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5 keys to creating a fire department roadway safety program

The program should address sound policy, equipment preparation, scene size-up, program implementation and post-incident reviews

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At the department level, roadway safety practices reveal dramatic differences that directly impact firefighter safety.

AP Photo/Phil Marcelo

It’s Firefighter Safety Stand Down Week. This year’s theme is – Building a Superhighway to Safety: Protecting Our Responders on Roadways. From June 14 to 20, departments are encouraged to suspend all non-emergency activity to focus on emergency incident scene. Learn more about the 2020 Firefighter Safety Stand Down.

Many agencies have seen a lull in traffic-related calls while their states were shut down due to COVID-19. And there was an associated drop in scene-related accidents.

Things are picking up, though, and now is a good time to review roadway safety policy and procedure.

5 parts of a roadway safety program

The practice of roadway incident safety and traffic incident management is fairly standardized. We have the range of courses developed and provided by the National Highway Institute, along with courses developed and provided by state, county and local fire academies, not to mention private training resources. These courses include highly standardized, consistent and unified subject matter.

At the department level, roadway safety practices reveal dramatic differences that directly impact firefighter safety. Taking roadway safety and traffic incident management course subject matter as universally accepted, I offer the idea of taking that subject matter and framing a department program along the following lines:

  1. Policy, procedure and training
  2. Equipment preparation
  3. Roadway safety scene size-up
  4. Implementation
  5. Post-incident review

1. Policy, procedure and training

As Gordon Graham says: “In every tragedy, there is always a proximate cause – the event that immediately preceded the tragedy. But if you go back in time and look for the root cause, all too often it comes down to a lack of good policy and a lack of good training.”

The application to roadway safety is simple and direct. Without good policy and procedure, department practice of roadway safety will likely be undisciplined, scattershot, inconsistent and dangerous.

Create the policy and procedure that works for your department. If your department does not cover any highways, then why is the policy copied from a department with I-95, I-295 and US 1 running through it? Probably because the chair of your department’s policy committee just wanted to check the box, meaning your department lacks a robust training program.

Good roadway policy and procedure mean nothing without consistent and repetitive training. At a minimum, officers and drivers should know how to size-up a scene from a roadway safety perspective, properly stage apparatus and support vehicles, set management devices, and assign lookouts. Chiefs should be confident that all this happens correctly and efficiently without their presence.

Also, consider training with the law enforcement agencies that respond to your assignments to improve coordination and cooperation. This may include local, county or state police. In many cases, law enforcement agencies, state departments of transportation, and state offices of emergency management will have dedicated traffic incident management divisions.

An excellent example of interagency cooperation to improve roadway incident safety is in New Jersey, where the State Office of Emergency Management has established the New Jersey Traffic Incident Management resource portal.

2. Equipment preparation

Building from good policy, procedure and training, preparation for incidents is critical. Start with traffic management equipment and devices. Make sure that all apparatus, or at least apparatus that responds to roadway incidents, has the full complement of equipment and devices called for by the department roadway incident policy and procedure. This includes, but is not limited to, vests, cones, flares, flashers and signs.

If your department has a fire police division, it would be typical that all this equipment is stored on their support vehicles. Account for the fact that fire police response, many times, is slower than apparatus response. Therefore, at least a minimum of roadway safety related devices and equipment should be stored on apparatus.

3. Roadway safety scene size-up

Your department policy and procedure should include roadway safety as part of the initial scene size-up. Remember that roadway safety procedure should be practiced any time apparatus is staged or operating on a public roadway. Whether a multi-lane interstate or a cul-de-sac, if vehicles can pass you, then you need to size-up for implementation of scene appropriate roadway safety procedures. Procedures should scale up based on the scene.

To start, always determine whether it is practicable to simply close the road. If apparatus will operate for any period of time on a public road, there will be firefighter activity in and around that apparatus coming within feet of drivers distracted by the activity. The posted speed limit is irrelevant to my decision. Even where the speed limit is 25 mph, if I can close the road and detour traffic, I make it so.

4. Implementation

Your department has good policy and procedure. Your members are trained. Necessary traffic safety equipment and devices are on-hand. An assigned member has performed a roadway safety related scene size-up. It’s time to implement.

If your department has a fire police division, much of the roadway safety burden is lifted off of your members, and they can be allocated immediately to firefighting responsibilities. If you work cooperatively with assigned law enforcement or department of transportation personnel, then, likely, the burden is lessened. Just remember, though, that if it’s a fire operation, generally, it’s the chief officer’s scene. It’s fire department responded.

In all other situations, your officers and members are on their own, and they have to make roadway safety an initial and ongoing priority. Initial operations should include establishing the appropriate level of protection the situation demands, minimizing the risk, and then releasing members to perform firefighting duties while keeping the minimum number of members dedicated to roadway safety duties.

5. Post-incident review

Make every attempt to review how roadway safety was addressed where any related procedures were implemented. It can take a minute or be more in depth, depending on the scene. Making this a regular part of a call keeps members accountable, keeps roadway safety as a priority, and keeps policy and procedure fresh in their minds. Think about it this way, wouldn’t you prefer to do a quick review after each call, rather than have to deal with even one review of an injured or killed firefighter, or a totaled engine, due to a roadway incident?

Putting it all together, for safety

Roadway safety practice has become standardized and consistent. As practices and devices improve, they are quickly accepted and taught. However, departments with good roadway safety policy and procedure, consistent training, frequent use of policy and procedure in all roadway situations, and frequent review can truly say that they are working to manage and minimize risk to the public, firefighters and property.

Scott Eskwitt is the former director of fire policy and training content for Lexipol. He previously served as chief of the Fair Haven (N.J.) Fire Department, and was a member of the Fair Haven First Aid Squad and the Red Bank (N.J.) Fire Department. Eskwitt is an attorney and has spent his legal career advising municipalities and fire departments on risk management, human resources and labor relations issues. His undergraduate degree in Industrial & Labor Relations was received from Cornell University and his law degree from SUNY Law at Buffalo.