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Keys to firefighter roadside safety

Roadsides are among the most dangerous environments firefighters and medics enter; here are ways to keep your crew safe on scene


Keeping our personnel safe while operating on active highways and roadways is a very broad subject and many very good training programs have been and continue to be developed.

Consider this a sort of company officer’s pocket guide to use for training the crew in a variety of ways, be it a daily or weekly safety briefing (such as traffic safety Tuesday).

The sidebar to the right holds a list of common terminology. Take the time to look it over because we all know what happens on the emergency scene if we’re not speaking the same language.

Emergency scene traffic management terms

Advance Warning Area: Notification procedures like warning signs or flaggers that advises the approaching motorists to transition from normal driving to that required by the temporary emergency traffic control measures ahead.

Block: Positioning emergency apparatus on an angle to the lanes of traffic creating a physical barrier between upstream traffic and the work area.

Buffer zone: The distance or space between personnel and vehicles in the protected work zone and moving traffic.

Downstream: The direction that traffic is moving away from the incident scene.

Flagger/Lookout: An emergency responder assigned to monitor approaching traffic and activate an emergency signal if a motorist does not conform to traffic control measures.

Lane assignments: With the direction of traffic, lanes are called left, center and right. If there are more than three lanes, each lane is numbered with Lane 1 being the farthest left.

Shadow: The protected area that is shielded by the block from apparatus.

Taper: Action of merging several lanes of moving traffic to fewer lanes.

Traffic Incident Management Area: The area of roadway — from its upstream to its downstream points — within which crews perform their fire and EMS tasks.

Transition zone: Moves traffic out of its normal path, say from three lanes to only two lanes left.

Upstream: The direction that traffic is traveling from as the vehicles approach the incident scene.

The goal of an incident commander at an emergency traffic incident is to safely, effectively and efficiently create a Traffic Incident Management Area. Several incident management benchmarks guide and direct those efforts.

Who’s the boss?
The first two are for the company officer to become or appoint a scene safety officer and to establish the block by positioning the first-arriving rig to protect the patients and responders.

Next is to establish an incident command working relationship with the on-scene law enforcement officer, or do so as soon as they arrive at the incident.

On my scenes, me and the local LEO would agree that I would be the incident commander so long as there were patients to be treated and transported or a fire or hazardous condition to be managed. The LEO would be my traffic management group supervisor with all other LEOs being assigned to that group.

Once the fire or EMS problems had been addressed, I would transfer command to the traffic management group supervisor to continuing managing the incident during the investigation, vehicle removal and TIMA demobilization.

Immediate threat procedure
Establish the advanced warning area and post a flagger/lookout with radio. As part of your incident action plan, establish a “take immediate action” word or phrase for the lookout to use over the radio to alert all personnel downstream that an unauthorized motorist is entering the TIMA.

Chose something simple that will capture everyone’s attention on scene because there’s not going to be a lot of reaction time. One word that immediately comes to mind is “Avalanche.”

Make sure the lookout transmits the word at least three times so that everyone gets it.

Establish the upstream transition area and communicate to all personnel what lanes of traffic are being closed to upstream traffic. Assign a parking area for ambulances and ensure that all ambulances on scene are placed within the shadow.

Safe zones
Ensure that the shadow and buffer are of sufficient size to protect patients, personnel and apparatus operating in the shadow. It should capable of isolating any damaged vehicles, roadway debris, patient triage and treatment area, and all patients and operating personnel and their equipment from moving traffic.

All patients should be loaded into ambulances from within the protected work zone.

Also, be sure that all traffic emitter devices on apparatus are turned off. For nighttime operations, turn off all apparatus headlights to avoid blinding on-coming drivers.

Every responder has an important individual role at a motor vehicle crash. Here are 11 behaviors the incident commander must require from first responders to help maintain a safe TIMA.

  • Maintain an acute awareness of the high risk of working near moving traffic.
  • Never trust moving traffic.
  • Always look in both directions before you move.
  • Never turn your back to moving traffic.
  • Exit and enter crew cabs from the protected side away from traffic.
  • Don the level of protective clothing and equipment commensurate with the potential hazards present including Class II high-visibility safety vests.
  • Always look before opening doors and stepping out of emergency vehicles.
  • Be alert when walking around apparatus.
  • Stop at corner of the unit, check for traffic.
  • Stay on protected side when possible.
  • Maintain a reduced profile when moving through any area where a minimum buffer zone exists.

Unfortunately, working at the scene of motor vehicle crashes continues to become more hazardous with more vehicles traveling over poorly maintained roads and highways in many areas of the country. When we add the drivers who are doing a variety of things besides concentrating on driving, the potential risk to emergency responders on scene grows exponentially.

Working a MVC in today’s world is most assuredly a high-frequency and high-risk activity. Make sure that you and your people are prepared every day.

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.