Office of Operations
21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

Field Operations Guide for Safety/Service Patrols

Operator Information

Pretrip Inspection

Inspect your vehicle and complete the Pretrip Vehicle Inspection Form before beginning your shift. This form includes a checklist of all vehicle safety items and devices, including, but not limited to, brakes, horn, headlights, taillights, turn signals, backup warning device, emergency lights, arrow panel, and traffic cones.

  • Check that all safety items are operational. Do not drive a vehicle that is in an unsafe condition.
  • Verify that all tools and equipment are secure. Notify the supervisor of any missing items before beginning your shift.
  • Check all expendable supplies and materials that may have been used during the previous shift. Restock as needed.
  • Inventory the first-aid kit. Make sure the kit includes appropriate disposable exam gloves.
  • Recheck the vehicle at the end of your shift to ensure that all tools and equipment are in place. Refill or restock supplies or materials used. Report any heavily worn or broken equipment to the supervisor for repair or replacement.
  • You are responsible for the proper care of the vehicle and its tools and equipment. Your responsibilities include, for example, checking oil and hydraulic fluid levels, bleeding air tanks, and scheduling maintenance.

Personal Safety

Your job environment exposes you to many potential hazards. For your safety, you must be familiar with your vehicle and S/SP safety policies.

Working on a highway or near moving traffic is hazardous. As an operator, you must be extremely alert and use sound judgment to protect yourself, other responders, and motorists.

High-Visibility Apparel / Safety Vest

Wear approved high-visibility apparel at all times when working outside of the vehicle.

  • Keep your high-visibility apparel clean to maintain reflectivity and visibility.
  • Replace your high-visibility apparel when it is worn, heavily soiled, or faded.
  • Wear your high-visibility apparel on top of all other clothing, including jackets.

Personal Safety Items

  • Use your seat belt.
  • Wear gloves when changing tires or removing debris.
  • Wear disposable exam gloves if there is a possibility of contact with bloodborne pathogens. Do not use leather work gloves as a substitute.
  • Wear safety shoes-such as steel toe boots-to protect your feet from falling objects or crushing injuries.
  • Avoid loose or hanging clothing or personal items that may become snagged when working on disabled vehicles.

Photo of one of Chicago's service patrol trucks along with its equipment.
Figure 1. Current Truck and Equipment Used by Chicago's Minutemen.

General Operator Safety

Safety is paramount and should always be a part of your daily routine. Following are some specific safety guidelines:

  • Position your vehicle considering the safety of those at the scene.
  • Park your vehicle to provide maximum protection while you are out of your vehicle, creating a buffer zone away from the disabled vehicle. Turn your front wheels away from traffic.
  • Call dispatch with your "Windshield Size-up" BEFORE LEAVING YOUR VEHICLE.
    • Provide your exact location if possible using as many of the following as possible:
      • Route #
      • Landmark
      • Direction
      • Before/After Exit #
      • Mile Marker
      • Town
      • Lane(s) blocked
    • Describe the nature of the incident- "What do you see?"
      • Number and type of vehicles
      • Extent of damage to vehicles
      • Possible injuries?
  • Evaluate each situation, determine what needs to be done to manage the situation, and take appropriate action.
  • Maintain situational awareness. Being aware of what is happening around you helps you understand how your actions may impact your safety and the safety of other responders and motorists. Balance the risks and benefits of the action you are about to take.
  • Consider weather conditions when positioning your vehicle and setting up traffic controls.
  • Always think about your safety and the safety of others.

Photo of a Tennessee DOT HELP Incident Response Truck
Figure 2. Tennessee Department of Transportation HELP Incident Response Truck.

Priorities at an Incident

It is important to prioritize your actions when you arrive at an incident scene, especially if you are the first to arrive. The scene may seem chaotic and it may appear that several tasks and responsibilities need to be completed at the same time. Using the priorities listed below can help you determine which tasks should be done first.

  1. Save lives:
    1. Make safety your first priority.
    2. Preserve the lives of responders, injured persons, and passing motorists.
  2. Stabilize the incident
    1. Set up emergency temporary traffic controls.
    2. Prevent secondary crashes by warning approaching traffic.
    3. Practice safe, quick clearance; move crash vehicles as soon as permitted.
    4. Follow agency policy for scene preservation to protect evidence when necessary.
  3. Protect property and the environment:
    1. Contain spilled vehicle fluids to limit environmental damage.
    2. Upgrade traffic controls and advance warning.

