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

Field Operations Guide for Safety/Service Patrols

Incident Actions

Abandoned Vehicles

Abandoned vehicles on high-speed, access-controlled roadways are a safety hazard and can restrict the response of emergency vehicles.

  • Check for the following scenarios without entering the vehicle:
    • Injured, sick, or incapacitated individuals
    • Anything suspicious in nature, such as a punched ignition, damaged door lock, or a broken window with glass debris still in the vehicle.
  • Notify dispatch if you find anything unusual.
  • Advise dispatch if the vehicle is in a hazardous location. Dispatch can contact law enforcement (where this is the procedure) for expedited removal of the vehicle.
  • Tag or mark the rear window to notify other units and law enforcement that the vehicle has been checked. Tagging may also expedite the removal of the abandoned vehicle. Tag the vehicle only if it is not an immediate hazard.
  • Follow procedures for logging or notifying dispatch when you tag a vehicle.
  • Do not stop for an abandoned vehicle that has recently been tagged by law enforcement or another S/SP operator.
  • Notify dispatch of previously tagged vehicles that have not been moved after the time limit has expired.

Disabled Vehicles

Occupants of a motor vehicle that breaks down on a high-speed roadway face substantial risks. Make every attempt to respond promptly to this type of incident. Quick response will help safeguard vehicle occupants who may be tempted to accept a ride from a stranger or walk alongside the roadway to seek assistance.

Once you observe or are aware of a motorist who needs assistance, you have a special obligation to help that motorist. Within reason, you must adjust your direction of travel and respond to the incident with due caution but without delay.

  • Stop to offer assistance when a motorist with a disabled vehicle is encountered unless en route to a higher priority call.
  • Call dispatch and indicate your intention to turn around and offer assistance if the disabled vehicle is in the opposite direction of travel.
  • Notify dispatch of the location and basic description of the vehicle for follow up if you must bypass a motorist for a higher priority incident.

If you are dispatched to a disabled vehicle and encounter another along the way, you may stop for a short time and check the problem. Advise dispatch and request guidance for prioritizing response for the two disabled vehicles or request assistance from another S/SP operator or law enforcement. If you cannot make immediate repairs, advise the motorist that you will return after the other call is cleared. NOTE: This is an agency policy decision that is usually determined by the impact on traffic flow, nature of the location, and occupants of the vehicle.

NOTE: This is an agency policy decision that is usually determined by the impact on traffic flow, nature of the location, and occupants of the vehicle.

Relocating Vehicles from Hazardous Locations

Safety is your primary responsibility. If a vehicle is located in a hazardous location or is blocking a travel lane, make every effort to relocate the vehicle prior to making the assist.

  • Determine if the vehicle should be relocated to a safer location prior to rendering assistance in locations such as:
    • Curves-motorists tend to hug the inside of a curve or drift off the road on the outside. Make sure there is sufficient sight distance for traffic to see you.
    • Narrow left shoulders.
    • Locations where barrier walls or guard rails limit shoulder width and restrict your escape path.
  • Take special care when changing tires alongside high speed roadways. Consider relocating a vehicle if you must change a tire on the traffic side of the vehicle unless it is more than 6 feet off of the travel lane.

Basic Assistance

Basic assistance includes changing tires, giving jump starts, providing a small quantity of fuel to reach the next fuel station, and providing some minor emergency repairs.

  • Follow the Operator Safety Guidelines in the Operator Information section for vehicle placement and motorist assists.
  • Contact dispatch prior to leaving the vehicle and provide the following information:
    • Exact location, including direction and milepost or cross street.
    • Color of the vehicle.
    • Make of the vehicle.
    • License plate number.
    • Description of problem, such as disabled or abandoned.
  • Walk past the passenger door, and turn to face traffic. Clearly identify yourself and ask, "Are you okay?" and, "How may I help you?" Do not open the door; ask the driver to lower the window.
  • Inform the motorist that you will provide services free of charge. Explain that assistance is limited to 15 minutes if immediate repairs are not possible.
  • Return to the vehicle if you plan to attempt repairs and place a minimum of four traffic cones behind the vehicle along the edge line approximately 35 feet apart.
  • Move vehicles blocking a travel lane or in a hazardous location such as on a narrow shoulder or at the end of a gore area before providing assistance or repairs.
  • Relocate the vehicle under its own power or by pushing it to a safe location when possible. Follow the guidelines in the Operator Information section for proper use of push bumpers.
  • Contact dispatch and request assistance if the safe relocation of a vehicle on a narrow shoulder is not possible. Use the arrow panel and appropriate traffic controls.
  • Get as much information as you can from the driver when attempting to determine what is wrong mechanically with a stalled vehicle by asking questions including the following:
    • Has this ever happened before?
    • How did the vehicle act prior to stalling?
    • Do you know of any specific problems with the vehicle?
  • Avoid any disassembly or removal of parts. Instead, confine repairs to readily apparent problems that can get the motorist underway.
  • Direct the driver to have permanent repairs made promptly. Do not to refer motorists to specific tow companies or repair shops.
  • Offer the motorist the opportunity to make local cell phone calls if attempted repairs are unsuccessful. If the motorist requests a tow truck or motor club, notify dispatch in accordance with agency practices.

