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by Robert Avsec

Blocking schemes: Using apparatus to protect firefighters on MVCs

Firefighters working motor vehicle crashes are extremely vulnerable to injury from other motorists, using the apparatus as a shield can save lives

By Robert Avsec

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 Prince George's County, Md.

"For the second time within a month, a piece of fire apparatus was struck by a motorist while operating on the scene of a motor vehicle crash on a high speed, limited-access highway," said fire department chief spokesman Mark Brady.

Scope of the problem
This is not a new phenomenon. In March 2012, the U.S. Fire Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency published the revised document Traffic Incident Management System; it was first published in August 2004 and later revised in April 2008.

In it the authors stated that from 1996 to 2010, 70 firefighters were lost as a result of being struck by a vehicle while engaged in emergency operations. These are what are known as secondary incidents — the primary incident being the event that brought first responders to the scene in the first place.

A Department of Transportation report indicates that approximately 18 percent of all traffic fatalities nationwide occur as a result of secondary incidents. This secondary collision is often more serious than the first, especially if it occurs between free-flowing and stopped traffic.

To reduce and prevent the frequency of firefighters being struck while operating at emergency roadway incidents, it's important to understand some of the common causes that lead to these secondary incidents.

  • Reduced vision and driving conditions from heavy rain, ice, snow, fog, curves and summits.
  • Lack of situational awareness. Firefighters fail to recognize the dangers associated with emergency roadway incidents because of insufficient training and lack of experience.
  • 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. The reflective striping is minimal protection compared to that provided by safety vests that conform to DOT standards.
  • Improper apparatus positioning.
  • Failure to establish a temporary traffic control (TTC) zone. Many fire departments don't have sufficient training, equipment or SOPs for correctly setting up a properly marked TTC zone or, if they have them, fail to follow them.

The big picture
The safety of first responders when working at the primary incident is one of several significant issues that arise from the motor vehicle crash, and each issue has its own proponent, for example:

  • 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.

But we're all on the same team, right? Not all the time, unfortunately, because too frequently we hear of incidents where fire officers are taken into custody by police on the crash scene because of conflicting priorities. Why?

Law enforcement personnel are very cognizant of the likelihood and severity of secondary collisions. This often translates into one of the causes of friction that sometimes occurs between police and other emergency responders at the scene of roadway incidents.

The police are under pressure to keeping traffic flowing and clear the scene as soon as possible, as this helps to minimize traffic delays and reduce the possibility of a secondary collision. In their view, the more apparatus and people brought to an incident, the more time it will take to eventually clear the scene, putting more sources of contact for secondary collisions on the roadway.

The needs of both agencies must be balanced. This needs to be done in pre-incident planning and interagency cooperation. Trying to iron these issues out while standing in the roadway at an incident is rarely successful.

Arriving on scene
The scene safety officer has two possible first tactical priorities to initiate when arriving on scene. The officer must communication with on-scene law enforcement to establish a temporary traffic control zone or deploy resources to establish that zone and coordinate that effort with the first-arriving law enforcement officer.

To establish a safe, effective and efficient zone, block with first-arriving apparatus parked at an angle to protect the scene, patients and emergency personnel. Angle parking will help deflect a vehicle that strikes the apparatus away from first responders.

Block at least one additional lane and block so the pump panel is down stream. Also, block the most critical or highest traffic volume direction first and consider asking for additional law enforcement assistance.

Ensure that all personnel wear proper PPE, this includes a DOT-approved Class III vest and helmet. When full PPE is required, like during extrication operations, DOT-approved Class III vest must be worn over PPE.

Establish more-than adequate advance warning by deploying a minimum of five traffic cones at 15-foot intervals; expand the safe work zone as necessary.

Direct the ambulances to park within shadow of larger apparatus and in a position that makes leaving the scene easy. Position the ambulance so the patient loading area faces away from the closest lane of moving traffic. And make sure that all patient loading is done within a protected work zone.

Low visibility
At night or in reduced-light conditions, turn off vehicle headlights and Opticom or other traffic-management systems. Apparatus headlights can blind oncoming drivers. Provide overall scene lighting and illuminate cones with flares.

