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Fire Service FAQs and Much More

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Why do emergency services tie up traffic for so long?
Why do they block so many lanes on a freeway?

On December 7, 2007, Tim Ryan, a reporter and current anchor for the local FOX Network's "Good Day" commented about a very long delay that recently occurred on a Dallas freeway. His comment, assisted by small plastic toy vehicles and the edge of his desk, consisted of illustrating how to use a "bulldozer" to simply push the wreck off the freeway and open traffic back up.
"Tell it to Tim" Archive

While this is comical and does illustrate the frustrations we all feel about traffic congestion, it isn't a practical solution. For one thing, it would probably take hours to have a bulldozer arrive on the scene. They aren't just sitting on trailers, with operators on standby, awaiting the call to respond to emergency scenes. It also would not solve the problem because people would still slowdown to look at the wrecked vehicles on the side of the road.

This is a very complicated subject. I will do my best to explain some possible reasons for long traffic delays. But please keep in mind that I am not an expert on this subject. There are people who study these things and there are many agencies who are working on the problem. Police departments deal with, and study, this issue more than fire departments. Please also understand that every jurisdiction either has it own policies or practices and that many are still in a transition phase for the new federal mandates.

1. There is a federal document that prescribes what must be done for any work zone on a freeway. This includes emergency scenes, which are defined as “temporary work zones”. This is known as the “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices” (MUTCD). This manual establishes things such as the angle and the distance of the cones as they direct vehicles out of a lane to the color of signs used. In many cases it requires that there be 1000 ft of warning devices and on a 60 MPH freeway this will also include a 480 ft taper, with cones and or flares every 15 ft. If that is not bad enough, the state of Texas has added it’s own requirements to the rules. The requirements are very exhaustive. Every detail is spelled out and this will probably require calling TxDOT etc. This almost insures that any temporary work zone that needs to be set up will be an elaborate affair.

2. There are many situations that will require several agencies to respond. Many of these agencies insist that certain things are left untouched until they arrive. Allow me to give you some examples:

a. A traffic fatality. - The Medical Examiner’s office (M.E.) is called. In many states, a person is not really dead until the M.E. or coroner says they are dead. A body also can’t be moved until the ME arrives and takes measurements and photos. They will, at times, have to examine other evidence. This is not the fantasy land of “CSI” or the movies. Dallas County, Texas has a nationally known “Forensics Science” facility. And yet they might only have two or three people available or on call at times. Most other counties or cities have less. In many counties a coroner is on call. This means that someone has to be paged, go to their office, get equipment, possibly wait for a driver and then proceed to the scene. I have been on fatality scenes many times. It is not rare for the Dallas M.E. to take an hour or two to arrive. Until that time, the deceased stays right where they fell. It will take the M.E. a length of time to conduct their investigations and then load the body. Only after the M.E. and any other police investigation, is done can fire personnel, police and the wrecker driver start to clean up the scene.

b. Some simple shipments cause big problems. - I am not just talking about Haz Mat. Sometimes the most harmless item will cause a huge delay. The best example of this might be if a U.S. Mail vehicle, or property, is involved in the least little bit. If a mail truck is damaged, emergency workers are not allowed to do much to it. If it is on fire we can put it out, but once the fire is out we can’t do much more. We have to wait for Postal officials. Imagine how long that could take in the middle of the night. My best example of this occurred a few years ago in front of my very fire station. There was a mailbox on the corner of our property. A car had an accident and struck this mailbox. While it was damaged, it was not broken open. My captain had us move it out of the street and secure it in the station. When the postal people arrived, you would have thought we had robbed a bank. They went nuts. They told us of all the laws we had broken and at one point I thought they were going to have my captain arrested. Similar problems occur with UPS and FedEx shipments. As you can imagine, this type of response might take hours.

c. TxDot -As mentioned before, sometimes TXDot is called to a scene. If this happens you can count on it lasting for a while. The Tx MUTCD requires that if a scene is going to last for more then an hour, that very specific signage and warning devices must be placed in a very prescribed manner. Failure to do this can cause incredibly legal liability for the city or the state. If it says that your cones should be 15ft apart and you place them 16ft apart and a drunk drives into your accident scene and hurts himself, he will not have trouble finding a lawyer who will sue you.

d. Possible roadway damage. There are times when there is possible roadway damage. Perhaps a column or abutment has been struck. If fire has impinged upon the underside of a bridge it can cause damage that weakens the structure. Even a fire on top of a bridge can possibly cause damage that could require the inspection of an engineer before it is deemed safe to be reopened. The inspection the engineer conducts can be involved and time consuming. There is also the fact that this person must often travel a great distance. In the case of an incident in Dallas Texas this engineer might have to come from Austin, which is over 200 miles away. The time delay is further (ironically) compounded by the fact that this person now has to travel in the very traffic congestion created by the wait for his or her arrival.

3. Safety - I could go on about the number of emergency workers who are injured or killed each year due to secondary accidents on the highways. But you probably know that. What some people do not know is that federal and state regulations and guidelines have been put in place to reduce these numbers. These federal mandates have prescribed sweeping changes in how we protect accident work scenes. Up until a couple of years ago it was common to send only an ambulance (MICU) and an engine to accidents (MVAs) on the freeway. If the officer on the engine felt he needed more help, he asked for it. Now, most departments automatically dispatch an MICU, engine and a truck to all MVAs on a freeway. The truck’s job is to block a minimum of two lanes for operations. (A shoulder and a lane can constitute “two lanes”.) The new guidelines also insist that more lanes are usually necessary. If an accident is on the shoulder, off the highway, we are now required to close another lane, in most cases. If the accident is on the shoulder and in the right lane, we will probably close two lanes and a shoulder. This shuts down most metroplex freeways. This is a result of the new regs from OSHA, NFPA, TxDOT etc.

