13 Considerations for Operating Safely on Interstates & Divided Highways

As I sit down to write this, FDNY is saying goodbye to hero Firefighter Steven H. Pollard. Unfortunately, why operating at an auto accident on a divided highway, he fell between the two elevated structures, why trying to physically cross over to the travel lanes in the opposite direction. Like so many FDNY members who have made the ultimate sacrifice, it will not go in vain. We will, and must learn from this tragedy to ensure we don’t suffer the same fate. This very same thing happened in Leeds, New York in upstate a few years ago. A firefighter from Long Island, heading home after spending time with his family upstate, encountered an accident on the bridge crossing the Catskill Creek on State Route 23. He parked on the eastbound structure that night and thought he was hoping the concrete barrier to the westbound lanes. Tragically while his family sat in their car he too fell to his death. A fine example of a brother doing what we do, helping others. Those of us who have these types of roads in our first due usually train and emphasize blocking the scene for safety. We need to take into account all the other x-factors when operating on an interstate or divided highway.

General overview:
I personally have a pretty extensive background on interstate operations. I have served in a department that covers a major interstate highway. I also am responsible for maintenance operations for that same interstate in New York. I have personally been in vehicles on the interstate that have been struck by inattentive drivers twice. One gentleman who struck me had to be extricated from his vehicle. I have responded to thousands of incidents on the interstate highway, both as a firefighter and my duties as a highway manager for the state.
Emergency operations on an interstate and divided highways are in a different league then a city street or back road. Traffic generally moves 10 mph faster than the posted limits. Truck and trailer combinations up to 160,000 lbs are common. Distracted driving is a constant reality that poses a real danger to first responders. We can encounter large stretches with no highway lighting or lighting from nearby cities. We will encounter people from all over the world moving all kinds of illegal cargo. Including sometimes human cargo. So it’s a world of its own with unique challenges. We are being struck and either injured or killed. Plain and simple we are losing too many in the firefighting family on interstate accidents. Being either a tragedy like FDNY has just been through or being struck by passing vehicles. We have to do our departed brothers proud and learn from their tragedies. So the following are some quick-hitting points to digest and mull over. Maybe they can help your department to do the best it can to remain safe at an interstate scene.

Operating in the travel lanes and shoulders:

1) If you are going to close a lane for protection, close the entire lane. Never take half a lane, it should be ALL of it. Traffic will merge until the last possible chance even if a fire truck is in the lane. Taking half the lane encourages stupid and unpredictable behavior right up until the last possible point to merge.

2) Many departments use blocker apparatus across the lane or lanes they want to close off to traffic. This is a necessity in an emergency. Jurisdictions who run many calls on interstates should consider investing in an attenuator crash truck. Station this vehicle at a house that responds frequently on the interstate to maximize its use. It’s a one-person operation that can be brought to the scene and have to be placed quickly. The driver can operate the attenuator from the cab and then continue on, to assist the rest of his company. You see these vehicles on many interstate job sites. These vehicles not only protect the scene you are working, but they also give a lot higher survival rate to those who have the misfortune to strike them. They are engineered to absorb energy from the striking vehicle. Replacing the attenuator cartridge is a lot cheaper than a million dollar truck and can be back in service within hours.
This may not be popular, but if closing lanes I recommend a blocker vehicle for each lane closed. So if two lanes blocked, a blocker truck for each lane. I know the fire service likes to park sideways or at angles to take lanes. I agree with this initially, however, if a tractor-trailer strikes it may roll the blocking vehicle into the very site you are trying to protect. It will also launch any equipment stowed towards the scene like a projectile. A blocker truck in each lane with the wheels turned to the direction you want the vehicle to go if struck will reduce the chance of your blocker vehicle entering the area you are protecting. 125′ is ideal spacing back from the emergency site to take a hit from a car and truck. This has tolerances allowed for the blocker vehicle to be struck by a large truck and still protect the scene.

3)Any piece of apparatus actually involved in the operation should not be counted or used as the blocker vehicle.

4)Assign a traffic observer/spotter in the general area of the operation. This member should be equipped with a hand-held air horn to be activated if a vehicle strikes your blocker truck, or appears to be headed into the incident area. This gives the precious few seconds you may need to self evacuate the area. These are the same horns used at high school soccer games. The observer has one job and it’s to warn emergency personnel of an immediate threat.

5) Working on the shoulder is just as dangerous as working in the lanes. Do not get a false sense of security. All of the above should apply when at an incident on the shoulder area.

