The Job We Do Most Often. The Most Dangerous Job We Do.

Incident Management in the Fast Lane: Reducing Responder Road Rage!

“From our perspective, we considered it a minor accident: two passenger cars, a few bumps and bruises but no serious injuries – to either driver or their vehicles. However, the way the vehicles were positioned in the roadway and the amount of clean-up that would be required caused us to shut down both eastbound lanes of the four-lane highway, requiring us to split the two westbound lanes into one lane in each direction of travel.

First we created an upstream westbound taper to move all traffic from the passing lane to the driving lane; and then set up cones on the skip lines between the two westbound lanes, essentially splitting them into a two-way roadway. We then established a taper from the two eastbound lanes, shifting traffic into the opposing westbound passing lane, allowing traffic to keep flowing in both directions.

I was standing back-to-back with another firefighter as we were watching and directing traffic in both directions when a westbound vehicle intruded into our work zone, chewing up our orange reflective cones and spitting them out like they were candy corn. We yelled to the others to ‘watch out’ and the vehicle eventually skidded to a stop literally at our feet, just inches away from us.

Then the driver put down their cell phone, put the vehicle in park, and started to cry.

We, on the other hand, had a different reaction. Probably an involuntary one that required cleaning our turnout gear afterwards.”

If you pay attention to anything I share in print, online and in person; you know that my focus has little to do with hard core tactics and strategies. There are a lot of other firefighters much smarter at that than I am.

Whether the subject is command, safety, leadership, recruitment, retention or organizational forensics; my focus is on changing our perspective – our hearts and our minds – about the way we address both the challenges and the solutions to what we face in fire and emergency services.

Earlier in my career, my reaction to the intruder-driver depicted in the story above could have been one of yelling profanities or to “spike a flare in the hood of their car” as I’ve heard more than one firefighter threaten. However, experience and good mentoring has taught me to take the high road in my approach to improving highway safety for first responders.

Let me ask you this:

Of all the incidents your agency responded to last year, at what percentage of them did you perform traffic control: 25%-50%-75%? More?

I’d argue that we conduct traffic control on virtually 100% of the incidents we respond to. And, I hope that after our discussion, I can change your perspective and you’ll agree too.

If you park an emergency vehicle in the roadway – is that a form of traffic control? Is it the best? Not necessarily.

If you get out of your emergency vehicle and wave another vehicle past, you just committed an act of: Traffic Control.

By shear frequency, you as a firefighter have a better chance of being struck and injured or killed while operating in the roadway than you ever do of getting your picture on the front page of the newspaper for rescuing a baby from a fire.

For law enforcement the risk factor is even greater in that the opportunity to be struck and injured or killed while operating in the roadway is tremendously greater than the chance that you will ever fire your weapon in the line of duty in your career.

If you agree with those statements I urge you to adopt and promote this motto I coined – “Traffic Control: The job we do most often. The most dangerous job we do.”

My passion for highway safety was kick-started by “crashing” a National Highway Safety Institute course on Traffic Incident Management about six years ago. I wasn’t registered for the class but saw it on the facility schedule at the fire academy where I work and was interested enough to sit in. And, as they say in the towing industry, “I got hooked!”

That singular event spurred a whole new path for me in my emergency services career. Soon after, I got involved in the Incident Management Committee of our regional transportation coordination center: NITTEC-Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition.

I quickly joined a sub-committee in co-authoring and team-teaching NITTEC’s “Highway Safety Awareness for First Responders” course with representatives from NITTEC, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYS DOT), NYS Thruway Authority (NYSTA), NYS Troopers (NYSP), and the Towing & Recovery Industry.

Logically, it doesn’t take 5 or 6 instructors to teach a 2.5 hour awareness class but it’s not by coincidence that we do so together. We practice what we preach about getting all of the appropriate disciplines and stakeholders in the same room: training, planning, coordinating, communicating and collaborating together.