Operating in the Interest of Safety

Taking action "in the interest of safety" should be the motivation behind all your incident management activities. Apply your experience and common sense to taking that extra step and making the right decision in the interest of safety. Instead of doing nothing, look for that something extra you could be doing to improve scene safety:

  • Set out traffic cones even if you only expect to be there a short time.
  • Encourage a motorist who has already called for a tow to move from a hazardous location while waiting.
  • Report abandoned vehicles to prevent a more serious incident.
  • Relocate vehicles to a safer location before performing repairs.
  • Do not take safety shortcuts.
  • Do something!

Traffic Laws

S/SP operators may have some special driving privileges and exemptions that are not extended to the general public. S/SP operators must be fully aware of laws and agency policy regarding these exemptions. S/SP vehicles are generally considered Official Vehicles and may be permitted to utilize median crossovers and paved shoulders or grassy areas to respond to an emergency or lane blocking incident when safe to do so. Local regulations and policies may vary.

However, S/SPs, in general, do not have the same exemptions to traffic laws given to police, fire, or EMS response units. You should always follow the guidance outlined below to ensure you are in compliance with all traffic laws in your jurisdiction.

  • Adhere to all traffic and motor vehicle laws and policies. Even when responding to an emergency, do not exceed the posted speed or disobey other traffic regulations.
  • Follow safe driving principles and practices.
  • Make sure all vehicle occupants wear seat belts in compliance with State and Federal laws. Infants and small children must be in properly installed safety seats.

Proper Patrol Procedures

  • Maintain a safe, steady speed consistent with traffic around you when on patrol. Do not exceed the posted speed limit, even when responding to an emergency.
  • Use extreme caution and travel at a slow, safe speed when driving on shoulders or grassy areas. Watch for other vehicles entering the shoulder from the travel lane. You may use the S/SP vehicle's emergency warning lights. Do not use shoulders to respond to non-emergency incidents, such as a disabled vehicle out of traffic or an unconfirmed incident.
  • Reduce speed during wet weather or poor visibility.
  • Maintain a proper interval; avoid following a truck or high-cube vehicle that restricts your view.
  • Check mirrors frequently and watch for vehicles in the blind spots.
  • Drive in the right travel lane whenever possible; most stops will be on the right.
  • Use emergency lighting and arrow panels in accordance with operating policies.
  • Set the parking brake before exiting the vehicle.
  • Use caution when exiting the vehicle. When stopped adjacent to a travel lane, look before opening the door into traffic.
  • Check your surroundings to ensure clearance before backing up. Use a spotter to guide you when one is available. LOOK BEFORE YOU BACK UP.

Leaving and Entering the Travel Lanes

  • Signal your intentions and give plenty of notice before pulling onto or off of a shoulder.
  • Activate emergency lights as needed. Do not use the arrow panel as a turn signal.
  • Use the shoulder to gain speed to safely re-enter the traffic stream.
  • Do not risk creating a hazardous situation by making an erratic maneuver if you see a stalled vehicle at the last minute. Stop in front of the vehicle if necessary or proceed to the next exit and circle around to get into a safe position.
  • Use caution when reentering the flow of traffic.

Operator Safety Guidelines for Motorist Assists

When working alone on or along active roadways:

  • Be aware of oncoming traffic.
  • Minimize the time spent standing or walking between your vehicle and other vehicles.
  • Plan an escape path.
  • Check traffic before exiting the vehicle.
  • Approach the vehicle you are assisting on the side away from traffic. In most cases, this is the passenger's side of the vehicle. If the vehicle is on the left shoulder or median, approach the vehicle on the driver's side.
  • Turn your head and use your peripheral vision to monitor oncoming traffic for potential errant vehicles.
  • Scan the interior of the vehicle as you approach it.
  • Avoid confrontations by practicing diplomacy.
  • Render assistance only when it is accepted.
  • Report unusual behavior to dispatch.
  • Park well off the travel lane where possible.
  • Practice space safety, parking close enough to read the license plate, but no closer than two to four car lengths. Exceptions, such as for jump starts, should be limited.
  • Avoid stopping in the glide path on the outside of a curve. Vehicles operated by inattentive drivers or at an unsafe speed may drift onto the shoulder.
  • Use traffic cones and flares for your safety as well as for traffic control.
  • Use flares only when necessary, making sure that there is no fuel spill. Do not use flares for illumination. Never kick a flare.
  • Use extreme caution when jump starting. Follow proper cable placement.
  • Do not remove a radiator cap from a hot or overheated engine.
  • Remove all flares and other materials when the incident is clear.
  • Always communicate with dispatch for your safety.

Photograph of two first responders in front of a CALTRANS freeway patrol vehicle with tow capability.
Figure 3. Caltrans Freeway Patrol Unit.

Diagram showing appropriate service vehicle and traffic cone placement for a motorist assistance stop.
Figure 4. Motorist Assist.

