Facing a scourge of distracted drivers, first responders have a new reason to make roadway safety a priority.
In February, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) urged fire officials to immediately issue a safety and survival alert in their departments. Personnel were asked to postpone nonemergency tasks for several days to focus on survival training when working on roadways.
The alert, issued by the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section in cooperation with the Emergency Responder Safety Institute, was created in part to remember the firefighters who had been killed when they or the apparatus they were driving were struck by other vehicles. Responders being struck on our roadways has become an almost daily occurrence, the groups said.
Roadway hazards are a problem for all first responders. With the prevalence of texting and other uses of smart devices, drivers are more distracted than ever, and pose an even greater threat to first responders on roadways trying to do their jobs. According to NFPA’s research and data team, 10 firefighters were struck and killed by vehicles in 2017, a large uptick from the 30-year annual average of four deaths. In addition, eight firefighters died in vehicle crashes in 2017. Similar spikes have occurred in both law enforcement and non-fire-based EMS, according to industry data. Historically, both groups average about four deaths in roadside accidents annually, but in 2017 six law enforcement officers and eight non-fire-based EMS providers were killed after being struck by vehicles.
A lot has changed with roadway safety since my time in the field. In the early 2000s, when I worked as a private EMS provider in the Boston area, wearing high-visibility garments on roadways was becoming the norm, but we lacked safety measures in other areas. For instance, where and how we parked our emergency vehicles was more a matter of convenience for us and for traffic flow than it was a safety precaution—I rarely thought about roadway safety when I positioned my ambulance. My eyes were opened when I joined an EMS crew in California in 2011. Agencies there strictly followed roadway safety protocols, in large part because a culture of safety had been nurtured for generations. Instead of prioritizing traffic flow and keeping the roadway as open as possible, emergency vehicles were used to block lanes or were angled to deflect impacts away from responders, creating distance and impact zones around event locations. Vehicle positioning and safety markers were utilized for roadway incidents because responder safety, not the convenience of motorists, was the first priority. These practices should be the norm across the world, but too many agencies still don’t do them properly.
There are other steps we can take to improve roadway safety for responders. Department leaders need to encourage personnel to review vital safety procedures and practice them in the field daily. The IAFC’s safety bulletin, the Federal Highway Administration’s traffic incident management tool, and its National Traffic Incident Management Responder Training Program are all valuable resources. There are also many NFPA resources, including NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program, which includes an updated chapter on traffic incident management requiring training for roadway-incident safety. In addition, NFPA 1091, Standard for Traffic Control Incident Management Personnel Professional Qualifications, identifies the minimum job performance requirements for traffic incident management personnel.
Finally, we need to address the consolidated tracking of all emergency response line-of-duty deaths, which is currently uneven at best. More data collection across the board will assist NFPA and others in the development of effective safety strategies to help prevent another spike in preventable roadside deaths.