Why do we do this – because death doesn’t discriminate by profession or any other class when it comes to operating in the roadway? There’s no limit of statistics available to document how roadway operations-turned-tragedy impacts firefighters, emergency medical personnel, tow truck operators, police officers, highway maintenance and construction workers and other transportation professionals alike.

My involvement in NITTEC has proven to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my career as this team exemplifies the phrase “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit.”

I find my new-found passion kind of ironic, because, like many of you, I waited until well into my career before I even took my first traffic control course. Now I find myself being asked to do things like deliver a class on highway safety to the NYS Association of Transportation Engineers; the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs; creating and teaching a “Work Zone Wednesdays” series of safety training for our county’s highway department; and most recently, to develop and deliver a “Sobriety Checkpoint Set-up and Safety Class” for law enforcement, including an online version developed in partnership with

But that’s one of the points I make in our Highway Safety training class: Do we traditionally take traffic control training early on or later in our careers? My experience has been that we leave it towards the end of our careers to make highway safety a priority and it’s our “more experienced” members who are delegated the duty of traffic control, or what we locally call Fire Police. But does that make good sense?

As a chief officer in my fire department, we made it a standard operating guideline that fire police training was one of; if not the first training our new recruits were encouraged to participate in.

We did this for two reasons:

  1. This gave them valuable street-survival training that prepared them to effectively accomplish the task when we tell them to forget everything they learned since kindergarten and “Go play in the street!” to perform traffic control. Prior to our change in mindset, we traditionally gave that order with little or no training or direction, with the hope that it would just be common sense on how to direct or stop a high speed projectile aimed right at you.
  2. Putting effectively trained, equipped and supervised new recruits in the street frees up the more experienced and qualified firefighters to address the task at hand; whether it’s extrication, patient treatment, clean-up or firefighting. It put them in a position to act rather than just observe – and a very important position at that.

In our Highway Safety Awareness course, we talk a lot about the “D-Drivers”; which 20 years ago would have pointed to the most popular one being: drunks. “Ah yes, remember the good old days when all we had to worry about was the drunk drivers on the road?” But, reality is that there are so many more D-Drivers to be concerned about today. Here’s a few and I’m confident you can think of many more: Drunk, Disoriented, Drugged, Drowsy, Disturbed, Dumb, Distraught, Dangerous and last but certainly not least: Distracted.

It’s estimated that 1 out of every 10 drivers on the road today is a ‘D’ Driver. That percentage increases dramatically after midnight – and not in our favor. Talking on a cell phone, or worse, texting while driving; is the equivalent to having several martinis in your system and trying to navigate the road.

Here’s one D-Driver stat: Every year across the U.S., falling asleep while driving causes at least 100,000 crashes. Some 1,500 people die and 40,000 are injured in these crashes. Of the 100,000 vehicle crashes linked to drowsy driving each year, almost half involve drivers between 15 and 24 years of age. (Source: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation). Whatever the source of the ‘D’ problem, it affects stopping distance.

Stopping distance is the sum of perception distance + reaction distance + braking distance. Perception is the process of your eyes sending information to your brain and the time it takes for your brain to figure out that there is something in the roadway ahead that should cause you to change your speed and/or path of travel. Reaction includes the time and distance it takes that information to travel from your head to your feet as you remove your foot from the gas and start to press on the brake. Braking distance describes how long it takes your vehicle to reach a stop once you’ve applied the brake.

Under ideal conditions (attentive driver, good weather and clear sight distance with a vehicle’s brakes, tires, etc. operating in top condition), the total stopping distance at a speed of 65MPH may be the equivalent length of almost two football fields. Heck, what could possibly go wrong in 570 ft.?

Let’s put it another way: a vehicle 100 yards away (one football field) traveling 65 MPH is on top of you in about 3.7 seconds. What can you do in 3.7 seconds? How well can you perceive, react and avoid being struck in 3.7 seconds?