4. Multiple Agencies - As I mentioned above there are times when other agencies have to be called. There are any number of circumstance where water departments, medical examiners, EPA, utility companies, health departments and state or federal agencies must be summoned and arrive before any work can be done to open the roadway. These people's response times can usually be measured in hours. In years past a small spill of diesel meant washing off the roadway, tossing down some sand and leaving. Now a spill of more than 25 gallons is a hazmat situation. This happens more often than you might think given that most large trucks have two 50-150 gal tanks or more. When this happens all kinds of procedures are put in place. It can't be just washed off. It has to be picked up and properly disposed of. Detailed records must be filled out. The water and health departments have to be called. It is almost unbelievable. I could list multiple examples of where fire and police have to wait for someone else to deal with something that fifteen years ago we considered minor. Even a shipment of food requires a response from some health department before it is condemned and moved.

Recently a columnist friend of mine wrote a piece for the Dallas Morning News expressing the frustration that we all feel, when faced with a traffic jam. For information, he contacted the director of the North Central Texas of Governments (COG), Transportation Division, Michael Morris, about the problem. To answer some of the columnist’s questions about lane closures he responded with “I think you should be frustrated. It’s a pet peeve of mine too." He admitted that one of COGs roles is to train fire and police personnel in freeway management, "That means teaching them to lose traditional 'command and control’ strategies.” What Mr. Morris failed to tell the columnist is that while COG is trying to find ways to open things up sooner they are spending a great deal of time insisting that every inch of highway emergency scene is protected from bad drivers. I spent eight hours in a class recently showing me how to position thousands of feet of cones and fire apparatus, learning about blocking numerous lanes, near where we might be working, and what clothes to wear while doing this. All of this was an extension of the class COG has been teaching since March.

I believe that it might get worse, before it gets better. Using the state and federal guidelines and mandates, taught by COG, we might be closing more lanes and shutting down the freeways more often than in the past. The changes we have made in the past year shows us that. I am not saying that the changes are not improvements in safety for both workers and motorist. But they do tie up more lanes and time.

But will it ever get better? Perhaps. COG is also trying to work on clearing the freeways sooner. But this will take time. We are still going to be blocking more lanes, than in the past, but the hope is that we can clear the scene sooner. They are working on ways to get the people like the M.E. or tow trucks there quicker. (Right now wreckers try to average a 45 minute response or more.) They are also trying to find ways to locate accidents faster, to be able to get the right equipment on the way sooner. Perhaps Mr. Morris should have mentioned that it is often not the fire and police departments who are delaying opening up the freeways but rather the system they have to operate in and the other people they have to wait on. (And the new blocking guidelines and regulations.)

Everyone recognizes the need to clear freeways quicker. About 18% of bad accidents are secondary to one already on the highway. Traffic jams cause pollution and hurt the economy. The sooner we protect or clear a scene the better off everyone will be.

The columnist was questioning why the freeway was closed, for three hours, when someone committed suicide by jumping off an interchange hundreds of feet in the air to the highway below. He said,

"I'm all for thorough investigation. But for three hours? To inspect four lanes of pavement? I think I could do that in 15 minutes. If traffic were a priority, those lanes certainly could have been inspected and opened and opened one at time."

I am guessing that the M.E. had to be called and the investigation was extensive. Several questions had to be investigated. Were they pushed? Did they fall by accident or did they jump? Did other motorists then hit this person below? Did a passer-by move this poor person to the side of the road? What was involved in cleaning or securing the scene? Should we open the freeway and let people drive by while waiting for the ME? When all the factors are considered I would have to say that the city involved did an incredible job restoring traffic in just a little over three hours.

No one wants to get off that highway quicker than the police or fire department.

By the way, if you really want to reduce the number of traffic tie-ups due to accidents, perhaps we should encourage our elected officials to find ways to take more steps to address the large number of untrained, unlicensed, incompetent or impaired drivers on our roadways today.

To read the Dallas Morning News Column:

Below is the entire statement that was sent to the Dallas Morning News from the Richardson Police Department.

"When the Richardson Police Department responds to a call that involves the
death of a person in which the circumstances surrounding that death are
unknown, every possible effort must be undertaken to aid in the
investigation including a thorough collection of all physical evidence"

"During the initial phases of the investigation, it is unknown if the death
was a result of suicide, or murder as in a previous case at this very same
location. When the crime scene involves a roadway, the police department
has one opportunity to collect physical evidence; therefore all possible
measures must be utilized to be as thorough as possible. Unfortunately,
this sometimes involves closing a major roadway. We must do this because
once the roadway is open; all physical evidence will be destroyed. In
addition, we have an obligation to ensure the safety of all the public
safety personnel who are at the location participating in the investigation
and evidence collection. We do not believe that you, the public, or the
family of the victim would expect anything less."

"Finally, we are fully aware of the inconvenience involved to the motoring
public when the decision is made to shutdown a highway and that decision
will not be made unless it is absolutely necessary."

"The Richardson Police Department"