I assume that most of you either saw the pictures or heard the story of the McKenney pumper and Dinwiddie sheriff’s vehicle that were struck on I-85, by a tractor-trailer. The units were working an accident at 2 a.m. in the morning, when the second accident occurred. I know very few details about this incident, but I spent my last four years, blocking for the engine or serving as the Tactical Safety Officer. Interstates and other limited access roadways present tremendous safety challenges to fire, police and EMS personnel. You have noticed that the entire back of new ambulances and fire apparatus are painted or decaled with reflective colors, all because of the dangers associated with working on the roadway. The incident in Dinwiddie was costly, but the outcome could have been much worse if they had not had this block set up.
What I mean when I say the block are fire units that are dispatched to the scene, solely for the purpose of setting up a safe zone for the units working at the original incident scene. The unit(s) assigned the blocking task must take many things into account when setting up the block. If the incident is after a curve, there may be multiple units needed to set this up. The blocking unit sets up about 150 feet back, blocking as many lanes as necessary, to ensure the safety of everyone operating at the scene. You cannot imagine the number of near misses that occurred, practically every single time that we went to the interstate. A big yellow and white fire unit, with all the red lights on, a directional signal operating, traffic cones and flares out and there were still near misses.
Some states have laws that mandate that you move over, when approaching emergency vehicles operating on the roadway. The problem is that no one thinks about slowing down. Traffic is merging down to one or two lanes from three or four and people think that they can still travel the posted speed limit or above. Let me say this, please slow down and move over! Another issue is the rubberneckers. These are the people that should be driving defensively to get by an accident scene safely, but instead they cause another accident, thinking that they need to slow, almost to a stop, trying to perform their own investigation.
Have you ever gotten stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for a few miles on an interstate, only to find no disabled motorist or an accident? I call this the hiccup. A hiccup can occur because of something in your lane of travel or on the other side of the interstate. Anything that distracts drivers can cause a hiccup in the traffic flow. Major accidents on the interstate may cause the traffic to be messed up for one-to-two hours after the accident has been cleared.
The point to all of this is that you must always be alert when driving, whether you are driving your car or an 18-wheeler. The other day, while traveling east on Route 10, I witnessed about a dozen near misses between Route 1 and Kingston Avenue. Our roadways are crammed full of vehicles, driven by impatient NASCAR want-a-bees. As one who understands what happened on I-85 the other night, had the public safety culture not changed, there would have been dead firefighters, medics and police officers. The next time that you see emergency apparatus working at an accident scene, give them the widest berth possible. Slow down, not to look at what happened, but to follow the directions of police officers when proceeding around an accident scene. The lives of public safety personnel are literally in your hands.