Emergency Transportation Operations
photos of traffic merging onto congested highway, congestion in snowstorm, variable message sign, cargo, variable speed limit sign in a work zone, and a freeway at night
Office of Operations 21st Century Operations using 21st Century Technologies

Responder and Motorist Safety

Emergency responders are at risk from traffic as they work an incident scene. To limit their risk, the following policies are needed:

  • Formalized procedures to manage traffic flows through and around an incident area;
  • Ensure responders have adequate training in emergency traffic flow management, proper use of traffic control devices, emergency lighting, and emergency vehicle positioning; and,
  • Ensure they have and use ANSI Class 2 or 3 approved reflective clothing.

Additionally, motorists moving through and upstream from a traffic incident site are vulnerable to secondary incidents caused by sudden slowing of traffic, lane changes, and the situation or movement of emergency vehicles. Proper traffic control procedures at the site and upstream can significantly reduce the chances of secondary incidents. Topics in this area include:

Traffic Control at the Scene and at the End of the Queue

Two critical locations for traffic control exist with each incident. One is at the incident scene itself where clearly understood direction is needed to move traffic safely past the incident and protect responders working on the incident. The second is at the end of the queue of traffic that forms beginning at the incident and could extend back for many miles. While drivers approaching the end of a short queue may see the incident, drivers approaching the end of a long queue may be taken by surprise by a sudden slowing of traffic. It is estimated that approximately 20 percent of all incidents are secondary in nature, with most of these being near the end of the traffic queue. Secondary incidents are often severe, even fatal than the original incident. It is important to monitor the end of the traffic queue and move the advanced warning devices to warn approaching motorists as the queue grows.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) has long been an established national standard for the use of traffic control devices such as signs, signals, and pavement markings and for traffic control procedures. The MUTCD is well known among traffic and transportation professionals, but much less so among public safety and private sector responding professionals. Compliance with the MUTCD is required on all roads open to public travel.

The 2009 MUTCD contains a Chapter 6I. Control Of Traffic Through Traffic Incident Management Areas. This chapter defines traffic control procedures for minor, intermediate, and major traffic incidents.

Equipment Staging to Provide for Traffic Flow and Responder Safety

Undue delays in traffic flow (increasing the likelihood of secondary incidents) are often caused by equipment or vehicles that are not being used for work at the incident scene, but are blocking lanes that could be used for traffic. For that reason, it is important to have staging procedures for arriving vehicles and equipment so that the equipment can access the scene and be removed when no longer needed.

Emergency Lighting Procedures

Emergency vehicle lighting provides warning to approaching vehicles. However, excessive lighting from numerous response vehicles, especially at night, can be confusing to motorists and can even degrade scene safety. The use of emergency vehicle lighting is a contentious issue, given that the leading cause of on duty death among law enforcement officers (and a major cause among fire-rescue personnel) is traffic crashes, both on-scene and in response.

Office of Operations