That’s why we need to learn how stopping distances directly correlate to recommended advanced warning, taper/transition and buffer space distances as we set up our TTC-Temporary Traffic Control Zones to keep us and those we’re helping, safe.

Nobody likes surprises. If your three traffic cones are tapered three feet apart giving the motorist just 10 feet to slow down from 65 MPH to 20 MPH; if your incident scene is flooded with more red and white flashing lights than a 1970’s disco dance party; if you’re “blinded by the light” and can’t tell what you’re supposed to do – how could we ever expect the average driver to figure out the right move?

I challenge you that in the majority of the instances where the motorist does not meet our expectations for how they maneuver through our work zone, it’s because we’re not giving them clear direction or adequate time to perceive and react. For example, using all of your fingers, show me one hand signal other than the fully extended hand to mean ‘Stop!’ that is universally understood by all drivers. Remember, I said “using all your fingers!”

The greatest test of the effectiveness of your temporary traffic control is to drive through it yourself.

Just like in HazMat, our greatest tools for survival when operating in the fast lane are:

  • TIME: Reduce the amount of time you’re operating in the roadway. Get in. Get the job done. Get out of the roadway.
  • DISTANCE: Increase the distance between you and moving vehicles. Let your traffic control devices do their job. If you don’t need to be in the roadway – get your human traffic cones the heck out of the roadway!
  • SHIELDING: Protect the scene and those working in it by using your biggest, beefiest vehicles to serve as a blocker should an unwelcome intruder invade your work space. But don’t forget about the direction of deflection and roll-ahead distance should your blocker take a direct hit or a glancing blow from a passing vehicle. Remember that for every action, there is an equal or greater re-action. Position your apparatus in a defensive position but make sure it doesn’t become a projectile headed in your direction when struck. 

And to some this may sound hurtful, but this correlation between a vehicle’s total stopping distance and our perception and reaction time to that same vehicle is another wake-up call that says we need to get some of our “more experienced” members out of the roadway directing traffic – and to a safer area where they can stay focused on the big picture of traffic control and direct those who are directing the traffic flow.

If you buy into the theory that “If the chief is doing the firefighter’s job – they’re not doing the chief’s job”; it could be argued that the fire police captain or lieutenant is not truly leading or looking out for their team if their focus doesn’t extend past the end of their traffic wand and they are in harm’s way themselves.

I once keynoted a fire police conference where an attendee well into his 80’s bragged that he was still in the street directing traffic – with portable oxygen tank in tow. While I admire and appreciate his dedicated service, what I didn’t appreciate was that his officers lacked the courage to redirect his talents towards a safer place in their fire department operations.

We need to compare a vehicle’s stopping distance to our realistic escape time once a threat is perceived. If the math is working against us, just like there will come a day when I have to make the life-altering but potentially life-saving decision not to be an SCBA-wearing interior firefighter; we need to protect any of our members with limited mobility, regardless of age or experience, by getting them out of the roadway – before they can no longer get themselves out of the way in time to avoid being struck by a vehicle intruding our work zone. 

I credit Fire Police with virtually inventing the fire service phenomenon known as “Brotherhood”, and one of my own personal brotherhood-theories says that we don’t necessarily need to like each other, but we do have to love each other; if only just a little bit! If we truly believe in the principles of brotherhood, we need to look out for our mobility-limited members by putting them in a position to truly have our back by getting them out of harm’s way.

While we’re touching on taboos here, let’s discuss one of the most prevalent and potentially dangerous D-Drivers: Deputies; or as my cohort, New York State Trooper Andy Flynn says: “Da Responder.” That’s not to single out deputies but is simply a ‘D’ word used to describe any responders who have the potential to be distracted by all of the emergency radios, cell phones, mobile data terminal (MDT), laptop computer, GPS, radar, AM/FM radio, scanner, sirens and etc. in their emergency vehicles as they’re responding to someone else’s emergency.

