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Rapid Response: Multi-vehicle crash on Md. bridge highlights multi-aid planning

“Mutual-aid planning proved invaluable” to a coordinated response on the complex Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which connects Virginia and Maryland


Mass casualty incidents are always taxing for those first arriving.

Photo/PGPolice Blog

In the last few days, several high profile events have challenged our firefighters and emergency responders:

What happened: In Maryland, a multi-vehicle accident occurred on the 8-lane Woodrow Wilson Bridge (WWB), a two-separated-span drawbridge with local and express lanes.

Workers using an articulating bucket truck were working off the side and under the bridge, preforming routine maintenance, while two other vehicles in the construction zone provided blocking and notification.

A tractor trailer slammed into the construction zone, causing a chain reaction of events that ultimately resulted in one fatality, seven injured, multiple vehicles on fire, workers trapped in the suspended bucket, and a fuel spill into the river ... are you ready for that?

Why it’s significant: Mass casualty incidents are always taxing for those first arriving; triaging patients, traffic/scene control, establishing safe areas, command and control, and so on. The Texas incident involved a Border Patrol enforcement action, with other law enforcement, and multiple fire and rescue assets – lots of response challenges with clear political overtones that firefighters and paramedics must rise above to take care of those involved.

Both rural areas, the south Texas and Idaho incidents present resource challenges in normally “quiet” areas.

The Maryland incident provides a unique opportunity to learn from – specific to both pre-planning non-traditional venues and coordinated response. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge is on a section of Interstate 95 that connects Maryland and Virginia, and crosses over a section of the Potomac River that is within the borders of the District of Columbia ... talk about a conundrum of operational response policies and jurisdictional politics!

I can tell you from experience, though – the departments have worked together for years to coordinate response across this complicated section of roadway work.

The WWB response

Per WWB response protocol, land and water-based responders from Prince George’s County (Md.), several Virginia fire departments, the District of Columbia and multiple law enforcement agencies responded.

A Prince George’s County police boat patrolling the adjacent National Harbor waters heard the crash and saw the rising column of smoke. That boat responded, and with the assistance of Fairfax County, Va., technical rescue responders, received the trapped already harnessed and hanging workers, who were lowered to the boat.

In local video, one of the first arriving units from PGFD is seen using a pre-planned crossover to access the proper section of lanes before the bridge approach, traveling nearly a mile in the opposite direction of travel to access the crash. These types of crossovers were unique to the Maryland and Virginia Department of Transportation planners when I sat on the Incident Management Planning Team for constructing the new bridge in the 1990s.

We went to great lengths to convince planners and politicians that improvements in responder safety and planning outside the engineering box were necessary. Both the Maryland and Virginia sides have elevated “parks” over the bridge approaches, with a pedestrian walkway attached and adjacent to the southbound lanes of the bridge. Pre-construction-planning also ensured the pedestrian path was wide enough for small response vehicles to get from point A to B in the event of emergencies. A water-supply dry-standpipe system is supplied from multiple potential access points in both Maryland and Virginia, including a water-level connection in D.C. waters, for supply by fireboat.

I spoke with PGFD Duty Chief Denny Chatel, who emphasized “the pre and multi-jurisdictional mutual-aid planning proved invaluable.” Chatel reported the DCFEMS Fire Boat supplied the bridge standpipe from the main channel connection during this incident.

Top takeaways on the WWB response

  1. Preplanning isn’t only for buildings. Responders need to ensure they work with all of their partners and push hard for the inclusion of response mechanisms that will transcend complicated roadway projects, both during construction and in later full-operational periods.
  2. Always be ready for the unexpected. It’s not unusual to run routine calls on the WWB five or more times every day. It’s easy to imagine the routine exploding in front of you.
  3. Unified response processes are critical. Automatic mutual aid planning, incident command and control systems, and unified information and response processes are critical to effectively mitigate large scale incidents, especially multi-state/jurisdictional events.

Additional resources on unique rescues

Learn more about preplanning for unique rescue situations with the following FireRescue1 resources:

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.