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Rapid Response: Preplanning, unified command proves essential during Pa. Turnpike MCI

Pennsylvania Turnpike crash underscores importance of MCI planning, unified command efforts and rehab services for long-duration events

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On Jan. 5, there was a multiple-vehicle wreck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. A tour bus went up an embankment, then back down, ultimately overturning. Three tractor-trailers and one passenger vehicle were also involved in the wreck.

Photos by Todd Leiss

First responders from Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County, along with three surrounding counties, were stretched and strained on Sunday, Jan. 5, when a multiple-vehicle pileup on the Pennsylvania Turnpike left five dead and dozens hospitalized.

To learn more about the incident, as well as takeaways for fire and EMS personnel, I spoke with Captain Scott Graham, captain of Special Operations for Mutual Aid Ambulance Service (MAAS), who served as on-scene EMS commander; Todd Leiss, incident management team coordinator for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission; and Firefighter John Storey Jr. with the Youngwood (Pennsylvania) Volunteer Fire Department.

What happened

At about 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 5, 911 callers reported a multiple-vehicle wreck in a remote area near mile marker 86 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

A tour bus went up an embankment, then back down, ultimately overturning. Three tractor-trailers and one passenger vehicle were also involved in the wreck.

The incident ultimately left five dead – including the tour bus driver and two drivers of the tractor-trailers – and required 60 patient transports.

Units from the Mount Pleasant (Pennsylvania) Volunteer Fire Department and MAAS were immediately dispatched, as was the Turnpike Commission Incident Management Team, state police and towing services.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is responsible for the entire 552 miles of the Turnpike (Interstate 76 at this particular location). The Commission coordinates emergency response through a distribution of contracts with 112 fire departments, 67 ambulance transport providers and 22 towing companies.

The incident blocked all lanes of the westbound Turnpike and the fast lane of the eastbound side, as one of the victims had been ejected from a vehicle into the eastbound lane.

The first-arriving paramedic was a 30-plus-year veteran paramedic, quickly recognizing this as a mass-casualty incident. As such, the Commission immediately initiated long-term reroutes in both directions.

With temperature hovering around 22 degrees F, road conditions were generally fair, with patchy ice and occasional snow flurries.

This 12-hour incident would prove taxing for everyone involved, as on-scene conditions were exacerbated by the traditional hazardous fluid leaks in the middle of the rescue.

Note: Two hours after the Turnpike pileup, also in Westmoreland County, Rostraver West Newton Emergency Services Paramedic Supervisor Matthew Smelser was tragically struck and killed while operating on a different accident on Interstate 70.

Why it’s significant

MCIs are a possibility for any of us. Tour buses and similar vehicles are traversing from one community to another all over the United States. Add interstate travel and the remote nature of many of our communities, and it’s easy to see how this incident provides valuable insights for everyone to learn from.

Pre-incident exercises on the Pennsylvania Turnpike response system proved beneficial to response, command and control during this incident.

Turnpike response efforts

The fire and EMS response was massive, with 32 transport units being mobilized to respond to the scene.

Mount Pleasant Chief Jerry Lucia and Captain Graham established a unified command post, located on the jersey barrier set up on scene. They were joined there by Leiss and representatives from the Pennsylvania State Police, and eventually a towing representative.

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The fire and EMS response was massive, with 32 transport units being mobilized to respond to the scene.

Photo/Todd Leiss

Helicopters were not flying due to weather conditions.

Of the 32 transport units mobilized, 12 were dispatched to helicopter and hospital bases to bring in helicopter medics and, in one case, a doctor. Ultimately, none of these units was used on the scene, and none of the 60 patient transports required extrication services.

Mass-casualty plans were executed both on scene and at three local hospitals in anticipation of the patient volume. Captain Graham reported triage statistics as:

  • 3 red
  • 10 yellow
  • 47 green
  • 5 black

On-scene transport units and supervisors were all equipped to handle the MCI coordination.

Fire companies assisted with searching scene wreckage and worked to contain significant hazmat leaks (diesel, hydraulics, etc). Primary and secondary diking was set up on-site and at several drainage ditches to contain the fluids. The Turnpike Commission called in contractors for clean-up efforts.

EMS units remained on scene with police, towing and fire services for 12 hours, providing rehab and weather protection during the incident.

The Pittsburgh Critical Incident Management Team will be in Westmoreland County on Monday, Jan. 6, to assist personnel dealing with the incident aftermath.

All of the responding units used the same 800-MHz radio backbone, which proved essential for incident coordination.

Further, Firefighter Storey reported that IC Lucia provided a calm and reassuring presence for coordination of responding units.

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Tow operators were called to the scene to assist.

Photo/Todd Leiss

Incident challenges

First responders faced several response challenges during the incident:

  • Weather: Cold and ice are always challenging. Working for 12 hours in the cold among the mayhem of 65 patients, including fatalities, is doubly difficult.
  • Language barrier: There was a significant language barrier with many of the tour bus passengers. The bus was headed from New Jersey to Ohio. First responders found patients who could communicate and used them to provide on-scene emergency translation. Hospitals relied on language line services to assist.
  • Routing issues: This was a remote section of the Turnpike, with miles between exits. Rerouting trapped traffic and the responding emergency traffic onto the wrong way of the Turnpike requires significant coordination. The Turnpike has a robust system of moveable jersey-barriers and adjacent-road access gates, however that system requires close coordination to avoid secondary accidents (there were none to report).

Key takeaways

There are several key takeaways from which first responders can learn for future incidents:

  • EMS transport units and supervisors equipped with mass-casualty tags/tape should be a priority for all EMS response agencies. Exercising MCI plans also proved beneficial to this incident.
  • Unified command is a critical factor for incident success on these large-scale incidents. Having fire, EMS, law enforcement, the Turnpike Incident Response Team and the tow operators represented at the command post provided a smooth transition from MCI to recovery operation.
  • Rehabilitation services are not just for fires. Responders working 12-hour EMS, hazmat and recovery incidents in below-freezing environments may need continuing supporting rehab.
  • A significant amount of preplanning has gone into the Turnpike response. Everyone I talked with spoke to the critical role that incident preplanning and exercise programs play in the success of the mitigation of large-scale incidents such as this.
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.
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