Winter Traffic Incident Management

By Carl J. Haddon

I never cease to be shocked and appalled at the number of line-of-duty deaths and career-ending, life-altering injuries that occur as a result of first responders (and towing personnel) being struck by vehicles while working at accident scenes.

These horrifying work-related tragedies are happening as we speak on roads, highways, freeways, and streets all across America. Although the odds of being struck are much greater on a frequently traveled, high-speed roadway such as an interstate or a freeway, country roads and two-lane highways are certainly NOT immune from these types of incidents.

Doing Everything We Can

As we say so often in the fire service, “Prevention is key.” There is only so much that we can do to prevent a “D driver” (drunk, distracted, disabled, or dumb) from wiping us out on the scene of a wreck. However, are we really doing all we can to remain safe while working on the roadways of our respective response areas? Even more to the point is the question: Are we adjusting our traffic incident management protocols to account for wet, snowy, icy, and foggy winter road conditions?

1 Winter weather conditions offer us some challenges that bear taking a look at to make sure that we adjust our operations accordingly to compensate for the added dangers that accompany them. (Photos by author.)
1 Winter weather conditions offer us some challenges that bear taking a look at to make sure that we adjust our operations accordingly to compensate for the added dangers that accompany them. (Photos by author.)

I assume that everyone reading this article adequately and properly positions fire, law enforcement, towing, and even emergency medical services (EMS) vehicles or ambulances as “blockers” between the scene of the incident and the oncoming traffic. Surely the days of chief officers and fire commissioners not wanting to expose fire apparatus to traffic as blockers are long gone. Although it may not be easy, we can always replace trucks, engines, law enforcement vehicles, and chief’s cars. We can never replace YOU or anyone on your crew.

Winter weather conditions offer us some challenges that bear taking a look at (again and again) to make sure that we adjust our operations accordingly to compensate for the added dangers that accompany them. Because not everyone in the country has freeways, and not everyone has country roads, let’s use an interstate highway as our test subject.

Traffic Incident Management

I was one of the original group of instructors who took the federal traffic incident management (TIM) train-the-trainer class in Emmitsburg, Maryland. I share that with you mostly because it dawned on me that after all of the TIM classes I’ve done, there is no actual provision in the class for adjusting operations for winter or inclement weather. I am guilty of “doing it the way we always do it because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Do you adjust things such as the positioning of your apparatus as blockers to compensate for wet, icy, and snowy roads? Are your traffic control folks aware of the need for changes in their practices in these types of conditions? I personally believe that those who have the most dangerous jobs at a winter accident scene are traffic control personnel-the well-meaning folks (often fire police, volunteers, or bystanders) who risk their lives with safety vests and “stop/slow” signs-and towing personnel.

It seems obvious that a traffic control person has an understanding that motorists approaching an accident on dry pavement and with good driving conditions stand a better chance at controlling their vehicles to avoid becoming part of an existing problem. It also seems obvious that the opposite would be evident in the case of slick or icy roadways. But, you’d be surprised. Remember, we do it the way we’ve always done it.

I believe that in most cases, towing personnel get the absolute shortest end of the stick. Typically, as emergency personnel and equipment are being released from the scene, the towing personnel are just getting started. How many times have we seen a single law enforcement vehicle acting as a blocker (to the extent that it can) while the tow guys work mere inches from flowing traffic? Even worse are traffic situations in my area (rural Rocky Mountains) where the tow service isn’t even dispatched until everything else on the scene is handled. Most everyone is gone and has left the scene before the wrecker even arrives. Worse yet is when we’re dispatched to a wreck that has no injuries or entrapment. We may be canceled and turned around for an hour before a wrecker arrives.

During winter and bad weather traffic accident responses, the danger zone for EVERYONE is expanded dramatically. We’ve all seen the nightmare videos of vehicles sliding and smashing into other vehicles and those same vehicles whacking responders as they bounce around the highway like hockey pucks. As the danger zone needs to expand, so does the size of the safe zones.

Modifying Operations

It would be ignorant of me to try to tell you how best to modify your operations to meet the winter safety needs of personnel in your area. I can tell you that here the difference between fair weather traffic operations and winter operations is like night and day. We have more than 50 miles of Interstate 93 that run through the fire district before it crosses into Montana. More than 40 miles of that stretch parallel the Salmon River on one side of the highway, and the steep Beaverhead Mountains go vertical just off the fog line on the other side.

If victims of a wreck are lucky enough to stay out of the river, then they’ve likely either gone into the mountainside, gone head on with another vehicle, or unceremoniously become acquainted with some of our big game animals that like to lick the road salt off of the highway on winter evenings and mornings. As I paint that picture for you, you can see that traffic control personnel are virtual sitting ducks as they too have the river on one side and the mountain on the other as they try to escape from the “D drivers.”

2 There are more than 50 miles of Interstate 93 that run through my fire district before it crosses into Montana. More than 40 miles of that stretch parallel the Salmon River on one side of the highway, and the steep Beaverhead Mountains go vertical just off the fog line on the other side.
2 There are more than 50 miles of Interstate 93 that run through my fire district before it crosses into Montana. More than 40 miles of that stretch parallel the Salmon River on one side of the highway, and the steep Beaverhead Mountains go vertical just off the fog line on the other side.

Also look out for your emergency medical and ambulance personnel. Big box ambulance profiles often put the rear loading doors and the side crew doors dangerously close to flowing traffic that hasn’t been shut down completely. EMS personnel are not immune to tunnel vision, especially as they focus on saving critically injured patients. The rest of us need to look out for them as they go about moving the patients once they are extricated. Don’t be afraid to shut the roadway down completely.

There is another issue that can’t be avoided but is extremely dangerous. Not all of our needed supplies and equipment are going to be found in the compartments on the “protected” side of the blocking apparatus. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER turn your back to oncoming traffic without a dedicated safety person who “has your back.” Even then, it is best to get an additional blocker (if available) to cover your rig if you need access to both sides of the truck. Don’t get complacent just because “more than enough lanes of traffic” have been coned off for you to work in. “D drivers” see cones as a challenge.

I end this column with a few questions for you. Do you have the necessary training and equipment onboard your apparatus to help keep your crews safe at an accident scene? The obvious equipment includes things like safety DOT-approved vests and the required minimum number of traffic cones. Really though, can we do better than that? How many cones can we realistically carry on a rig already cramped for space? And, how many more cones or other traffic warning devices do we need to consider to make a snowy and icy stretch of highway, roadway, or freeway safe to operate on? If you haven’t had one yet, TIM training classes are typically free and readily available and could help keep you or your crew members from becoming statistics. Keep your head on a swivel.

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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