Traffic Crashes

You will frequently be the first to arrive at a vehicle incident. Your ability to quickly analyze the situation and take appropriate action to get the incident cleared is an important part of your job.

  • Park your vehicle in the blocked lane, or on the shoulder if no lanes are blocked. Notify dispatch of:
    • Your exact location.
    • Which lanes are blocked.
    • The number of vehicles and general vehicle description.
    • The license tag number(s) of at least one of the involved vehicles.
  • Approach each driver to determine if they can drive the vehicle to the shoulder.
  • Call dispatch to request law enforcement and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) if you see any apparent injuries or if a driver or passenger indicates that they are injured. Provide dispatch with as much information as possible on the number and types of injuries.
  • Ask each driver, "Do you want me to call EMS to transport you for treatment?" if the incident appears to be minor. If no ambulance is needed, advise the driver that you will safely help move their vehicle out of the road.
  • Offer to drive the car off the road if the motorist is cooperative but doesn't feel comfortable driving the car.
  • Relocate the vehicle with your vehicle if the vehicle is not drivable.
  • Start setting up emergency TTC and facilitate the flow of traffic past the crash scene if the vehicles cannot be relocated.
  • Do not leave a lane-blocking incident unprotected.
  • Clean up all debris and mitigate fluid spills before opening a lane. Do not move any debris until directed to do so by the investigating officer.

Photo of a crew cab tow-type safety/service patrol truck.
Figure 13. Crew Cab Tow-Type Patrol Truck in Miami, FL.

Diagram depicting the proper configuration of people and equipment at the scene of a single car rollover off the road.
Figure 14. Single Car Rollover Off Road.

Working with Other Responders

Responders at a traffic incident make up a team and depend on each other for assistance. You are the professional with skills in scene traffic control. Your purpose is to assist in scene safety, clear the crash, and provide manual traffic control.

Because you will be working with other responders assigned to your patrol area, you will have the opportunity to form a close professional partnership. This partnership will assure the effective and safe management of traffic incidents on your roadway.

  • Check in with the Incident Commander and begin to set up your TTC. Position your vehicle to help move traffic safely past the scene.
  • Ask other responders to position their vehicles within the coned off activity area.
  • Adjust the cones to protect all of the emergency vehicles. Fire and EMS may want to keep one additional lane closed as a buffer between moving traffic and their personnel.
  • Discuss with the Incident Commander the possibility of moving or repositioning some of the response vehicles to improve traffic flow once the injured are treated. Be persuasive but not confrontational. In some cases, after a few minutes you may again suggest that response vehicles be repositioned to facilitate traffic flow.
  • Be sensitive to law enforcement's job to investigate serious crashes, especially if there is potential for a fatality. Protect and preserve the scene as best you can to allow them to do a complete investigation. Pay close attention to who the drivers are and any other details if you are first on scene. Try not to park on skid marks or other potential evidence.
  • Give law enforcement time to document the scene and begin the crash report. Offer your assistance and begin to sweep up debris and absorb spilled vehicle fluids as permitted.
  • Ask for authorization to reduce the number of blocked lanes and begin clearing the vehicles off the travel lanes. (Vehicles from serious crashes with multiple injured or incidents with possible fatalities will need to remain in place until the crash investigation is sufficiently complete.)
  • Tow operators are part of the response team. Work with them to expedite the clearance of the vehicles, fluids, and crash debris. If a wrecker is not yet on scene, suggest to law enforcement that you will move the wreckage off of the travel lanes.
  • Always look for opportunities to expedite the clearance of the wrecked vehicles from the travel lanes.
  • Resume patrol once the scene is stabilized with full TTC. Confirm your intentions with the incident commander and notify dispatch that you are resuming patrol. Turn around at your first safe opportunity and look for any stalled vehicles or secondary crashes upstream of the crash site.

Relocating Crash Vehicles

In many cases, the towing company may not arrive on-scene immediately. You can assist by relocating the vehicle(s) out of the travel lanes for towing later.

Be aggressive in relocating wrecked vehicles from travel lanes to the extent permitted by your agency guidelines. Confer with the Incident Commander and begin to move the wrecked vehicles once injured persons are extricated.

