possible position to escape being hit.
Road Safety Decision-Making
The fire department must decide on many issues that are related to policy, logistics, budget and training. Deciding what policy or strategy the department needs to take to ensure roadway safety on the highway is the first step. Next, it is necessary to find budgetary support for the personnel, apparatus and equipment that will be needed.
Once the roadway safety policy is set and the logistics support the policy, it is time to train personnel and review the practices often. This review should be part of the annual review by a safety committee that is comprised of the many stakeholders within the organization. This way, we will continue to learn from events and ensure our practices align with the latest knowledge.