Transporting Stranded Motorists

Motorists on access controlled highways are at extreme risk, especially when they leave their vehicle to try to seek assistance. As an S/SP operator, it is your responsibility to assist these motorists and minimize this risk. When you encounter a stranded motorist on the highway, adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Stop and ask if you can be of assistance.
  • Use extreme caution when you encounter or transport individuals at night or if the individual appears to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If you feel uncomfortable or in danger, contact dispatch to request law enforcement assistance.
  • Follow the special guidance in the following section, Transporting/Assisting Pedestrians, if there is no vehicle in sight.
  • Offer the motorist the use of your cell phone to call for help if you are unable to repair a vehicle that will not start or can not be driven. If towing service or other help is not available within a reasonable time, offer to transport the motorist to a designated location within your patrol sector.
  • Caution motorists who refuse transport to remain in their vehicle or away from the travel lanes. Notify dispatch of their refusal and tell the motorist that you will check on them on your next pass on patrol. If you believe that the individuals are at risk or in danger-for instance, because they are elderly, have young children, or are in poor health-ask dispatch to contact law enforcement for assistance.
  • Contact dispatch when transporting a motorist to report the destination, number of people, gender, and current odometer reading. Immediately upon arrival at the drop-off point, contact dispatch and report your ending mileage.
  • Contact dispatch for assistance if there are more passengers than seat belts in the S/SP vehicle.
  • Do not:
    • Take motorists to have flat tires repaired.
    • Drive motorists to repair shops or parts stores.
    • Transport motorists to non-designated locations.
    • Drive motorists back to the disabled vehicle after you transport them to a designated location.

Transporting/Assisting Pedestrians (No Vehicle Present)

Pedestrians on access-controlled highways are at extreme risk. People walking along the highway not only put themselves in danger but may cause danger for passing motorists who may swerve to avoid hitting them. Most States have laws that make it illegal for pedestrians to walk along limited access highways.

  • Follow guidelines for your S/SP program. In some jurisdictions, law enforcement must be called to manage pedestrians on the highway.
  • Use extreme caution when approaching a pedestrian. If you feel uncomfortable or in danger when you encounter a pedestrian, contact dispatch to request law enforcement assistance.
  • Use the guidelines in the section above to assist the pedestrian but DO NOT provide transportation to a destination of their choice.

Photo of a Florida Road Ranger Truck.
Figure 5. Florida Road Ranger Truck in Tampa Bay.

Motorist-Aid Provider Protocol

Your job as an S/SP Operator is to help keep the roadway operating as efficiently and as safely as possible.

Be courteous and professional to tow companies, auto clubs, and other motorist-aid service providers; offer them your assistance and follow the operating guidelines for scene safety.

If you suspect or witness any improper activity or conduct, notify dispatch and your supervisor.

Photo of a service patrol truck operated by the Dane County Sheriff in Madison, Wisconsin
Figure 6. Safety/Service Patrol Truck Operated by the Dane County Sheriff on the Beltway in Madison, Wisconsin.

Push Bumper

Using the S/SP vehicle push bumper to relocate a disabled vehicle can be done safely and without damage by following some basic guidelines. Consider the location, weather, and traffic conditions. Contact dispatch to request assistance if you are concerned about highway traffic speeds, your safety, or the competence of the motorist. Do not relocate a vehicle if you suspect the driver is substance impaired.

A push bumper is designed to push a vehicle only for limited distances to reduce a safety hazard. Be prepared to explain to the motorist that you cannot push them down the highway to an exit or into a service station. Motorists may even ask you to push them to their home. Be polite but stay in control, and remember that your role is to reduce the potential of a secondary incident. Usually, a suitable relocation site is nearby-just make sure you and the motorist agree on the location to which you will push the vehicle.

  • Do not push a vehicle that has bumper misalignment, previous damage, or an obstruction such as a trailer hitch, tire carrier or a ladder. If possible, photograph the vehicle's bumper before and after pushing it.
  • Do not push a vehicle if you cannot see ahead of it.
  • Before you start to push:
    • Tell the driver what you want them to do.
    • Confirm that the driver understands you.
    • Advise exactly where you want the driver to go.
    • Remind the driver that steering and braking will be hard but will work.
    • Advise the driver not to hit the brakes hard or abruptly.
    • Make sure the driver can hear your instructions. The driver side window should be open.
  • Make sure the vehicle's:
    • Ignition key is in the "on" position.
    • Transmission is in "neutral."
    • Parking brake is "off."
  • Approach the disabled vehicle to be pushed slowly. Make gentle contact.
  • Check traffic.
  • Advise the driver that you will start pushing.
  • Push slowly, maintaining a shallow angle.
  • Back off before the driver brakes.
  • Advise the driver when to stop.
  • Instruct the driver to set the parking brake and secure the vehicle.