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Near-Miss Reporting: Roadway Safety

This month’s column complements the 2012 Near-Miss Calendar’s February topic.

On a daily basis, first responders are placed in harm’s way from the hazards associated with motorists driving by traffic events. Firefighter deaths and injuries continue to be a real concern for us while we operate at roadway incidents. A few examples of past Near-Miss reports highlight this problem.

Report #05-356 should make us vigilant for secondary collisions:

Fire department personnel responded to a reported vehicle crash with entrapment on an interstate highway. The vehicle was off the roadway. The patient was moved to the ambulance via a stokes basket.

While off-loading the patient onto the ambulance cot, a semi-tractor trailer struck the rear of a passenger vehicle about 12 feet from the rear of the ambulance in the parallel travel lane to the incident. This occurred with three state police vehicles, a state highway vehicle with an arrowboard operating, an ambulance and five fire department vehicles on scene.

The responding fire department has no SOP/SOGs regarding emergency scene vehicle staging to protect responders other than "voluntary compliance" with a state law requiring vehicles to move over one lane for parked emergency apparatus. This type of incident has occurred in this jurisdiction several times without SOP/SOG/training to address the risk.

Report #09-260 reminds us that our traffic-incident management plan must be instituted during our entire operation on the roadway:

We responded single engine to a report of a motor vehicle crash on an interstate highway. We arrived to find a single vehicle into the left Jersey barrier with no injuries. This portion of the highway is a frequent site of motor-vehicle crashes due to a bend in the road. The engine provided a block of traffic in the left lane. Cones were deployed behind the apparatus and flares were used to supplement the cones due to the time of day. All responders on scene had on ANSI Class-II vests and full turnout gear.

Police vehicles and the ambulance all parked in front of the engine. The vehicle was then removed from the traffic lanes by a DOT wrecker and the engine crew began clean up of debris and fluid. Once clean up was complete, we began to make preparations to leave the scene.

A firefighter and a lieutenant walked to the far end of our traffic taper and began to remove the cones and move the flares out of the travel lane. Another fire fighter and I were at the engine observing them from a position of relative safety. The upstream firefighter had a flare in his hand and was waving it at oncoming traffic to indicate his position. The lieutenant was gathering the second cone when a vehicle approached at a high rate of speed in the left lane. The firefighter and the lieutenant both saw the approaching vehicle and began towards the barrier to (in their words) "jump over it.”

This was not a thoughtful approach as they would then be in the left lane of opposing traffic. The approaching vehicle swerved into the right lane with very little room to spare. The rest of the warning devices were collected very quickly and everyone boarded the apparatus without any further incidents.

Report #06-510 demonstrates why roadway safety policies and procedures are needed and illustrates their benefits:

Engine A was dispatched along with Engine B Fire Medic and Rescue to a motor-vehicle accident on a highway. Battalion A arrived on scene before Engine A and established command. Engine A approached from the eastbound and got on the southbound ramp to get to the scene. As we, Engine A, approached the scene, I instructed my driver to stage the apparatus in a protective manner shutting down the on-ramp to the highway and to block the slow travel lane (far right lane). Once stopped, the driver secured Engine A and proceeded to place his cones in a manner consistent with our dept SOGs.

This initial call continued without incident and all patients and other responding units soon cleared the scene. Remaining units consisted of Engine A, Hwy PD units and a tow truck. Engine A's crew remained outside Engine A to observe the wrecker operations and confirm that no fuel tanks were ruptured in the removal of the vehicle due to its position on the Jersey barrier. As this was being done, a minivan struck the driver side of Engine A where it had been staged originally.

After an immediate assessment of personnel safety and conditions, additional resources were requested and Engine A's crew went to work on helping the driver of the minivan. This patient was transported by the fire medics. Battalion A arrived along with Hwy PD's crash team and EMS. Battalion A and I remained on scene with the Hwy PD until Engine A was secured by the wrecker and towed to the maintenance facility.

These three examples reveal that first responders operating on roadways are in constant danger and need to strengthen their situational awareness through sound policies and procedures relating to traffic management. This guiding principle should be incorporated under a traffic-incident management plan.

The plan should include, at a minimum, the following components, some which were disclosed by the report submitters:

  • The use of channelizing devices, such as flares and cones
  • Flaggers
  • High-visibility personal protective equipment (American National Standards Institute/Internal Safety Equipment Association approved)
  • Establishing safe work areas and zones
  • Placement, personnel exiting and emergency-warning devices on emergency vehicles
  • Establishing and operating under an incident command system
  • Utilizing other agencies to help in traffic management (police, DOT, etc.)
  • A process to review and update the plan within a defined cycle
  • Training on the plan

The National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System website offers an excellent tool for finding examples of incidents or lessons learned; these can be shaped into an effective platform for promoting a culture of safety in your fire department. The powerful search feature is easy to use and provides a wealth of knowledge.

When designing traffic-safety training programs from the information in the Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System, two valuable supplemental resources are the National Traffic Incident Management Coalition and the Emergency Responder Safety Institute.

The Coalition is a forum where national organizations representing major stakeholders involved in traffic-incident response work together and provide safety solutions. Many technical briefs and publications are available through them.

The Institute serves as an advisory group of public-safety leaders and transportation experts committed to reducing deaths and injuries to America's emergency responders. Their website features many topics on traffic and responder safety, including National Firefighter Near-Miss reports.

Also, look for the newly released 2012 Near-Miss Calendar in the December 2011 issue of FireRescue magazine. This resource provides a wealth of information to support your training program. For additional free copies of the calendar, email your request with the quantity and mailing address.

John C. Woulfe III is the assistant director of the IAFC’s National Programs and Consulting Services.

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