My son is a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer welltrained in accident investigation. He's better trained than me (and most EMS and fire responders) at controlling, stopping and diverting traffic at collision scenes on multi-lane highways. He recently responded to a crash that, although located on a straight section of highway, was visible only after fast-moving vehicles rounded a blind curve. Another officer had arrived on scene first and positioned his cruiser to divert traffic away from the vehicles near the right shoulder.
When the first-in engine arrived, the company officer had the engineer block the shoulder and two lanes, forcing traffic to slow suddenly as it rounded the curve and causing a dangerous backup. Judging it advantageous to have an additional lane open to keep traffic flowing in a more controlled manner, both officers asked the fire captain to reposition the engine. The captain initially refused, concerned about the safety of his personnel, but after a clear explanation of the traffic flow and hazard issues, had the engine repositioned.
Ironically, 10 days before that incident, an engine from the same department was totaled when a car hit it. The engine was parked at a 30-degree angle to "block" two lanes of traffic on a dark section of highway after midnight (see Photo 1). The family was critically injured. That crash was on the minds of both my son and his fellow officer days later when they pushed for the engine to be repositioned.
Our Visibility Options
While reviewing photos from the car-versus-fire truck collision, I was reminded that it's not just the size of the vehicle that's important when it's positioned to block and protect a scene, but also its ability to visually warn oncoming traffic early enough toallow for the proper reaction time.
We've known for a long time that dark-colored apparatus and a single, narrow reflective stripe do little to warn oncoming traffic at night. It's one of the reasons most departments are adopting the recommended wide, reflective, rear chevron striping. Many have also made the smart decision to add angled lights to the front corners, which eliminate blind spots when entering intersections.
But now that many EMS and fire agencies are moving to all fixed-position LED lights, we're losing the impact and effectiveness we've had for years with revolving lights. Although a slight drain on a vehicle's electrical system, revolving lights have offered us a safety feature that we often forget: No matter what angle a vehicle is positioned at on a roadway, the 360 "sweep" of the revolving lights hits the target audience and eliminates blind spots that can occur with fixed-direction flashing lights.
Incident commanders, company officers and law enforcement personnel should make a conscious effort at every scene to position the most effective "warning" vehicle closest to the view of oncoming drivers. In some cases, it might be better for a police cruiser with multiple revolving or multi-directional lights to be parked closer to oncoming traffic than a large engine without 360 warning light visibility.
(see Photo 2).
When you respond to a traffic collision on a highway where traffic is still flowing, you're in serious danger of being hit by oncoming traffic. EMS, fire and law enforcement personnel often joust needlessly over whose responsibility it is to warn and divert oncoming traffic because weallhave a vested interest in positioning vehicles and blocking scenes early and effectively.
Look at all of your vehicles from the rear during the day andatnight. See where you can improve visibility and eliminate blind warning spots, particularly when the vehicle is parked at an angle, by adding LED or revolving lights. It may save your life, your friend's life or your patient's.JEMS
This article originally appeared in October 2009 JEMS as "Protect your Rear: Putting your Best Lights Forward."