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Fire Officers: How to keep your crew safe at crash scenes

Roadways are high-risk environments for firefighters; the company officer’s actions can be a deciding factor in firefighter safety

Traffic management at emergencies on highways and by-ways is getting a great deal of attention in recent years, and with good reason. Too many members of public safety agencies, not just firefighters, are struck and killed by distracted drivers passing through emergency scenes.

Federal statistics show that from 1996 through 2010, 22 percent of the firefighter deaths were attributed to some form of vehicle collision. During those years, 70 firefighters were killed when struck by a vehicle.

This safety topic is very broad. There are several very good training programs that have made the scene in the past couple of years, including free, online training modules that teach emergency responder safety on highway incidents available at

The company officer can have a more positive influence on safety when setting up and operating within a Traffic Incident Management Area (TIMA). The U.S. Department of Transportation puts traffic incidents into three general classes based on their projected duration.

  • Minor: expected duration under 30 minutes.
  • Intermediate: expected duration of 30 minutes to two hours.
  • Major: expected duration of more than two hours.

Secondary threats
A recent DOT report stated that approximately 18 percent of all traffic fatalities nationwide result from secondary incidents. These secondary collisions are often more serious than the first, especially when they occur between free-flowing traffic and stopped traffic — you, your people and your equipment.

Your role in preventing these secondary incidents begins long before you and your crew ever responds to the initial incident. Develop a keen sense of awareness in both yourself and your team about those factors that can lead to a secondary incident and how to mitigate them.

Train your people to use these conditions — reduced vision and driving conditions from heavy rain, ice, snow, fog, curves and summits — as triggers that ensure everyone has a heightened sense of awareness while in route to the call and after arrival at the scene.

Ensure that your personnel understand the organization’s SOGs regarding working in and around moving traffic. Be unyielding in your efforts to make sure everyone complies with those SOGs.

Ensure that the members of your crew wear appropriate high-visibility apparel, like reflective safety vests, during all activity in and around moving traffic. Although all firefighter turnout clothing has retro-reflective markings per the requirements of NFPA 1971, these requirements fall well short of the requirements for safety garments to be worn on the roadway.

These vests should comply with American National Standards Institute/International Safety Equipment Association 207-2011, American National Standard for High-Visibility Apparel.

Safety message
Take the time while responding to the call to communicate a TIMA safety message for every call that’s going to place you and your crew at risk for a secondary incident. Hit these three points in your message.

  • Start thinking about the potential hazards we’re going to face working around moving traffic.
  • Keep your eyes open and scanning the scene from the moment you get off the truck.
  • Make sure to wear your safety vest before leaving the truck.

Sounds too simple, right? Your firefighters will feel that you’re insulting their intelligence, right?


Our brothers and sisters in the wildland firefighting community get just such a briefing before every deployment into the hazard area. A bit more detailed to be sure, but the same basic content nonetheless: what are the potential hazards, pay attention, and wear your protective equipment at all times.

So make good use of those few minutes — and the nice intercom system on your apparatus — and get everyone’s head in the game.

Train drivers beforehand to place the apparatus in the proper position, and make sure your expectations are clearly understood well before arriving at the incident. This is particularly true for younger and less experienced drivers; make sure they’re learning the correct behavior with every response.

Block with first-arriving apparatus parked at an angle to protect the scene, patients and emergency personnel. Block at least one additional lane and position a second apparatus with the pump panel is facing downstream so that the driver is not exposed to traffic when operating the pump.

Partner with police
Make initial contact with the local law enforcement officer on scene, or as soon as possible after they arrive, to begin developing a cooperative temporary traffic control zone.

Law enforcement personnel are very cognizant of the likelihood and severity of secondary collisions. This can be a cause of friction between police and other emergency responders at the scene of roadway incidents.

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. You can make a significant contribution to inter-agency cooperation by proactively making contact with the police on scene and getting a management plan started together early in the incident.

Now take this to another level. Before the incident ever occurs, talk shop with those police officers who you work with on a daily basis. These are good low-stress opportunities to learn what the expectations are for your respective agencies and work out any conflicts.

Attempting to iron out these issues while standing in the roadway during an incident at 2 a.m. is rarely successful.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an 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’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.