Traffic Incident Management
Various traffic incident management scenes - heavy traffic after accident, traffic planning, police car blocking road, overturned car on bridge, detour, rescue workers.
Office of Operations 21st Century Operations using 21st Century Technologies

Traffic Incident Management Stakeholders

Traffic Incident Management is a planned and coordinated program process to detect, respond to, and remove traffic incidents and restore traffic capacity as safely and quickly as possible. This coordinated process involves a number of public and private sector stakeholders, including:

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement agencies include State Police and Highway Patrols, County Police and County Sheriffs, Township and Municipal Police and other agencies which have officers sworn to enforce laws. On the scene of a traffic incident the duties of these officials include:

  • Securing the incident scene
  • Providing emergency medical aid until help arrives
  • Safeguarding personal property
  • Conducting accident investigations
  • Serving as incident commander
  • Supervising scene clearance
  • Assisting disabled motorists
  • Directing traffic

Jurisdiction of law enforcement agencies varies widely from state to state and even within a state. Typically, State Police and Highway Patrols have jurisdiction on State highways and county and municipal police have jurisdiction off the State highway system. State Police and Highway Patrols have statewide coverage and many lack sufficient resources to adequately respond to incidents on State highways in urban areas. In many locations, State law enforcement agencies receive assistance from county and local agencies and in some cases local law enforcement has jurisdiction even on State highways.

Law enforcement agencies are first responders at traffic incident scenes, providing 24-hour emergency response and operating under a paramilitary command structure. At most traffic incidents, law enforcement officers act alone and trained to make unilateral command decisions.

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Fire and Rescue

Fire and rescue services are provided by county and municipal fire departments, and by surrounding fire departments through mutual aid agreements. Typical roles and responsibilities at traffic incidents assumed by fire and departments include:

  • Protecting the incident scene
  • Suppressing fires
  • Providing emergency medical care
  • Serving as incident commander
  • Providing initial HAZMAT response and containment
  • Rescuing crash victims from contaminated environments
  • Rescuing crash victims from wrecked vehicles
  • Arranging transportation for the injured
  • Assisting in incident clearance
  • Providing traffic control until law enforcement or DOT arrival

In most jurisdictions, the fire department is the primary emergency response agency for hazardous materials spills. Like law enforcement agencies, fire and rescue departments also operate as first responders under a well-defined command structure providing 24-hour emergency response. Unlike law enforcement, who operate individually for most duties, fire departments operate under a highly organized team structure with the close supervision of a commanding officer. Fire departments and emergency medical service providers (EMS) also act at the direction of one decision maker, and may not respond individually to requests from other response agencies unless their command officer directs them to do so.

In most large urban areas, full time professional personnel staff fire and rescue departments. In many suburban and in most rural areas, volunteers primarily provide fire and rescue services.

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Emergency Medical Services (EMS)

The primary responsibilities of EMS are the triage, treatment, and transport of crash victims. In many areas, fire and rescue companies provide emergency medical services. In some areas, other agencies or private companies provide these services to local jurisdictions under contract. Typical roles and responsibilities assumed by EMS at traffic incidents include:

  • Providing advanced emergency medical care
  • Determining of destination and transportation requirements for the injured
  • Coordinating evacuation with fire, police and ambulance or airlift
  • Serving as incident commander for medical emergencies
  • Determining approximate cause of injuries for the trauma center
  • Removing medical waste from incident scene

Emergency medical services have evolved as primary care givers to individuals needing medical care in emergencies. As with police, emergency medical personnel have a defined set of priorities. They focus on providing patient care, crash victim rescue, and ensuring the safety of their personnel.

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Transportation agencies are typically responsible for the overall planning and implementation of traffic incident management programs. Typically, these agencies are also involved in the development, implementation, and operation of traffic operations centers (TOC), as well as the management of service patrols. Typical operational responsibilities assumed by transportation agencies and their service patrols include:

  • Assist in incident detection and verification
  • Initiate traffic management strategies on incident impacted facilities
  • Protect the incident scene
  • Initiate emergency medical assistance until help arrives
  • Provide traffic control
  • Assist motorist with disabled vehicles
  • Provide motorist information
  • Provide sand for absorbing small fuel and anti-freeze spills
  • Provide special equipment clearing incident scenes
  • Determine incident clearance and roadway repair needs
  • Establish and operate alternate routes
  • Coordinate clearance and repair resources
  • Serve as incident commander for clearance and repair functions
  • Repair transportation infrastructure

Transportation agencies are secondary responders. That is, they are typically called to the incident scene by first responders, usually law enforcement. Transportation agencies are rarely connected directly to public safety emergency communications and dispatch systems.

