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Go back to the basics for highway incident operations training

Every responder should be trained on four roadway safety basics to prepare for the hazards they face on every trip outside the fire station


Whether responding to a structure fire, a brush fire or a medical assist, our personnel and apparatus are exposed to the danger of being hit by vehicles operated by drowsy, distracted, drugged or just plain dangerous drivers.

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This feature is part of our Fire Chief Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing fire chiefs and fire service leaders everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Summer 2018 issue, click here.

By Jack Sullivan, CSP, CFPS

When talking about continued education on firefighting “basics,” most of the conversation revolves around working with hose lines, water supply, ladder placement, search techniques and other structural fire response techniques.

While I agree those skills require constant practice and training, I think there is another aspect of our job that presents a constant hazard during every response: roadway incident safety.

Traffic hazards are present during every emergency response and routine trip outside of the fire station. Whether responding to a structure fire, a brush fire or a medical assist, our personnel and apparatus are exposed to the danger of being hit by vehicles operated by drowsy, distracted, drugged or just plain dangerous drivers.

It’s a near-daily occurrence to see a report about an emergency vehicle or first responder being hit by a vehicle. If we’re going to focus regular training on the basics of our job, then we also need to include roadway incident safety strategies and tactics for all of our personnel. Let’s review these four roadway safety basics.

1. Hazard awareness training

Hazard awareness is important for all career and volunteer personnel, but especially for new recruits who are just beginning in the fire service. New recruits likely have little to no experience working around traffic at emergency scenes.

We have to make sure they know about the hazards of working on or near the roadway and what they should be doing to reduce the chances of being hit by a vehicle. That training should occur before they make their first response to an emergency scene.

Fire officers should be aware that many Firefighter I and EMT-B training classes nationwide do not include highway incident safety as part of the curriculum. It is the responsibility of fire department leaders to make sure their personnel have been trained in safe roadway operations.

A fire department SOP/SOG for highway operations is the minimum training requirement for all new personnel. A review of that same SOP/SOG on at least an annual basis is the minimum for all personnel.

2. The Three Cs: Communication, Collaboration and Cooperation

It’s extremely important for the fire service to work with other agencies that respond with us to roadway incidents, to train, preplan and review their response strategies and tactics.

Review your department’s SOP/SOG with the other agencies before you end up together at an incident on the highway at zero-dark-thirty during a storm. Roadway incidents tend to get handled more efficiently when responding personnel have all trained and worked together.

Schedule a tabletop drill with the other disciplines occasionally, but at least once a year. Use that opportunity to review actual incidents that have been handled in the past few months:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t work well?
  • What do we need to improve?
  • Who needs to know?

You know what needs to happen in an after action review. We tend to only conduct an AAR for incidents when things don’t go well for some reason. It’s just as important to review incidents when things go well. It provides an opportunity for positive reinforcement and lets the team know when they did a good job.

3. Setting up a safe work area

When dispatched to a roadway incident, the first arriving emergency units play a critical role in setting up the scene for the safest possible work area for the duration of the call.

In some cases, the actual incident might have blocked the road or travel lanes. First arriving units need to convey that information to the appropriate personnel so that arrangements can be made to divert traffic heading toward the incident area, or at least set up advance warning to advise motorists that they are approaching a traffic queue or backlog.

If the travel lanes aren’t blocked by the incident, then it is up to first arriving units to determine which lanes need to be blocked or to decide if all travel lanes need to be stopped. Either choice introduces even more hazards.

If you decide to shut down the roadway, then you must take steps to protect motorists who will be at the back of the travel queue. If you decide only certain lanes need to be blocked, then you have to position emergency vehicles in such a way to warn oncoming traffic and guide drivers into open lanes they can use to pass the incident scene safely.

Angle the apparatus appropriately according to your local SOP/SOG. Arrange emergency lights to provide adequate warning and traffic control, but to also prevent glare hazards for motorists in the area. Advise incoming units where they should be positioned at the scene using standard terminology recognized by all agencies in the region. Try to keep all emergency vehicles on one side of the roadway. Set up temporary traffic control devices like signs, cones, flares or whatever tools you have available and in accordance with your department’s SOP/SOGs. Deploy floodlights for nighttime operations to illuminate the work area, but in a way that prevents glare hazards for traffic in the area.

4. Personal protective equipment

The type of PPE required will vary with the type of incident and the type of work that your crew needs to initiate. High-visibility PPE is appropriate for many roadway incidents.

High-visibility PPE is not appropriate for proximity firefighting, for those crews working vehicle fires. Crews assigned to fire attack should be wearing NFPA-compliant turnout gear and ideally should be working within the area protected by a blocking apparatus.

Crews working EMS incidents should be wearing high-visibility PPE, as should any personnel assigned to non-firefighting activity, like traffic control, water supply, incident command, etc.

When fire suppression is complete, firefighters should don high-visibility vests over their turnouts or exchange their turnouts for some type of high-visibility garment. Helmets are recommended for roadway ops for increased visibility and head protection.

These four subjects should be considered essential basics covered in roadway incident training and standard operating procedures. For assistance with your traffic incident management training needs review the free Responder Safety Learning Network at

About the author

Jack Sullivan, CSP, CFPS is the director of training for the Emergency Responder Safety Institute and a master instructor for the Federal Highway Administration. Jack is a retired firefighter with 25 years of active service and currently works as a certified safety professional for Loss Control Innovations in Richmond, Va.