6I Sinks In

Responders are being trained on a new federal guideline that asks them to handle traffic management during emergency incidents.

SOME emergency responders around the country are just now learning about a new Chapter 6I in the 2003 Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices recommending they control traffic during highway incidents that impede the flow of traffic.

6I says highway agencies, law enforcement, fire and rescue, emergency communications, emergency medical services, towing and recovery companies, and hazardous materials contractors should mutually plan for traffic incidents along major and heavily traveled highways and streets. The chapter recommends that such agencies train on-scene responders in safe practices for accomplishing their tasks in and near traffic. It also says responders arriving at a traffic incident "should, within 15 minutes of arrival on-scene, estimate the magnitude of the traffic incident, the expected time duration of the traffic incident, and the expected vehicle queue length, and then should set up the appropriate temporary traffic controls for these estimates."

A new color of warning and guide signs (DETOUR, EXIT CLOSED, and BE PREPARED TO STOP signs, for example) is specified in the standard for traffic incident management: black lettering and border on a fluorescent pink background.

The American Traffic Safety Services Association is conducting four-hour training sessions throughout 2005 to explain 6I to the responder community, towing associations, police departments, EMS, and others. Donna Clark, ATSSA's director of training, said traffic control by responders has been "hit and miss" up to now. "Some emergency responders are a little bit more advanced than others. Some do no traffic control at all, and some understand traffic still needs to move while they're doing their jobs," she said.

"When you don't do traffic control, you get a queue. And the number of accidents in the queue is high, and the percentage of fatal accidents occurring in the queue is also high," she said. For each minute a lane is blocked, four minutes of congestion result. Thirty percent of highway crashes are secondary crashes occurring inside these congested areas, and 18 percent of all highway deaths occur in those crashes, Clark said.

The 2003 MUTCD came out in November 2003. States have two years from that date to adopt it, to write their own manual, or to enact a supplement they will use instead. Most states pursue the third option, said Juan M. Morales, P.E., president of J.M. Morales & Associates, a Reston, Va., transportation engineering consulting firm. Morales is training emergency responders on 6I for ATTSA, which is based in Fredericksburg, Va.

The entire chapter is advisory rather than controlling, he pointed out. "There's not a single 'shall' statement. Even the color signage is a 'may' statement," Morales said.

He said he recommends that responders carry with them a kit that includes signs, sign supports, cones, STOP/SLOW paddles, and flares. Many responders aren't eager to take on this job and say they do not have room in their vehicles for such traffic control equipment, trainers said. Clark described the job of selling responders on 6I as "trying to find a happy medium."

"Traditionally, traffic control is neglected and ignored" as emergency responders tend to injured victims, Morales said. "What happens is, we're getting secondary crashes."

Morales said he tries during his training sessions to persuade police trainees to be dynamic--that is, he lets them know they can move signs and be in position to reduce speeds in the traffic as it clogs and builds up behind an incident scene. "I think what we're trying to do is make them be more aware that they could have a much bigger impact. Our goal is, whoever gets there first would have to realize that 'At some point, we're going to have to control traffic,' " he said.

Incident Classes
Sections within 6I discuss management of three classes of incident:

  • Major--expected duration of more than two hours;
  • Intermediate--expected duration of 30 minutes to two hours; and
  • Minor--expected duration under 30 minutes.

Section 6I.02, Major Traffic Incidents, says these typically involve hazmats, fatal traffic crashes involving numerous vehicles, and natural or man-made disasters. They typically close all or part of a roadway and necessitate diversion or detouring of traffic. "Large trucks are a significant concern in such a detour, especially when detouring them from a controlled-access roadway onto local or arterial streets," according to 6I.02. "During traffic incidents, large trucks might need to follow a route separate from that of automobiles because of bridge, weight, clearance, or geometric restrictions. Also, vehicles carrying hazardous material might need to follow a different route from other vehicles."