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Public Safety Communications

Public safety communications services are the 911 call takers and dispatchers. In larger urban areas, call taking and dispatching duties may be separated. Call takers route emergency calls to appropriate dispatch. In some areas, all public safety emergency calls (police, fire and rescue, and emergency medical) are handled in one joint center with call takers sending calls to appropriate agency dispatch depending on the nature of the call. In smaller urban areas and in many rural areas, call-takers may also dispatch public safety response. Most larger urban areas have E911 capabilities so that call takers can obtain the location of landline 911 calls. Many rural areas do not yet have E911. Most calls on highway emergencies come from cellular telephones that are currently not able to provide location information for 911 calls.

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Emergency Management

State and local governments have agencies whose duties are to plan for and coordinate multi-agency response to large-scale emergencies such as natural and man-made disasters. They have specific responsibilities under both federal and state law. Even very large highway incidents rarely activate emergency response plans unless they necessitate evacuation due to a spill or presence of hazardous materials. Emergency management agencies maintain lists of the location of many public and private sector resources that might be needed in a major emergency. These lists and contacts for activating resources are valuable tools in planning multi-agency response to major highway incidents.

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Towing and Recovery

Towing and recovery service providers are responsible for the safe and efficient removal of wrecked or disabled vehicles, and debris from the incident scene. Their typical responsibilities include:

  • Recover and remove vehicles from incident scene
  • Protect victims' property and vehicles
  • Remove debris from the roadway
  • Provide other services, such as traffic control, as directed or under contract

Towing and recovery companies are secondary responders operating under a towing arrangement usually maintained by a law enforcement agency. Towing and recovery arrangements generally fall under one of two major types – rotation or contract. In rotation towing, a police department will maintain a list of pre-qualified companies and will rotate the call of those companies. In many locations, rotation lists are classified by specific company capabilities so that a company with only automobile towing equipment doesn't get called to a truck incident. Rotation lists may also be maintained by location zones so that companies closer to the incident scene will get called. In contract towing, companies are contracted to provide specific services on call. The contracts are often awarded through a bidding process and qualification requirements to bid may be more rigid than requirements for placement on a rotation list. Contracts may also be awarded on a zone basis to help enable response by the closest qualified company.

Towing and recovery companies that respond to highway incidents are indispensable components of all incident management programs. Even programs that include service patrols with relocation capability depend heavily on towing and recovery service providers. Challenges facing this industry are unique because they are not public agencies. As such, they must remain profitable to retain a skilled work force, purchase and maintain expensive and complex equipment, and to stay in business.

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Hazardous Materials Contractors

Hazardous materials contractors operate in a number of regions in the United States. They are hired by emergency or transportation authorities to clean up and dispose of toxic or hazardous materials. Most common (and small quantity) engine fluid spills (oil, diesel fuel, gasoline, anti-freeze, etc.) can be contained and cleaned up without calling hazardous materials contractors.

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Traffic Information Media

Traffic information service providers are primarily private sector companies that gather and disseminate traffic condition information. These private providers are the primary source of information for commercial radio traffic information broadcasts, the most common source of traffic information for motorists. These companies also package specific information on a route or time of day basis to paying clients who subscribe for the information. In recent years, many Internet sites have been created to provide road condition and traffic information. A mixture of public sector agencies and private information service providers maintains these sites.

In 2000, the federal Communications Commission approved 511 as a national traffic information telephone number. Activity is underway in some locations to provide traffic information through a 511 number. For more information on 511, please go to the FHWA Operations Real Time Traveler Information Web site.

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Public Works

Most technicians who maintain traffic signals, signs, and roadway lighting and respond to repair or restore these devices damaged in collisions work for a local Public Works agency the State Department of Transportation Public Works divisions. They often assist with temporary traffic control (TTC) at the scene of an incident. Public works professional are an integral part of incident response and quick clearance and should be represented in regional TIM committees and in-person TIM responder training.

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Contact Us

For more information, please contact:

Paul Jodoin
Transportation Specialist
Emergency Transportation Operations Team
Office of Operations, Federal Highway Administration
Department of Transportation