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8 steps to safer highway rescue response

Whether protecting interstate highways or country roads, roadway incidents require vigilance in the course of successful on-scene tactical outcomes

The first step in dealing with highway incidents is to pre-incident plan for the roads, bridges, underpasses and hairpin curves in the jurisdiction. Identifying and strategizing the trouble spots along any route within a response area is an effective way to train for the inevitable vehicle fire, patient extrication, or the various civilian assists.

Covering the basics such as traffic control, engine or squad placement and the trigger points for additional resources can be done easily in good weather. Actually stopping on an elevated highway ramp or walking the distance of a bridge can mean the difference between a future of well-executed tactics or a scene that puts lives endanger.

Another pre-action tactic is to talk to municipal, county and state road crews, especially those working for your state department of transportation. These folks can be vital allies in promoting traffic control, scene stabilization and ultimately better incident resolution.

Familiar with the highways in their region and often near-by, these individuals and their equipment can provide portable signage, extra cones and lighting and as well as truckloads of sand and dirt for berms, dams, traction or absorbents.

8 Steps to safer highway response

1. Plan your highways, bridges, underpasses and curves.

2. Establish pre-action protocols with other responding agencies.

3. Confirm communications in all response areas.

4. Pre-determine proper positioning of emergency vehicles for safety and tool access.

5. Prioritize traffic control/spotters if possible.

6. Be conscious of mayday vocal alert.

7. Select secondary egresses.

8. Wear proper PPE.

Spend any time with a state highway worker and you will learn the significance of the metal stakes at intervals on the shoulder displaying one, two or three reflectors, each with their own meaning. By planning your work environment and networking with other response personnel you are bringing that much more capability when you arrive on scene.

Three ways out
As with any on scene emergency, a primary exit must always be in view. Unlike static situations however, moving vehicles, inclement weather and unusual formations limit movement, vision and traction.

These changing circumstances require a second and sometimes a third way out.

At some time in your career you will find your chosen exit blocked by another vehicle coming at you — leaving little time for decision-making. Having a predetermined and acknowledged ancillary exit can be critical.

Highway structures
Overpasses, access ramps and bridges, defined in structure and height, still require the same attention to detail and must be constantly evaluated for inherent design dangers. Along with exit strategies, you need to know if there are critical corrosion points along the assembly.

Can you see tension cables, loose or missing rivets, and deterioration areas or hazardous rises where concrete meets metal? Are there electrical boxes, overhead wires, potholes and random debris?

Underpasses are concave concrete bunkers with limited egresses. In addition, vehicle fires can create concrete deterioration, or spalling, as the fire impinges on the structure itself. As a catchall for radiant heat, an underpass acts like a giant reflector and can threaten lives as well as weakening the structure.

While an underpass can be a safe zone in severe weather, they can be a death trap to an unsuspecting team of rescuers given precise circumstances, such as an explosion or materials breech. Driving into that situation may not be the best staging tactic — better to position with an overview than get tunneled in — literally.

Traffic control
Without adequate traffic control, oncoming vehicles will rarely slow down unless the incident is particularly interesting. In such cases, excessive slow down can be just as dangerous, especially in bad weather.

Remember, bridges freeze before roadways. Excessive heat can actually affect grip. And while most states require all vehicles move to the left of an emergency, there are exceptions and idiots.

Just because you are on scene doesn’t mean you’re in control of all events surrounding you and your fellow firefighters.

While traffic control may be a luxury for a fire crew, a designated lookout with limited responsibilities is vital to safety. Whether it is an officer over viewing the scene or a firefighter/engineer with limited duties, having a spotter and a designated mayday callout can prevent unnecessary injury or worse.

Focusing on a purchase point for a door removal leaves little peripheral vision for oncoming traffic. At best, everyone keeps one eye out for trouble.

Vehicle placement
Another important tactic in highway response is emergency vehicle placement. We are all too familiar with the occasional battle with law enforcement as to lane blockage and the subsequent narrowing of traffic.

As with road workers, planning with your local law officers can be of direct benefit in promoting a safer and more accommodating scene. To be completely effective you need to understand each other’s jobs.

Police officers are tasked with documenting the scene, taking measurements, and preserving evidence — not to mention protecting everyone from threat. Regardless of circumstances, they are mandated to keep traffic flowing, as lost revenue due to lane closures on major interstates can be in the millions of dollars.

For our part we all know the importance of protecting our fellow firefighters and vehicle placement between the incident and oncoming traffic is a safe and welcome barrier. And it fulfills the need for lighting and tool accessibility.

Sharing priorities and working on incident management with all responding agencies are simply good strategies for advancing on-scene tactics. Volunteering to direct traffic while law officials conclude their investigation goes a long way in promoting better and more effective relations.

Equipment and personnel
Bad weather also means an increase in undue stress on equipment. Make sure your extrication tools start and are pressurized, or charged if you use cordless spreaders. Warm up your generator in advance.

Dress for long periods on scene. Highway incidents tend to be slow in resolution; waiting on a tow truck or a coroner can be bone-chilling. Have water and energy bars available, even in winter.

Remember that the little things can turn big on a dime. To guard against this wear proper PPE including a traffic vest and safety glasses — or have the shield down.

Don’t assume vehicle stability just because people have exited and there is no fire, yet. Confirm all occupants and triage their movement to EMS.

In the case of highway accidents, scene stabilization means cleaning up debris, mitigating fluids and other hazards before clearing the location. Cleaning up the accident scene is a tactical obligation. Failure to do so may mean a return to another incident at the same site.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advises businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing has won six IAFF Media Awards. Spell has an associate’s degree in fire science and a bachelor’s degree in communications. His articles are available by Podcast at, and his latest book is “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell can be reached at

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