6) I would suggest if you have a vehicle fire on the right shoulder, for example, you also close the right lane. If the fire is in the right lane close the adjoining lane also. I understand we have differing opinions sometimes with police agencies on the flow of traffic but our safety is more important than slowing up someone’s trip. My department we will stop traffic in the direction of the fire until it’s knocked down. Only then do we give lanes back. Most of the time that’s 3-5 minutes of stop time for traffic.

Emergencies on bridge structures:

Unfortunately, I have been involved in many different scenarios. Accidents, suicides, injured workers, medical emergencies, gas leaks and sadly a young teenage boy who decided to practice rope climbing under a bridge and fell to his death.

1) All bridges on interstates have either rail or concrete barrier for protection. Keep in mind this creates a pinball effect if you are to have an accident why you are already working an emergency on a bridge. This means the vehicles involved will be hitting concrete or steel protection with no give. This a lot of times will project the vehicles back to the travel lanes. Unlike railed areas on the highway section of an interstate, where the rail is designed to be more forgiving with deflection abilities. Bridge rail is designed to not allow traffic to break through to the water or street underneath. This greatly reduces your safe area if a secondary accident were to happen why operating on a bridge deck.

2) Vehicle fires on bridges have a few curve balls to watch for. Most larger bridges have constant breezes or crosswinds due to being over larger bodies of water, deep canyons/ravines or being in a wide open area with nothing to break the wind which will fan the flames and carry smoke across the travel lanes.

3)If the fire is under an overpass and the heat or flame is reaching the structure above shut the above bridge down. A dot bridge engineer will need to be called to give the all-clear before traffic can be allowed to cross again. Remember heat and flame is not good for steel and concrete. Also, a lot of overheads have utilities running along the steel girders. So natural gas or electric is a real exposure possibility if you have a vehicle burning under the bridge.

4)When dealing with injured workers always try and have a knowledgeable person from the construction company nearby. They can answer a lot of questions that will pop up. They can also be a wealth of knowledge about rigging and operating safely on a bridge structure under construction or being rehabbed.

5)Suicide/victim recovery or folks climbing underneath bridges. It’s not uncommon to encounter rope climbing enthusiast in trouble. Many times this can mean rigging ropes or hiking down under large spans to accomplish what we need to. NEVER use any tools or materials left from an old construction job site. A lot of times, especially after a bridge has been painted, you can find cables and rigging underneath still in place. It has been left out in the elements and if you’re from up north, it’s been exposed to water runoff mixed with rock salt. You will see this on larger spans where a construction inspector may not catch the rush job to pack up by the contractor and get out. I had to actually remove one of these cables that rotted and split. It was hanging eighty feet in the air over a road underneath the larger span.

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Guide rail safety:
1) Anytime rail is struck it’s under stress. If you need to cut guardrail the cutting torch is the fastest and easiest way. Cut off saws on rail hits are very cumbersome to move and not as effective. If leaking fuel is an issue then you may make cuts far enough away to ensure everyone’s safety. When cutting the rail always ratchet strap the damaged side to a rail post or something else sturdy. When you cut rail, it releases the stress and energy from the impact. This can cause the rail to spring a few feet and can severely injure anyone in the near vicinity

2)End treatments are like the impact attenuators we talked about above. They are designed to absorb energy from the striking vehicle to decrease chances of injury and death. Care should also be taken when cutting for the release of stored energy. When they function correctly it’s amazing to see the damage inflicted on vehicles and the end treatment with little or no injury to the occupants. However, if the roadside grade has been changed by maintenance or a snow berm then it may not have received the impact the way it was designed to. This is where cutting it could have hidden dangers. You can Youtube video the impact attenuators on guide rail and get updated information on the many systems you may encounter in your first due. In my state, these seem to get changed out every few years based on government testing on what’s best.

We have the TIMS program that has started to take off the last few years to draw off of. I know some things I mentioned may differ then what TIMS or your department recommend or do. However, I felt the need to offer up some of my personal lessons learned through my Fire and work experiences that have proven successful time and again. There are so many variables when working an interstate emergency. Hopefully, you picked up some other ideas from this article that we wouldn’t normally think of as emergency responders. Many firefighters are struck every year let’s change that.

Stay safe.


-Ed Dolan is a 29-year member of the Catskill Fire Department in New York. He has served 16 years as a chief officer. He contributes to the Leather Head Mafia website and facebook page frequently. He can be reached at chiefed03@gmail.com