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‘At least we don’t get killed tonight’: Troubling words on roadway hazards

We must take action to win our roadway battles – and the larger war – with distracted drivers

Car Crash

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“Well at least we don’t get killed tonight.”

That was a comment purportedly made by a fire officer upon hearing that another company was dispatched to an interstate incident instead of his company. I didn’t hear the comment firsthand, but it was jarring enough to be shared with me in a discussion about our roadway wars.

Roadway battles and wars

While nothing compares to wartime firefighting and EMS work happening on other continents, we have our own kind of war being waged against our responders, whether intentional or not. Our war is not one of ideology or political differences, but it is a serious danger to our members and one that is tangled in complex issues of insurance costs and unfunded liabilities.

Our training to survive this war is rooted in years of traffic incident management (TIM) and the creation of TIM committees in every state. We’ve worked to bring all the disciplines operating on the roadway together to understand each other’s unique needs and how we can complement the various efforts. The Emergency Responder Safety Institute (ERSI) has led this effort, offering training sessions in all corners of the United States as well as countless free training resources for any fire department to access.

Recent roadway battles

Roadway wrecks involve much more than just fire department apparatus. Law enforcement, EMS, roadway workers, highways responders and tow operators are all part of the battles day in and day out. At the time of this writing, 42 such workers had died in 2023 in roadway incidents. The vast majority of those are directly attributable to distracted drivers.

Focusing on the fire and EMS department responses here, wrecks seem to happen daily. Let’s review a handful of recent incidents:

  • A Concord (N.C.) Fire Department engine was struck by a drunk driver while on the scene of another incident on Interstate 85. This was the second unit from the Concord FD to be struck on I-85 within two months. The most recent wreck will likely result in a loss of a couple hundred thousand dollars – if not a total loss. The civilian driver suffered serious injuries. No fire department injuries.
  • A Howard County (Maryland) Fire Department ambulance sitting on the side of the road was rear-ended by a car moving at full speed. The civilian driver was killed, and two EMS providers were injured. There was no braking before the vehicle struck. We might never know the cause, whether the driver was drowsy, drugged/drunk or just generally distracted.
  • In Commerce City, Colorado, two South Adams County firefighters and two police officers were struck while outside their vehicles working a separate scene on Interstate 76. One of the firefighters is in serious condition; the other three first responders were treated and released. The suspected DUI driver who drove around the blocking apparatus was arrested.
  • An Evergreen (Montana) Fire Rescue firefighter who was directing traffic was hospitalized after being struck on Highway 35.
  • A Westlake (Ohio) engine operating on the scene of an original incident was struck by a drunk driver on Interstate 90.

Note: None of the above occurred during extraordinarily adverse weather conditions.

Clearly our distractions have only grown over time, with smartphones dominating the distraction options. And now, with advancements related to autonomous vehicles, our distractions could grow, even if that seems counterintuitive.

Think about it. Drivers who were once forced to pay attention to staying in the lane, braking when needed – you know, all the things that make driving, driving – might now have a false sense of security that the car will do the work for them or at least alert them when action is needed. We have long relied on personal discipline to guide these four-wheeled missiles. Now the driver can practically disengage from guiding the missiles. Sure, the manufacturers warn drivers to always pay attention, just in case they need to manually intervene.

If drivers were indeed undistracted and ready for immediate manual reaction, then maybe the automated features have value. However, the facts support a distracted-driver scenario in which the driver uses their hands-free options to tinker with their phone or focus on anything but the road. Bottom line: While the technology should make for safer vehicles, it does not necessarily make for safer drivers.

What are we doing about it?

While a significant amount of responder training has occurred, and every state has “slow-down/ move-over” laws in effect, the public education effort piece needs work. Many things could be added to the mix, many on the legal/court front of the scenarios. But let’s focus on what we can do to improve our chances of surviving the war.

First, with respect to our personal operations and safety, we need to ensure that we’re working with our roadway partners, and that we’re all following the principles of TIM in the mitigation of our incidents. Blocking, signage, lighting, temporary road impediments, and limited exposure are all things we can influence on every call.

For personal safety, the ERSI institute, under the committee stewardship of Lubbock (Texas) Fire Rescue Lt. Brady Robinette, has been working diligently on a new standard for roadway helmet protection. Robinette has been working with retired Pennsylvania State Trooper Bob Bemis to develop and test a helmet that provides better head protection than any current firefighting helmet available today – something akin to NASCAR pit crew helmets. (Learn more about helmets in these videos.) In related news, OSHA recently announced a switch for their own inspectors from traditional hard hats to safety helmets.

Effective PPE is essential to our survival. While there are various personal systems available, like the Guardian Angel devices that I have used, it’s essential to ensure that any device you choose is suitable for our operational environments. Personal lighting, attached to your PPE that moves around the scene with you, provides a different level of visibility – and we need all the help we can get! (Note: Before you go attaching things to your helmet, check with your PPE manufacturer to ensure that you’re not voiding any warranties. You should also research any organizational or jurisdictional rules on additions to PPE.)

From a technology perspective, the most promising efforts we’ve seen involve the HAAS Alert Safety Cloud system. The base system has been installed as part of the basic spec in most custom fire engines/trucks/squads and some ambulances for the past 6 years. When fire/EMS units emergency lights have been activated, the system sends alerts to various mapping systems with a message that indicates “emergency vehicle ahead” or something similar, depending on the particular situation.

While studies and data are scant, in 2021, Purdue University released the results of a 12-week study that measured the effectiveness of digital alerting. The most astonishing result was an 80% reduction in “hard braking.” From my perspective, it’s easy to correlate less hard-braking as a result of notification to fewer secondary incidents. We don’t know how many incidents have been prevented by avoidance systems – HAAS being the only one installed in most newer fire apparatus. But from the analytics provided by HAAS, I do know that over 5 billion alert messages have been sent to the traveling public.

Final thoughts

I keep thinking back to the fire officer saying, “At least we don’t get killed tonight.” Such a statement should be a wakeup call for us all. After the Concord (N.C.) incident, CSP Master Trooper Gary Cutler said, “It’s getting beyond believable how many DUI crashes we’re having that are not only hurting our public, but now we have our emergency personnel who can’t even do their job without getting hit by somebody that has decided to drive drunk.” Now, we know that drunk driving is only one of myriad distractions. Whether people are texting, fixing their hair, using drugs, being drowsy or any other distraction, we MUST do more to protect our members.

Let’s face it, enforcement can only do so much – and that is not in our control.

This is a “war” we’re all involved in, and we all need our battle plans. We need to preach personal responsibility to the public and our own folks, and we need to provide as much public education as possible, then be a part of that solution, not a speed bump in the message.

Support the ASTM standards process for a pedestrian responder helmet, and if it’s already installed, get HAAS activated in your units today. You CAN make a difference. We may not be able to win every battle, but we can move the needle toward winning the war.

Chief Marc S. Bashoor joined the Lexipol team in 2018, serving as the FireRescue1 and Fire Chief executive editor and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board. With 40 years in emergency services, Chief Bashoor previously served as public safety director in Highlands County, Florida; as chief of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department; and as emergency manager in Mineral County, West Virginia. Chief Bashoor assisted the NFPA with fire service missions in Brazil and China, and has presented at many industry conferences and trade shows. He has contributed to several industry publications. He is a National Pro-board certified Fire Officer IV, Fire Instructor III and Fire Instructor. Connect with Chief Bashoor at on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Do you have a leadership tip or incident you’d like to discuss? Send the chief an email.