  • Relocate wrecked vehicles well off the travel lanes-to the right side in most cases. Place the vehicle in a position that will allow the wrecker easy access.
  • Consider relocating the vehicle to an exit ramp or a safe area out of sight of traffic.
  • Drive the wrecked car off the road if it can be started.
  • Relocate crash vehicles with your push bumper. Get assistance with traffic and push the wreckage out of the road unless it is not safe to do so.
  • Consider using a tow strap as an alternate method to relocate wrecked cars from travel lanes. This method works well if there is front end damage where locked wheels may prevent pushing.
  • Look for and document any prior damage before relocating the vehicle.

Vehicle Fires

Smoke from vehicle fires can cause visibility issues that affect responders and passing motorists. It is generally better to maintain some traffic flow at the scene to facilitate the arrival of fire apparatus. In some cases, smoke may require closing both directions of traffic for a short period of time.

  • Notify dispatch upon arrival at a vehicle fire.
  • Assist the vehicle occupants and escort them to a safe area away from the fire.
  • Secure the scene and provide traffic control to expedite the arrival and parking of fire crews.
  • Attempt to extinguish a small fire if safe to do so.
  • Do not approach a completely involved vehicle. There is risk of a tire or the fuel tank exploding.
  • Set up TTCs.

Diagram depicting the proper configuration of people and equipment at the scene of a two-vehicle crash in two lanes.
Figure 15. Two Car Crash in Two Lanes.

Truck Crashes

Major truck crashes can have serious impacts on highway traffic. You can assist in many ways to manage the scene and remove the wreckage and spilled loads from the roadway.

Your initial role is to set up emergency TTCs just as in other incidents. Your devices are short term and will need to be upgraded to full TTC configuration if the incident is prolonged.

Your goal during a truck crash should be to safely reduce the size of the scene and the number of lanes closed on a continuing basis:

  • Take quick action to contain or absorb spilled vehicle fluids.
  • Relocate spilled non-hazardous cargo to open an additional lane.
  • Assist other responders to expedite reopening travel lanes. This assistance may include working with heavy-duty tow operators.
  • Modify and upgrade the TTC devices.
  • Remain productive and maintain a sense of urgency at the scene:
    • Communicate frequently with dispatch with status reports from the scene.
    • Do not sit in your vehicle. Sweep debris, manually direct traffic, or assist with lane clearance.
  • Discuss and coordinate the transfer of the traffic controls-once the TTCs are updated-with the Incident Commander, other responding personnel, and dispatch.
  • Resume patrol when the incident scene is stabilized and if your services are no longer needed. Concentrate on the upstream traffic.

Photo of an incident response truck with a DMS mounted on the cab that reads '2 right lanes closed.' The truck carries the WSDOT logo.
Figure 16. Incident Response Truck Operated by Washington State Department of Transportation.

Vehicle Fluid Spill Mitigation

Incidents occur in which vehicle fluids such as engine oil, radiator fluid, hydraulic fluid, brake fluid, and diesel or gas from a ruptured fuel tank spill into the roadway.

  • Identify the spill as a vehicle fluid, not cargo.
  • Begin containing the vehicle fluid spill to keep it from spreading.
  • Request assistance for large diesel fuel spills like saddle tank ruptures.
  • Contain and limit the spill from spreading. Build a dike. Apply any available absorbents-even dirt from the roadside.
  • Use available materials to try to reduce leaking vehicle fluids at the source.
  • Advise fire officials or cleanup personnel upon their arrival of the extent and location of spills and any dikes that have been built.
  • Continue to assist with containment as needed.
  • Advise dispatch of the estimated number of gallons spilled. Dispatch will make proper notifications.

Incidents Involving Hazardous Materials

Commercial vehicle incidents are one of the most challenging and dangerous tasks responders must manage. An incident involving hazardous material cargo is even more perilous.

While you should mitigate spills of vehicle fluids such as diesel fuel, you must address actual hazardous material cargo spills differently and with extreme caution.

Familiarize yourself with the material identification placards in the US DOT Emergency Response Guidebook.

Screen shot of the cover of the 2008 Emergency Response Guidebook issued by USDOT.
Figure 17. 2008 Emergency Response Guidebook.

At the scene of a truck crash where there is a spill or leak of an unidentified cargo, especially a placarded load, use the following guidance:

  • Notify dispatch immediately.
  • Remain upwind until the potential HazMat is identified.
  • Stay clear of hazardous cargo and the spill, as well as any vapors, fumes, or smoke.
  • Identify the cargo indicated on the placards from a safe distance and update dispatch with the placard information so that dispatch can assist with materials identification and notification of the appropriate agencies.
  • Check the driver's condition but only approach and assist if it is safe.

