Responders -- it's an all-inclusive term that covers law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical services (EMS), tow truck operators, and department of transportation workers. And last week sixty of these public servants assembled in the Hotchkiss Fire Station to talk about the vital topic of traffic incident management.
Hotchkiss Fire Chief Doug Fritz arranged the three-hour training session. Peter Igel from the Colorado Department of Transportation and Corporal Larry Graves from the Colorado State Patrol conducted the training. Participants came from throughout Delta County to take part in the training which is a national program administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration.
"We are pro-acting in the interest of promoting public and responder safety," said Igel, who serves as the I-25 north metro highway incident commander.
"The TIM (Traffic Incident Management) training program brings all agencies together to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to tactics to avoid secondary accidents at a crash scene," said Corporal Graves, who is headquartered in Montrose and also serves Delta County.
"The idea is 'one scene, one culture, save lives'," said Chief Fritz as he cited the State Patrol motto related to incident management.
The management of an accident scene is critical to avoid the dangers encountered by emergency responders who work in or near traffic. Statistics document the hazards they face. Every year, inattentive drivers who make poor decisions kill an alarming number of responders who are working accident scenes. In 2017, national death tolls included:
• Ten law enforcement officers
• Four firefighters
• As many as 60 towing and EMS recovery professionals
• An untold number of transportation and public works professionals.
Motorists not involved in original crashes are also killed by secondary collisions. Nationally, 18 percent of highway fatalities are caused by secondary wrecks. Non-fatal injuries of motorists and responders are also high.
The purpose of the Traffic Incident Management Responder training program is to reduce deaths and injuries by establishing a systematic timeline and agreed-upon tactics to manage an accident scene.
Although each accident presents unique circumstances, the sequence of events from the occurrence of an incident until traffic conditions are returned to normal is sufficiently predictable to conform to an incident timeline. The longer a scene is active, the more likely secondary accidents can occur, so having an agreed-upon timeline plan is essential to quickly and safely clearing an incident.
Within an incident timeline, specific tactics can be employed to assist accident victims while also making the scene safe for responders and motorists. Safety is enhanced by such basic tactics as quickly sizing up an incident and establishing command responsibilities. And physical aspects of the scene can be uniformly managed to position emergency vehicles (police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, tow vehicles) and direct traffic flow around the accident scene.
For example, positioning vehicles at an angle can reduce the chances of chain reaction collisions and using traffic cones to separate traffic and workers are tactics that keep motorists and responders safe. And at night, limiting emergency flashers to rear-most emergency vehicles can make the scene appear less chaotic and also reduce distractions experienced by motorists who approach from the opposite direction.
The behavior of motorists is critical to traffic incident management. Colorado's "move over" laws require drivers approaching a scene where emergency responders are present to change lanes and reduce speed. By the same token, motorists involved in minor crashes should move their vehicles out of travel lanes to the road shoulder or other safe area, providing there are no serious injuries and vehicles can be driven. And, as responders arrive, drivers involved in the incident and other motorists must remain alert and responsive to those managing the scene.
Chief Fritz emphasized that motorists approaching accident scenes must be diligent. They must slow down; avoid distractions -- including and especially the use of cell phones; and follow directions from responder personnel. He noted that such factors as weather conditions, time of day, and unique roadways make traffic scenes in the North Fork area challenging to manage.
Regarding local incidents, the Hotchkiss Fire District and the North Fork Ambulance Association have been working together for twelve years to "solve the riddle of how to keep Highway 92 safe." He noted that many accidents happen west of town where as many as one-third of Hotchkiss Fire's responses to emergency calls occur on the two-lane highway between the town limits and 3000 Road. Drivers need to be especially cautious along that stretch of roadway late in the afternoon when the setting sun reduces the vision of westbound traffic. And motorists need to be alert and cautious when approaching and passing accident scenes on that narrow roadway.