This is another phenomenon that doesn’t discriminate among firefighters, law enforcement, EMS or anyone else in public safety but is one that creates the opportunity for all of us to be part of the problem and not the solution. If nothing else, it’s a public relations nightmare when the very people charged with promoting and/or enforcing our state’s no-texting and hands-free phone use-only laws are caught engaging in the same unsafe practices. Most exceptions to the law extend only to emergency services personnel when using the devices to engage in emergency communications during an emergency. Unfortunately, technology-creep into our vehicles opens the lane for us to be some of the biggest offenders of these dangerous non-emergency habits.

I’m not immune to these distractions and often fall victim to “turn-it-up” syndrome. In my previous county-assigned SUV I had a low band radio (VHF-Lo), high-band radio (VHF-Hi) and two ultra-high band radios (UHF), one in the front console and one in the rear for on-scene command communications.

You know how it is when you’re listening to something interesting on one radio, and then you hear a ‘hot’ call on another band, so you turn that radio up a little louder to drown out the outside noise and distraction from the other radio. I even have a separate speaker mounted on the driver’s side B-post next to my left ear just so I can differentiate what I’m hearing out of each radio. Then of course, your favorite song comes on the stereo so you turn that up to hear it; until all of your radios are turned up to full volume. Then the phone rings…

That’s why I recently insisted that my new county ESU buggy be un-equipped with a mounted laptop computer and two less radios – and equipped with a hands-free speaker for my cell phone. Even with the “Sync” function in my SUV, I rarely take or make calls while driving as I make a conscious decision to tune out unconscious distractions.

I’m sure many of you have your own near-miss, D-Driver or perhaps even struck-by stories and experiences to share, as I have my own. But, by now I hope you’ll also agree that until we get educated and change our mindset towards how we operate in or near the highway – we may not live to tell about the next one.

There is no limit as to the information and training available for us to get this one thing right. For example, offers a wealth of free information including struck-by incident reports, SOGs and SOPs, videos, training modules, and free connections to expert advice.

At the end of every highway safety training session I step up on my OSHA-approved soap box and share my passion and theory that “We’re in the driver’s seat to improve highway safety” and it starts by putting ourselves in the other guy or gal’s shoes. Whether they’re wearing work boots, fire boots or tactical boots; it starts with having mutual respect, empathy and compassion for everyone else who operates in the roadway.

That means if you’re a firefighter, police officer or EMT and you drive through a highway construction zone where the posted speed limit is 45 MPH – take charge of the situation and slow down to 45 MPH. Because if you slow down, what does everyone else behind you have to do? That’s right, they slow down too.

And if you’re in the towing, utility, public works, highway maintenance, construction or other allied transportation fields and you drive past a law enforcement traffic stop, disabled vehicle or an accident scene where responders are operating: stay focused on the road ahead, slow down and move over to give them some breathing room to work safely without the threat of being the deadly target of driver distraction.

Like any other potentially hazardous situation, we need to lead by example. If the thousands of us who work in the roadway every day, believe in and practice the theory that “We’re in the driver’s seat to improve highway safety!” – We will be.

I recently created a poster that says that “Most of our Outcomes are determined by our Outlook – do we view the challenge as an Obstacle, Obligation, or an Opportunity?” It ends with the punch line: “Change or Don’t … Be Surprised by the Outcomes!”

We can fail to take responsibility for our actions and perpetuate our self-induced road rage theory that every driver is out to kill us, or we can tune out all the distractions preventing us from honestly addressing the importance of “the job we do most often and the most dangerous job we do.”

It might just save us from receiving one of those universally understood single-digit “You’re #1” hand signals from a driver D-isturbed by our inability to provide truly safe and effective temporary traffic control.

The light is yellow: proceed cautiously.



FREE INFOGRAPHIC: Emergency Responder Distracted Driving
Fire Engineering: Distracted: Dealing with the Dynamics of Driving Diversions
CDC: CDC Distracted Driver Injury Prevention Program