Two images, one of a diamond-shaped red placard featuring flames above an ID number. The second image is also of a diamond-shaped red placard with flames on it, but this one has the ID number posted on an orange panel below the placard. The text indicates that the 4-digit ID number may be shown on the diamond-shaped placard or on an adjacent orange panel displayed on the ends and sides of a cargo tank, vehicle, or rail car.
Figure 18. Example of Placard and Panel with ID Number.

Removing Debris

Debris of any kind on a highway is a major concern and presents a real threat to motorists. Accidents frequently occur when drivers either stop suddenly or make abrupt lane changes to avoid striking debris in the travel lanes. Debris is often kicked up by other vehicles, mowers, or wind and can become a deadly projectile.

Removing debris from the travel lanes is a potentially dangerous activity, and you should take appropriate caution. While there is no single safe way to remove debris from the travel lanes, consider traffic volume and time of day when determining how to remove the debris.

Debris on the shoulder has the potential to become a safety concern for a driver who pulls off the roadway. Such debris can damage their vehicle and may be thrown back into moving traffic.

  • Notify dispatch of any objects/debris you encounter. Provide the exact location, which lane(s) are affected, general description, and whether you can remove the debris unassisted or if backup will be required.
  • Pull well off the roadway and correctly position your vehicle for optimum protection and safety.
  • Use appropriate emergency lighting.
  • Keep personal safety a top priority—safety apparel and gloves are a must.
  • Park upstream from the debris. This position will keep debris that is struck by passing vehicles from being propelled into you or your vehicle.
  • Point at the debris to help drivers avoid striking it if you are waiting on the shoulder for traffic to clear.
  • Contact dispatch and request assistance if it is not possible to remove the debris safely. You may need to coordinate with police to create a rolling road block to approach the debris in some cases.
  • Remove debris completely from the roadway system if possible. If it cannot be removed, place it well off the travel lanes and shoulder to be picked up at a later time. Notify dispatch for follow-up.
  • Do not report the debris and continue patrolling without taking action to remove it.
  • Turn in any valuable items you find to your supervisor. Disposition of the items will be handled through established agency procedures.
  • Use your PA system to notify the driver of a truck with the load spilling on the travel lanes. If the driver does not stop, contact dispatch and give the location, type of material being spilled, direction of travel, license number, and, if possible, the company name and any other pertinent information. You have no authority to make the truck pull over. Do not become involved in a pursuit.
  • Stop and begin clean up procedures if a spilled load is a hazard to traffic. Request assistance through dispatch if the location is unsafe or the amount of debris too great.

Photo of a man wearing a performance class E safety ensemble removing debris from a highway and placing it on the edge of the shoulder for later pickup.
Figure 19. Debris Removal.

Road Closures and Detours

Major incidents with all travel lanes blocked for an extended period will likely require the implementation of an emergency alternate route detour around the incident scene.

Emergency alternate route detours are generally pre-planned along the best available route. Large trucks are a concern on detours because of both their size and weight.

If there is no pre-established detour, work with the incident commander and other responders to close the roadway at an exit near the incident that provides a viable alternate route.

Implementing emergency alternate routes requires substantial additional resources, including local law enforcement and public works personnel to direct traffic and / or optimize traffic signals on the detour route. Agencies may use temporary detour signing and portable DMS to help motorists navigate back.

You may be directed to leave regular patrol to provide motorist guidance or to monitor the alternate route.


Communication with dispatch is critical to motorist safety. Dispatchers need information regarding travel lanes blocked by disabled or crash-involved vehicles. Dispatch uses this information to disseminate advance warning messages through the media, on DMSs, and to other ITS devices. Advance warning provides additional scene protection for incident responders and helps reduce secondary incidents.

Radio Communication

  • State your call sign, status, incident description, and location. This communication provides dispatch with the information needed to contact appropriate response agencies and helps dispatch look after your safety.
  • Keep radio communication clear and concise. Unnecessary conversation can saturate the radio system and increase the communication queue for other operators and dispatchers. Limit dialogue to incident-related information.
  • Use plain language to communicate your message. The use of 10-Codes is not required.
  • Speak clearly using a moderate voice volume.
  • Use the phonetic alphabet to transmit information such as license tags.
Table 1. Phonetic Alphabet.
Letter Phonetic
A Alpha
B Bravo
C Charlie
D Delta
E Echo
F Foxtrot
G Golf
H Hotel
I India
J Juliet
K Kilo
L Lima
M Mike
N November
O Oscar
P Papa
Q Quebec
R Romeo
S Sierra
T Tango
U Uniform
V Victor
W Whiskey
X X-ray
Y Yankee
Z Zulu

Incident Documentation

Document all significant incident scene information at the time of your arrival, during the clearance period, and at your departure from incident scene.

You must prioritize; your responsibility during the incident is to help clear the travel lanes quickly and safely. Initial activity documentation can be done once the scene is secured. Any additional information can be documented once the incident has been cleared.