Rurally Speaking: “Like a Moth to a Flame”

By Carl J. Haddon

With New Year’s Eve literally right around the corner, many of us will find ourselves out on the highways, byways, and freeways of our respective response areas. Many, if not most, of our vehicle accident calls will come after dark and on winter weathered roads.

This article found its way to my brain last weekend during a nighttime drive home from a hockey tournament in Montana. I literally came very close to falling victim to what I write about today. I was the proverbial “moth to the flame.” I’d been driving along miles and miles of two-lane country highway with no street lights. My eyes had become accustomed to the darkness, and although it was snowing lightly, the headlights of my truck seemed to do the trick for the speed I was travelling. As I rounded a corner on that mountain road, my world lit up like the Fourth of July. Law enforcement, fire department apparatus, and ambulance vehicles were all lit up some 300 yards ahead of me as they attended to a vehicle rollover. My eyes were instantly overwhelmed by the LED strobe lightbars, grill lights, wig wags, and other high-intensity lights being displayed by the aforementioned vehicles. The light and colors from these vehicles was also refracted and reflected by the falling snow, adding to the cacophony in my brain.

I instantly slowed my truck as I approached the scene. However, I admittedly lost more depth perception the closer I got to all of those lights and actually felt like I was being drawn toward all of those lights, regardless of the speed I was travelling. Am I simply getting old, or does the latest emergency lighting technology produce some of the same unintended consequences for unimpaired drivers—like me—as it does for those who may be “over-beveraged?” Laugh if you will, but I have been in the fire service long enough to remember when the Los Angeles (CA) Police Department vehicles still had one “Bubblegum Machine” and two steady-burning incandescent lights on top of their police cars. From those days to the days of rotator light bars to halogen strobe light bars, I never recall experiencing the disorientation that came from all of those LED strobes. Make no mistake, there is nothing better than a brightly lit emergency vehicle that you can see and hear while en route to a call day or night. Nothing seems to accomplish that task as nicely as today’s new LED products.

National Highway Transportation Safety Administration statistics show that the answer to the question of unintended dangers associated with encountering LED lightbars and flashers is a resounding “yes.”. Rather than getting mired in all of the technical and medical data surrounding this issue, the bottom line question for me is, what can we do to minimize the unwanted effects of these lights on drivers in order to secure the highest level of safety for the responders, the patients, and the uninvolved motorists?

The prescribed answer is really quite simple: the lead blocking vehicles on either end of the accident site to display warning lights—front-, side-, or rear-facing—toward oncoming traffic at both ends of the accident site. All other parked or staged vehicles not being used as blockers can shut down unnecessary flashing/strobe warning lights. Please don’t confuse this issue with scene lighting. Scene lighting is an entirely different matter all together, with the only commonality being our wanting to be mindful of the effect of scene lighting on oncoming traffic to the best of our ability.

It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago when we couldn’t seem to get enough visible emergency lighting on our fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. Now we have relatively affordable high-intensity LED emergency lighting products available in every configuration imaginable. Let’s not forget about the incredible benefit of how little amperage the LED lightbars and side/rear warning lights use. Seemingly gone are the days where the old rotator lightbars could overwhelm the vehicle alternator and battery at an idle without an idle booster. For those of us with “older” (tongue in cheek) fire apparatus in the barn, updating to LED emergency lighting might be something to look at. Considering the savings of replacing batteries and the cost of rebuilding alternators, the new LED products could effectively pay for themselves in no time at all.

Whether your department’s vehicles use the latest in LED emergency lighting technology or any of the other types of lighted warning systems, it is imperative to remember scene and crew safety while working at any traffic-related incident. Being mindful not to cause the “moth-to-the-flame” phenomenon is only one consideration toward avoiding secondary accidents involving emergency response personnel and their vehicles. Situational awareness, situational awareness, situational awareness. We lose far too many of our own at these types of scenes each year. As I close this article and 2014, I thank you for your readership, I pray for your safety, and I wish you all a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2015.

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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