By Steve Austin
Published Sunday, August 19, 2012
| From the October 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Steadily increasing traffic, distracted drivers, smaller automobiles, cyclists, joggers, jaywalkers, higher speeds—you name the issue, the end result is increased roadway responses for fire departments.
Working on the roadway presents unusual challenges. There was a time when threats on highways centered around hazmat incidents; the focus was on how to keep the cargo from harming responders and the public. But the reality is that firefighters today must handle advanced vehicle technologies, such as alternative fuels and restraint systems that can injure or kill them if not mitigated properly. Additionally, these incident scenes are exceedingly dynamic, moving with every vehicle that passes.
Most fire departments find themselves responding more frequently to traffic incidents than working fires. Firefighters/EMTs working at the scene of something deemed just a “minor incident” are still exposed to excessive risk that cannot be ignored. As such, no matter the size or type of incident, the longer firefighters are on the roadway, the higher the chance that they will be injured.
Since 1999, the Emergency Responder Safety Institute (ERSI) has been looking at preventive measures to help improve safety for responders on the roadway. As such, we asked Ron Moore, the ERSI chief instructor and the dean of the University of Extrication, to weigh in and offer some ideas for how to mitigate roadway hazards.
PPE: Not surprisingly, Chief Moore points out the most basic of all injury-prevention initiatives—the proper use of PPE. “There are initial hazards encountered before a responder can even use their extrication training and before they can even have the opportunity to work with their rescue tools,” Moore explains. “These safety concerns can be addressed by being properly equipped for the hazards of extrication with proper PPE donned, including a high-visibility vest.” A helpful phrase coined by Moore: “When your feet are on the street, your vest is on your chest.”
All too often, responders simply don’t wear their vests—or they wear them incorrectly. Open vests defeat the 360-degree level of visibility and harken back to a time when some members responded to structural fires with their turnout coats unbuttoned or their earflaps up. Violators of improper donning of turnout gear are routinely corrected by officers at fires; that same philosophy should be applied to roadway PPE.
Warning Procedures: Advance warning procedures already required by public works and road contractors can help improve responder safety. In 2011, Montgomery County (Md.) Fire and Rescue, working with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Everyone Goes Home program and ERSI, studied how to deploy advance warning signs to warn motorists that firefighters/EMTs are working on the road ahead. Transportation folks always deploy signs to warn motorists. So measures for storing and deploying advance warning signs were created in the Montgomery County, and new procedures are in place to deploy these signs.
Blocking Procedures: Another very common and often-overlooked safety issue: blocking procedures that fail to create a protected area for firefighters working at the scene. Establishing a safe work area must be accomplished in the windshield size-up phase of the response.
On-Scene Hazards: There are many miscellaneous hazards on the extrication scene, such as downed energized wires, spilled fuel and unstable vehicles. Further, responders may face sharp glass, jagged metal, slippery surfaces, poor lighting conditions and inclement weather. These concerns must be identified and controlled to protect responders, accident victims and passing motorists.
Additionally, risks related to vehicle technology involve the potentially dangerous components and systems on the crash-damaged vehicle. Hybrid and electric plug-in vehicles can be completely silent and yet fully energized, ready to move forward under power. Responders must also deal with risks posed by un-deployed airbags. Stored gas inflators, such as those found on roof airbag systems, can contain gases that are pressurized at more than 10,000 psi.
Responders have always needed to be fully prepared to deal with the extrication, suppression and mitigation procedures. Now, additional training is necessary to address the traffic and technology issues that make the roadway incident a very dangerous place to work.
Sidebar: Additional Resources
Training resources related to the technology risks posed by newer vehicles can be found at the University of Extrication website (www.universityofextrication.com). For traffic-related issues, Respondersafety.com has launched a new free Responder Safety Learning Network, www.respondersafety.com that provides free online training. Current offerings include Advance Warning, Blocking and the National Goal for Traffic Incident Management. The modules are tested, and the system maintains training records and prints a certificate at the successful completion of the course.
Comment Now: Post Your Thoughts & Comments on This Story