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Operating in the roadway: A WMD approach to traffic incident management

Implement the weapons of mass destruction operational concepts of time, distance and shielding to protect firefighters at traffic incidents


When operating in and around roadways, fire operations always attract attention. This makes every driver on the road a distracted driver when they are near your incident area.


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Operating fire apparatus and emergency vehicles on highways and local roads is something firefighters do routinely, so it can be easy to forget the potential for destruction and injury every single one of these incidents poses.

Both firefighters and civilians are at risk. Between 2000 and 2013, the NFPA has documented 61 firefighters killed when struck by vehicles. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates approximately 18 percent of all traffic fatalities nationwide occur as a result of secondary collisions. How many of these could be avoided with traffic incident management (TIM)?

There are many great TIM resources available from the Department of Transportation, the US Fire Administration, and many state and local authorities providing solid training and guidelines, but some recommendations can be confusing, impractical for fire operations, or call for far more resources than local departments may have available. Fortunately, there are practical TIM fundamentals that any department can implement to help keep firefighters safe and effective.

Every driver is a distracted driver

When operating in and around roadways, fire operations always attract attention. This makes every driver on the road a distracted driver when they are near your incident area. Expect that some vehicles will operate erratically, drift from the roadway, or fail to stop and turn when they should, because they are watching (and sometimes recording) your operations.

Do you need every light on every on-scene emergency vehicle blinking and flashing? Emergency warning lights are important, but consider extinguishing as many as possible to minimize driver confusion and distraction. At night, consider extinguishing non-critical emergency vehicle headlights or scene lights that face oncoming drivers that could inhibit their ability to see the roadway and the other vehicles on it.

If operating on or near a roadway presents an unsafe condition (as it nearly always does) consider if the incident can be moved to a safer area. For example, the scene of a motor vehicle collision incident may be rendered safer if vehicles can be moved from an active roadway to a side street or parking area.

Time, distance, shielding at traffic incidents

Fundamental traffic incident management principles are very similar to those used to manage weapons of mass destruction. For either operation, all responders should be wearing the correct PPE. When operating near the roadway, this means wearing ANSI Class 3 high-visibility safety vests. Standard firefighting gear does not have the same visibility, reflectivity and break-away features offered in these vests.

Techniques to minimize risk from WMDs include minimizing time and maximizing distance and shielding from the WMD. Traffic incident management rely on these concepts as well:

  • Time: Minimize the time that apparatus and firefighters operate in or around active roadways to minimize the risk that they will be struck.
  • Distance: Increase the distance at which other drivers become aware of the incident by using signs, cones, an arrow board, barricades, flares or other signaling devices to give drivers more time to react and either stop or adjust to the new traffic pattern you are establishing.
  • Shielding: Finally, use apparatus to shield the area where emergency responders are working. Doing so can improve traffic pattern change visibility as well as provide a physical barrier behind which responders can operate. When blocking the scene with apparatus, keep in mind how equipment may need to be deployed off the vehicles so you avoid forcing firefighters to walk to the exposed side of the apparatus. Keep in mind the need for access and egress of other vehicles, especially ambulances. If space and resources permit, position shielding apparatus 150 to 200 feet apart to provide additional protection for responders.

Like any incident involving WMDs, roadway incidents require all branches of emergency services to work together. From minor roadway diversions to major highway collisions, firefighters must coordinate with law enforcement, EMS and highway crews to ensure that no civilian drivers or emergency responders get struck, killed or injured while trying to do their job.

Rom Duckworth is a dedicated emergency responder, author and educator with more than 30 years of experience working in career and volunteer fire departments, hospital healthcare systems, and private EMS. He is a career fire captain and paramedic EMS coordinator for the Ridgefield (Connecticut) Fire Department and the founder of the New England Center for Rescue and Emergency Medicine. Duckworth is recipient of the American Red Cross Hero Award, Sepsis Alliance Sepsis Hero Award, and the EMS 10 Innovators Award in addition to numerous awards and citations for excellence in education and dedication to service. Duckworth is a member of numerous national education, advisory and editorial boards, as well as a contributing author to more than a dozen EMS, fire and rescue books, including the IFSTA Pumping Apparatus Driver/Operator textbook as well as over 100 published articles in fire and EMS journals, magazines and websites. Duckworth has a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. Connect with Duckworth via or or on LinkedIn.