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

April 2017


Safety Service Patrols (SSPs) have been in use in one form or another since the early 1960s, and have emerged as a vital part of Traffic Incident Management (TIM) programs. SSPs may also be referred to as Freeway Service Patrols (FSP), Courtesy Patrols, Emergency Response Units, and Motorist Assistance Patrols (MAP). The different nomenclature reflects the variety of service patrol program implementations. FSP programs focus primarily on freeway services and are implemented by State agencies who operate in the freeway environment. Courtesy Patrols and MAPs are mostly contracted services to remove disabled vehicles from the roadway to maintain operational safety. Emergency Response Units address incident management and quick clearance to reopen or maintain safe traffic movement. For the purposes of this report, a common reference of "Safety Service Patrol" is used to describe service patrols and programs except where specific nomenclature or program references are addressed in examples.

The primary purpose of SSP is to improve safety on the roadway and to minimize the effect incidents have on the operation of the transportation network. Typical goals and related objectives for SSP programs include:

  • Reduce non-recurring traffic congestion and improve travel time reliability, by quickly and safely removing debris, disabled vehicles, and minor crashes from the travel portion of the roadway. It is important to note that removing disabled vehicles and abandoned vehicles from the shoulders of the roadway as quickly as possible lessens congestion impacts and improves safety for errant motorists and as importantly, the occupants of disabled vehicles along the shoulders.
  • Improve highway safety for responders and motorists by providing proper traffic control to support a safe incident work area for responders and victims while guiding traffic safely through or around the affected section of roadway and assisting stranded motorists.
  • Provide timely and accurate information to the Traffic Management Center, allowing staff to activate traveler information devices and systems, such as 511, websites, and the media, to warn motorists when they are approaching an incident or closure, or to alert motorists prior to their departure of the current road conditions, lane or road closures, diversions, and any delays.

SSP goals and objectives vary from program to program. The scopes of the various programs may be impacted by liability considerations as well as funding limitations. For example, some programs will not allow the patrols to remove disabled vehicles or minor crashes from the roadway, while other programs do not provide routine patrols or have limited service hours and only respond to incidents. SSP programs may provide benefits in both urban freeway and arterial environments, depending on the mission of the implementing agency.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has supported the incident management initiatives of transportation management centers (TMC) and SSP since the advent of TIM programs. FHWA has provided both technical and financial support to many States as they develop and deploy their programs. This includes development of a training curriculum through the Strategic Highway Research Program 2 (SHRP2) entitled the "National Traffic Incident Management Responder Training Program," that combines classroom training with tabletop exercises. The modules address responder safety, quick clearance, and inter-agency coordination and communication. Within this environment, FHWA continues to promote the use and capabilities of SSP, safe quick clearance, and multi-agency coordination and training.

In addition to being one of the most effective TIM components, SSPs also complement the management and operations efforts of TMCs. One of the key findings in this report is that SSPs and TMCs need to perform as a coordinated team. Clear communication between the TMC and the patrollers is essential. In addition, there must also be an understanding between both entities regarding the other's job functions and needs. The patrollers are often the agency representative on the scene in the incident command setting and relay the requests for agency resources from the incident commander to the TMC as well as any information pertinent to the event. Relationships among different incident management stakeholders are critical to the success of SSP as a traffic incident management tool. The most effective programs involve close relationships between law enforcement and SSP personnel who trust and depend upon each other.

The broader the scope of services offered by an SSP program deployment, the greater the benefits realized by the agency operating the program as well as the traveling public. Once the objectives and related performance measures for the SSP services have been defined, it is very important to capture as much data as possible to track the performance of the program and determine if the goals and objectives are being met. Based on focus group activities conducted by FHWA, three TIM specific objectives and associated performance metrics have been identified as follows:

  1. Reduce roadway clearance time - the time between the first recordable awareness of the incident by a responsible agency and the first confirmation that all lanes are available for traffic flow.
  2. Reduce incident clearance time - the time between the first recordable awareness of the incident by a responsible agency and the time that the last responder has left the scene.
  3. Reduce the number of secondary incidents - the number of crashes that occur after the time of the primary crash, either within the original incident scene or within the queue in either direction that is caused by the original incident.

There are many other benefits that an agency can realize as the result of implementing a successful SSP program, including:

  • Safer environment for other emergency responders and motorists measured by reduction in staff injuries in the vicinity of the initial incident location.
  • Reduction in vehicle delays and environmental-related factors such as emissions and fuel consumption.
  • Timeliness of verification and real-time updates on traffic conditions that enable more accurate traveler information about freeway conditions and estimated durations.

SSP activities range, depending on jurisdiction, from providing basic support services for stalled motorists to assisting in the removal of vehicles involved in major incidents and temporary traffic management through the incident site using vehicle mounted dynamic message signs and traffic cones. Each jurisdiction funds, staffs and equips their service patrols to the level they feel justified. For example, many SSPs operate 24 hours per day/7 days per week, but may not use the same number of service patrol vehicles throughout the day or in every geographical area.

Although the purpose of SSP may be clear, the impetus for such programs may differ depending on the region. Examples include:

  • Seasonal programs developed to reduce travel delays to vacation destinations while monitoring conditions along key access routes.
  • Construction traffic mitigation programs employing SSP to monitor delays and keep work zones clear of crashes and breakdowns.
  • Programs focused on the mitigation of non-recurring congestion in order to enhance roadway safety and operations.
  • Weather-related programs started as a result of extreme weather conditions.

Many of the current SSP programs evolved from smaller programs in response to justifications for greater network coverage as well as expansion of services from peak travel periods to off-peak hours, weekends and in some cases, 24 hours per day/7 days per week operations. When implementing or expanding an SSP program, factors to consider include:

  • Hours of operation.
  • Patrol route selection based on historical incident statistics.
  • Available personnel.
  • Number of vehicles.
  • Requirements for the types of vehicles to deploy.
  • Equipment needed on the vehicles.
  • Tools and equipment needed to perform the SSP support functions safely and effectively.

SSP success involves more than defining and implementing the service patrol program. Many policies, procedures, and multi-agency agreements are required along with strong relationships forged with other response agencies. These relationships facilitate the proper integration of the service patrols into the TIM response team. Training is very important for the patrollers. Multi-agency training and exercises can initiate and strengthen relationships and trust between the patrollers and the other response agencies.

These considerations are influenced by program goals, funding and resources, so it is important to keep the decision-makers and elected officials properly informed about the progress and successes of the program and the benefits that are realized. As agencies contemplate establishing an SSP program or evaluate options to update their existing SSP program, it is helpful to understand the justification for existing SSP programs. This report provides insights into agencies' SSP program experiences.

While it is still difficult to measure all performance metrics uniformly from program to program, advancements in technology have helped to make some of this data collection more accurate. For example, many agencies with SSPs have used performance data from their existing operations to justify maintaining or expanding operations of these patrols. Such information is especially useful given the difficult funding environments experienced today.

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