It is Wednesday afternoon around 5 p.m. You are driving home after a long day at work. The drive home is uneventful until you notice lots of brake lights and slowing traffic flow. You let out a big “sigh” and drag your hand down your face in frustration.
Traffic comes to a complete halt for about 15 minutes and then it progresses into a slow crawl. A few minutes more go by and traffic speeds up to a constant pace, but the line of cars in front of you still moves along at a slow speed.
As you move up, you notice police cars, a fire engine and ambulances all parked along the roadway with their lights flashing. Tucked in between all the emergency vehicles are three cars that appeared to have been in a crash. Firefighters and police officers move about the scene while you pass by and proceed toward home, 25 minutes later.
I get asked by lots of people why firefighters do what we do on house fires, ambulance calls and vehicle accidents. Everything we do has a reason and it is premised on the concept of safety. Safety is of the utmost importance to firefighters and those we have been summoned to help. Vehicle accidents are no exceptions because of the dynamic scene that still encompasses us as we work to treat patients, perform extrication techniques and secure vehicle hazards.
In 2000, Chicago Fire Lieutenant Scott Gillen was working the scene of a vehicle accident and was struck by a motorist traveling too close to the scene at a high rate of speed. The tragic result influenced the passing of Illinois Statute 625 ILCS 5/11-907(c), commonly known as Scott’s Law. The law requires all motorist to reduce their speed, yield the right-of-way by changing lanes opposite from an emergency vehicle, and proceed with due regard to safety and traffic conditions.
According to the United Fire States Fire Administration, 70 firefighters were struck and killed while operating on emergency roadway incidents between 1996 and 2010. Part of this report refers to the conclusion that the deaths of these firefighters were a direct result of distracted or erratic driving through emergency vehicle incidents.
With the amount of traffic that has resulted from the Arsenal Road reconfiguration and the latest Des Plaines River Bridge project at I-55, the potential for area fire departments responding to roadway emergencies is very likely. The goal of this month’s column is to explain what you can expect to see at emergency roadway incidents and what you can do to enhance the firefighters’ and your safety.
As you approach any emergency scene on the roadway, begin to slow your speed and look for an opportunity to position yourself in the lane opposite of the scene, if possible. Be aware of other emergency vehicles that might be responding to assist, so pay close attention to your mirrors and the area around your vehicle. Prepare for traffic to stop depending on the severity of the accident and its position on the road. Never try to drive around the accident scene, as you may not be able to see all the existing hazards.
As you approach the scene, you may note several observations: the fire engine might be slightly angled outward in the affected traffic lane or may have both lanes completely blocked. You might even see a large reflective chevron on the rear of the engine and other emergency fire vehicles. Emergency vehicle drivers are trained to position their fire engine in this manner to create a barrier between moving traffic and the scene and the chevron enhances visibility for oncoming motorists. It provides a safer area for the firefighters and paramedics to work.
In addition, you might notice cones or flashing LEDs deployed in such a fashion that provides visual guidance for temporary lane configuration. These configurations are established using training firefighters have gained in temporary traffic control procedures.
You will also see firefighters and paramedics moving around the scene in the protective equipment wearing bright color vests. These vests are worn to ensure personnel are very visible to you during the day and night. You will see various types of equipment positioned throughout the emergency scene, including the cot, medical equipment, and, for severe accident scenes, extrication equipment.
As you drive your vehicle through these types of scenes, please remember these safety tips to maximize safety for everyone. Please reduce your speed, discontinue the use of your cell phone, and be attentive to the emergency responders and vehicles.
There are many things that occur from the time we arrive on the scene of an emergency road way incident to its termination. Throughout this time period, we do everything we can to ensure the safety of the people involved and the motorists affected by the incident. Please help us make the scene safer by being aware of our actions as well as adhering to the safety precautions.
Roadway safety is a team effort. It involves everyone who may be directly or indirectly impacted by emergency roadway incidents, including the person driving home from a long day at work.
John Petrakis is the chief of the Channahon Fire Department. He writes a monthly column — of which this column is an installment — for the Morris Daily Herald’s sister publication, Minooka-Channahon Life.