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Traffic Incident Management: Handling These Everyday Occurrences Safely and Efficiently

The fire service has always used some type of system to manage fire and other emergencies. Although rudimentary and vastly different throughout the country, some variety of process has been used in most fire departments. A more formal system was introduced in the 1970s with the Incident Command System and enriched in 2004 with the evolution of the National Incident Management System. These new command and control practices are now widely used during emergency incidents involving fires, natural disasters and mass causality situations, to name just a few.

What about the everyday occurrence of emergency roadway incidents, whether fire related or not? Do we use the same type of framework and practices we have utilized at fires? If not, we must modify our approach for the safety of the first responders, roadway workers and the public.

Traffic incident management (TIM) consists of a planned and coordinated multidisciplinary process to detect, respond to and clear traffic incidents so traffic flow may be restored as safely and quickly as possible. Effective TIM reduces the duration and impacts of traffic incidents and improves the safety of motorists, crash victims and emergency responders.

In the past, the fire service responding to and operating at incidents on or around roadways never had vigorous policies regarding scene control and safety. This was usually left up to law enforcement, transportation or public works personnel.

This has changed. The Traffic Incident Management National Unified Goal (NUG) is to provide:

  • Responder safety
  • Safe and quick clearance
  • Prompt, reliable, interoperable communications

This compound goal and associated strategies were derived from the National Traffic Incident Management Coalition (NTIMC). This alliance of national organizations representing major stakeholders involved in traffic incident response provides a working venue. Their members represent the EMS, fire, law enforcement, public-safety communications, towing and recovery, and transportation communities. NTIMC promotes multidisciplinary, multijurisdictional TIM programs.

As fire and emergency service leaders, we need to be well versed with the NUG, especially the strategies that relate to first-responder safety. For example, department policies and procedures must address incidents on roadways, and they should include an overarching safety element, with incident command, apparatus placement and operations being specifically considered.

To complement the adoption of procedures, training must be conducted annually to keep responders’ knowledge and skills well honed.

Proper PPE needs to complement roadway-incident hazards. This includes not only the dangers directly associated with the emergency, but also potential threats like oncoming traffic; high-visibility traffic vests are one example of what's required in these situations. Appropriate apparatus marking, lighting and positioning, buffer zones, blocking techniques and temporary traffic controls are additional considerations that must be contained in your TIM polices.

Lastly, these incidents usually involve multiple agencies; to ensure cooperation at an emergency scene, we must collaborate with companion agencies before an incident. Chiefs need to meet with these partners and include them in crafting procedures. Let them know your priorities and limitations and find out theirs. Agencies to partner with may include law enforcement, EMS, towing, public works, construction and clean up.

Chief officers need to be cognizant of current issues that affect the safety of their firefighters. The episodes of emergency personnel and equipment being struck or involved in a near miss at roadway incidents are becoming more frequent. We need to be vigilant in confronting this problem and deal with it on a unified front.

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

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