Guest blog written for Action Training Systems by Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.)

SW-DistractedDriving-Clean-1Shield Against Traffic

By now, most of us are familiar — or should be — with using our emergency vehicles as a shield against oncoming traffic to protect first responders and civilians while operating on a roadway. In addition, we use emergency warning lights and other items such as road flares and traffic cones to capture the attention of oncoming drivers.

Despite these efforts, we still see far too many stories such as this one that came out of Hanover County, Virginia:

On October 11, 2018, forty-three-year-old Lt. Brad Clark with Hanover County Fire-EMS was killed, and three other firefighters were injured after Virginia State troopers said their firetruck was rear-ended on I-295 near Pole Green Road at 9 p.m.

“The fire engine had its emergency lights activated while stopped in the far-left lane and shoulder,” Virginia State Police Public Relations Director Corinne Geller said. “A southbound tractor-trailer rear-ended the fire engine and struck four firefighters who were outside the fire engine.”

Less than two months later, this from Chesterfield County, Virginia:

“Earlier today, Chesterfield Engine 11 was on the scene of a vehicle crash on Chippenham Pkwy, northbound, when another vehicle slammed into the rear of the engine. Fortunately, no firefighters were injured; however, the driver of the other vehicle was transported to the hospital.”—Lt. Jason Elmore, PIO, Chesterfield (Va.) Fire and EMS Department.

Scope of the Problem

scene safety Action Training, firefighters at vehicle accidentIn doing my research for this article, I came across a STARTLING post from the website, TeenSafe, 100 Distracted Driving Facts & Statistics for 2018. Just in case you think that distracted driving is caused mainly by drivers paying more attention to their phone than the road, check out the post!

We’re not going to solve the distracted driver problem and we’re not going to discontinue responding to motor vehicle crashes and other emergencies on streets, roads, and highways. So, it’s incumbent upon fire and EMS organizations to develop good policies and procedures and training to develop street-smart personnel (And provide the necessary safety equipment!).

It falls equally upon all firefighters and EMS personnel to learn and follow those policies and procedures and follow the prescribed training (The motto of the Training and Safety Division I once managed is “Training teaches what Operations does and Operations does what Training teaches.”).

It’s also important to understand how our own behaviors on the emergency scene can contribute to secondary vehicle crashes. If we are to reduce and prevent the frequency of firefighters being struck while operating at emergency incidents on roadways, we must eliminate these causative factors:

  • Our own lack of situational awareness for the reduced vision and road conditions from heavy rain, ice, snow, fog, and curves and summits in the road.
  • Our failure to recognize the dangers associated with emergency roadway incidents because of insufficient training and lack of experience.
  • Our failure to use high-visibility apparel. Too many firefighters continue choosing to rely on their structural firefighting ensemble for visibility while working at secondary incidents on roadways. Firefighters are required by to wear either Type II or Type III high-visibility vests or garments that comply with ANSI/ISEA 107-2015.
  • Our failure to properly position fire and EMS.
  • Our failure to establish a temporary traffic control (TTC) zone. Many fire departments don’t have enough training, equipment or SOPs for correctly setting up a properly marked TTC zone or, if they have them, fail to follow them.

Video: Temporary Traffic Control Zone

Get Informed,  Be Educated!

Traffic control at incident scenes is a duty that is not uniformly taught across all responder disciplines. In some cases, it is not formally taught at all. NFPA 1091: Standard for Traffic Control Incident Management Personnel Professional Qualifications (2015 Edition) is a relatively new NFPA standard that applies to any individual who performs traffic control duties at incident scenes, regardless of the agency or discipline to which that individual belongs. NFPA 1091 establishes the job performance requirements that all persons who participate in traffic control at incident scenes should meet. The standard includes a benchmark for training individuals in traffic control for incident scenes.

The Big Picture

Another risk factor that first responders must be aware of is “tunnel vision”. Personnel from each public safety discipline working at a motor vehicle crash can get “locked into” their own “piece” of scene management:

  • Fire: Hazard control
  • EMS: Patient care and transportation of the injured
  • Law enforcement: Crash investigation and traffic management, first to protect first responders and then to get traffic flow back to normal

While law enforcement may have the overall responsibility for traffic management, it’s a reality for most localities that fire and EMS personnel have already arrived and begun delivering emergency services while there may only be one or two law enforcement officers on scene.

It is imperative that pre-planning and training, that involves all public safety agencies in the community, takes place so that all personnel know and understand and can carry out the tasks necessary to get a Temporary Traffic Management Area (TTMA) set up as quickly as possible.

Unmanaged upstream traffic is an unacceptable risk to everyone working the emergency and initiation of a TTMA must become just like that of initiating the Incident Command System; any competent person should be able to fill any needed position, regardless of rank or agency affiliation.


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Robert Avsec

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his “management sciences mechanic” credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va.