Guidance within this section says "all" traffic control devices needed to set up temporary traffic control at an incident "should be available so that they can be readily deployed for all major traffic incidents." The temporary traffic control should include "proper traffic diversions, tapered lane closures, and upstream warning devices to alert approaching traffic of the end of a queue. Attention should be paid to the end of the traffic queue such that warning is given to road users approaching the end of the queue. If manual traffic control is needed, it should be provided by qualified flaggers or uniformed law enforcement officers," according to the guidance.

Training for Towing Professionals
6I is also not an easy sell among towing companies, said Harriet Cooley, executive director and training officer of the Towing & Recovery Association of America (TRAA). There are at least 32,000, and perhaps as many as 37,000, towing companies operating in the United States, and many of them are small, family-owned businesses. Towers don't get the continual training that law enforcement, EMS, and other responders typically get, Cooley pointed out. "As a matter of fact," she said, "when they get to the scene, the towers are the only ones unsure whether they'll get paid or not."

TRAA obtained a Federal Highway Administration grant two years ago to write a Traffic Incident Management Tow Operators Workplace Guide for the towing industry, with the text of 6I included in the appendices. This TIMTOW Guide addresses arrival, scene safety, crash prevention, and quick clearance; it says the nationwide costs of casualties and delay are "a huge national issue and one in which towers play a vital role." The Alexandria, Va.-based association also received an FHWA grant in 1995 to write a certification exam. The exam asked about incident management, and a study guide prepared for it had an incident management chapter, Cooley said.

About 80 percent of towers nationwide perform "light duty" work, and the average size for all U.S. towing operations is only four to six trucks, she said. But even small operators may be called to major incident scenes where traffic management is needed, and this is particularly true in rural areas, Cooley said.

While 6I appears to hold all types of responders equally responsible for all phases of an incident's traffic management, it really asks them to take responsibility when their portion of the work is occurring, said Cooley. Law enforcement has initial responsibility at an incident scene, with fire/EMS having early responsibility in case of fire or injuries. Towing companies do their work several hours later, in some cases. "You're going to have to be a little flexible and do more than just sit for five hours at the scene and wait," she tells tow operators during her training sessions.

"We train the towers who are sitting there to go back up the line and help the traffic move. Little by little, people are getting on board and getting little chunks of responsibility," Cooley said.

Limited Emergency Vehicle Lighting Urged
Section 6I.05, Use of Emergency-Vehicle Lighting, notes that rotating, flashing, oscillating, or strobe lights are "essential, especially in the initial stages of a traffic incident, for the safety of emergency responders and persons involved in the traffic incident, as well as road users approaching the traffic incident." But they provide no effective traffic control and can confuse motorists, particularly at night, this section says.

"The use of emergency-vehicle lighting can be reduced if good traffic control has been established at a traffic incident scene," according to 6I.05. "This is especially true for major traffic incidents that might involve a number of emergency vehicles. If good traffic control is established through placement of advanced warning signs and traffic control devices to divert or detour traffic, then public safety agencies can perform their tasks on scene with minimal emergency-vehicle lighting."

The section recommends that public safety agencies examine their policies on the use of emergency-vehicle lighting and try to reduce its use as much as possible without endangering those at the scene. "Vehicle headlights not needed for illumination, or to provide notice to other road users of the incident response vehicle being in an unexpected location, should be turned off at night," it advises.

Encouraging Communication
Clark said 6I is "the first step: This is the first time traffic control has been in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices." Until 6I came along, the communities it asks to work together had not communicated with one another to any great degree, even though they share highway safety as a common goal.

TRAA's Cooley pointed out that just getting police dispatchers to uniformly communicate the class and model year of each vehicle involved at an incident scene would help towers respond appropriately and clear a scene as quickly as possible. The association's TIMTOW Guide includes a vehicle identification chart and explains where to find model year information in vehicles' VIN codes.

"So far, the response has just been tremendous," Clark said of responders' reaction to ATSSA's 6I training. "It's just opening up the communication lines--to know that responders can talk with DOTs."

This article appears in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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