Place cones or cones illuminated by flares upstream of the blocking apparatus with the last cone approximately 150 feet upstream of the apparatus. Establish flagger position equipped with portable radio to monitor approaching traffic and sound emergency signals when necessary. It is also important to establish a staging area remote from TTC for additional apparatus and vehicles.

For all incidents, ensure proper transfer of command to law enforcement agency on scene. Pay as close attention to picking up as you do when deploying at the scene initially. Deploy two-person teams to pick up traffic cones and warning devices; one person acts as lookout and the other picks up equipment.

Firefighters can be sitting ducks on roadside incidents — the statistics and anecdotes bear that out. But they don't have to be. Positioning the apparatus to protect firefighters and ensuring firefighters are aware and equipped with PPE will reduce the chances of secondary incidents.

About the author

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. Contact Robert at

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Metchosin Fire Department Metchosin Fire Department Tuesday, January 22, 2013 2:08:50 PM Great article!
Edgar David Spore Edgar David Spore Tuesday, January 22, 2013 3:17:00 PM Great article, I am sharing with. Ron Savage,Phillip Baxter,Jason Phillips,David Murphy,Mike Shooter,Michiganfireground Mike.
Robert Linz Robert Linz Wednesday, January 23, 2013 6:57:44 PM Great article
Michael Ray James Michael Ray James Saturday, January 26, 2013 8:08:49 PM We used this technique on a frozen bridge lastnight with multiple MVCs involving multiple cars at each one. I used engine 2 and 3 as a buffer to protect the scene I was stationed at. Nice Article.
David Moctezuma David Moctezuma Saturday, January 26, 2013 11:44:20 PM This is a great article, & good info to know & follow, cause you can't always rely on the police for traffic control in case they get another call.
Monday, January 28, 2013 7:41:19 AM Thanks all for your comments about the piece! We need to keep pushing this initiative because we can't afford to lose one more firefighter to a secondary incident.
Monday, January 28, 2013 7:42:55 AM Roger that Michael Ray! That's what we like to hear at Fire Rescue Magazine 'cause our motto is, "Read it today, use it tomorrow!"
Monday, January 28, 2013 7:51:45 AM Frank, thanks for the comment and the info about NYS Vol. Fire Police Assn and their work. I grew up in southern New Jersey--about 20 miles SE of Philly--and my first firefighter position was with the Harrisonville VFD. Fire Police were very important part of our world as I recall. Today, we need more than just personnel dedicated to directing traffic around the primary incident. We need situational awareness on the part of everyone in the hazard area from the time they arrive until they depart. We need physical barriers--blocking apparatus that's properly positioned--to protect our people from the distracted drivers who are doing everything except paying attention to operating their motor vehicle. And we need to train and prepare our people to do the right thing all the time because complacency kills!
Ricky Smith Ricky Smith Wednesday, January 30, 2013 8:56:40 PM Just curious what other depts. do at scene when parking at an angle, nose in/ rear out or nose out/rear in?
Chris Anderson Chris Anderson Thursday, January 31, 2013 7:27:46 AM Excellent article! I'll hopefully incorporate it into training!
Matt Bell Matt Bell Saturday, February 02, 2013 4:51:01 PM 70 deaths that could have possibly been avoided if more precautions were taken. Some good ways to protect the lives of the protectors.
Gabriel Harris Gabriel Harris Sunday, February 03, 2013 2:15:58 PM another thing to look at to stop all these firefighters from getting hit on scene is to raise awareness on civilian drivers with cell phones. its not just the firefighters lacking in situational awareness.
Gabriel Harris Gabriel Harris Sunday, February 03, 2013 2:23:27 PM apparently people don't like putting blocks in the right places.
Friedrich VonDeitsch Friedrich VonDeitsch Wednesday, February 20, 2013 8:34:48 AM The sad problem I myself have encountered personally and witnessed others having is the unhelpful behaviour of police officers who take "command" as soon as they arrive and are very unwilling to allow apparatus to block traffic flow. They will not even control the flow of traffic for you. This article clearly outlines needed protocol to be adopted by all departments in an attempt to save lives but I feel attention needs to be paid to and advice given about the legal aspects of this so as to be conforming to local and state codes for "use of the highway" issues raised by the police.

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