By Tom LaBelle
When I first joined the fire service, the idea of drinking and driving was just becoming socially unacceptable. What this meant for our department was we still had a lot of early Saturday and Sunday morning vehicle crashes that required extensive extrication either to remove a patient, or more often a body. The roadway was a dangerous place.
Over the passage of time, a lot has changed. We see people less likely to drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs. The damage done to them personally (if they are wearing their seat belt) is much less than in the past and the cars present unique extrication challenges. But one thing that hasn't changed is that the roadway is still a dangerous place.
The concept of roadway safety for first responders and how we perceive our need for safety on the roadway has changed dramatically as well. Highly visible safety vests are a must for working on roads with moving traffic. I'll admit it has taken me some time to get into the habit of wearing mine when we pull up to a scene — not because my department doesn't demand it, but just because I need to work on the habit.
Another thing of the not-too-distant past, and unfortunately sometimes the present, is the infighting between public safety agencies (police, EMS and fire) and traffic management agencies (transportation, public works, public transit) and our differing views on the goals for a traffic accident. These arguments have become fodder for a great number of Web sites and scenes of arguments (and even arrests) on the highway that cause us anger, and I can only imagine what the general public thinks.
Enter the National Traffic Incident Management Coalition. This coalition, coordinated by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials is made up of representatives of First Responders, Towing and Recovery companies, and the Transportation industry to focus on Traffic Incident Management System or "TIMS" which is simply introducing the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to everyone working on the emergency scene on the highway.
The coalition established the National Unified Goals, or NUG, which are fairly straightforward — Responder Safety, Safe and Quick Clearance, and Prompt, reliable, interoperable communications. The NUG outlines 18 strategies to deal with these goals and although all deal with us as first responders, three are very specific to what we do.
Recommended Practices for Safety: The practices we've already recognized work to protect our people, must be understood, and must be made a priority by all responders at traffic incidents.
Move Over/Slow Down Laws: The adoption or enforcement of laws requiring motorists to simply slow down or move over when coming upon and incident.
Driver Training and Awareness: Civilian driver training must include teaching people how to react when they come upon a traffic incident. Secondary traffic incidents are preventable and play a large role in first responder fatalities.
Many states are moving forward with TIM committees to develop guidelines and partnerships. The State of Wisconsin has developed an outstanding guideline, "TIME-Traffic Incident Management Enhancement," for example. Hopefully the fire service is well represented on any such committee in your state. But what about at the local level? The vast majority of fire departments do not respond to large highways. Local roads of varying sizes and speeds make up most of the roadways in the United States.
We must ensure that these very same communications are occurring between our own local entities, police, EMS, fire, towing industry and public highway and transportation agencies. Establishing priorities, command structure and plans are all invaluable to each of the agencies and the community as a whole. I think we all realize that during the incident isn't the time to determine we don't have a plan.