I wish what I am about to write about could be brushed away as an April Fool's joke. However, it is all too real in the world of First Responders. And though we often think of First Responders as members of of only fire, EMS and law enforcement agencies, it also includes "recovery operators," better known as tow-truck drivers.
Unless you've had your head stuck in the inner cavity of a engine company's pump, you must be aware of the plague of First Responders who have been struck and seriously injured or killed, while operating at an emergency on an active roadway. As I write this entry, police officers from Arizona, Illinois and Wisconsin are being mourned. Were they in a firefight with a bad guy? Were they dealing with a hostage situation? Neither! They had responded to an accident scene and were struck by distracted drivers. Additionally, we have lost so many firefighters, EMT's/Paramedics and police officers over the last several months, that the website, ResponderSafety.com, (an outgrowth of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firefighters' Association) along with the NFPA, issued an emergency declaration for Standard 1500 - Traffic Incident Management.
To be honest, I hate using the term, "distracted drivers!" It's too polite a description for these murderers. Yes, murderers. They took a life because they actively and knowingly, engaged in certain behaviors that drew their attention from driving carefully to barely being aware of what was going on around them. Whether they were DUI, kissing a partner, talking or texting on a cellphone, they made the choice to not focus their full attention on the roadway ahead of them. Thus, with wanton disregard, they have killed, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.
And the words, "I'm sorry," just won't cut it!
As First Responders, there is not a great deal that we can do in advance, to specifically avoid that distracted driver. However, working as a team, we can work to help save lives!
"5-Alarm Task Force" has been a strong advocate for better care and protection of all first responders, who attend to emergencies on active roadways. And so far, the best protection for all appears to be a well thought-out and well-planned blocking program. Do you even know what a blocking program is?
A blocking program is one where, normally the fire service, brings a specially-rigged fire apparatus or a large, sturdy truck, that might have been headed for the scrap yard, but have been re-purposed to help protect lives.
For example, in Irving TX, under the direction of Chief Victor Conley, the Irving Fire Department, lost a ladder truck, that was acting as a blocking vehicle at an emergency on an active roadways, when it was hit at high-speed by an 18-wheeler! Four firefighters were seriously injured, but survived. The driver of the tractor-trailer was not as fortunate!
After that incident, Chief Conley studied for months to determine how a safe blocking situation could be developed. He spoke with representatives of other fire, police and EMS departments, as well as the right civilians. Several important factors became clear:
1. The blocking vehicle, while sacrificial, must be a strong and heavy motor vehicle,
2. The blocking vehicle must be parked a good distance from the initial emergency, providing lots of room for first responders to work at the scene, as a buffer,
3. The blocking vehicle must have the appropriate emergency and other lighting, striping, etc. to make it highly visible to all,
4. No equipment that would be necessary to attend to the initial emergency should be on the blocking vehicle. It should only have additional tools, such as reflective roadway cones, flares, emergency scene tape, etc. that would be used to place the vehicle and delineate a safety zone.
With all of this in mind, Chief Conley was able to "rescue" a fire apparatus that was scheduled for auction or the scrap yard. He invested in some state-of-the-art emergency lighting and setup a policy that one firefighter from the station where the vehicle would be stored, was to drive it to an emergency scene when dispatched and setup the safety zone.
Now, some might say, "We don't have a spare apparatus! What are we supposed to do?" You have to work to get your community to work together. For example, you don't have an extra apparatus that could be designated as a Blocking Vehicle. So, ask your chief to call the Public Works Department, to see if perhaps they have an old dump truck or other heavy-duty vehicle that is on its way to the scrap heap. If your municipality is dedicated to saving the lives of its First Responders, the various agencies will find a way to work together.
And while many First Responder agencies are well aware of the danger on our roadways, they are allowing red-tape, conceit and other human foibles, to get in the way of doing the right thing. Thus, it is up to each of you who reads this, to take this back to your agency. When it comes to MVC's on our roadways, they are going to continue, no matter what we do. But we can do something and that something may very well save the lives of First Responders who are on-scene. Is there anything more important than that?
Steve Greene is the president of 5-Alarm Task Force Corp., a 501 (c) (3), non-profit company and the Creator/Host of the "5-Alarm Task Force" podcast.