First responders learn ideas for easing traffic management woes

By Joe Beck

WINCHESTER — The unwelcome spectacle of vehicles backed up for miles on the area’s interstate highways usually begins with a law enforcement officer deciding to close one or more lanes of traffic in the aftermath of an accident.

Lives can hang in the balance as emergency responders try to bring order out of chaos at the scene. The wrong decisions can endanger the victims, emergency responders and hundreds of immobile motorists trapped on the highway like ants in amber.

First responders met Thursday for a four-hour class designed to improve safety at accident scenes and shorten the time it takes to restore normal traffic flow. The goal was to train law enforcement officers, EMTs, firefighters and road crews. Employees of towing services, media organizations and others involved at accident scenes were also invited to attend.

Virginia State Police Sgt. J.E. Smith reminded those attending that the decision to close a road partly or completely has a major impact on hundreds or thousands of people who had nothing to do with the accident. Smith said every minute that a road is closed requires four minutes before traffic begins moving again. In other words, a 15-minute closure can be expected to produce a one-hour traffic jam.

Smith and Robert Rabe, coordinator of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s safety service patrol program, said dented vehicles leaking oil and other fluids are often more drivable than they appear, at least for a few feet until they are safely out of the road. They urged law enforcement officers to look for ways to push, pull or drive stricken vehicles off the road before deciding they cannot be moved and the road is closed.

“The thing is, you want people to get where they’re going,” Rabe said in an interview after the class. “You don’t want them to be held up.”

Smith said drivers involved in minor accidents — defined as those with no injury, slight property damage or a deer collision — should consider moving their vehicles out of travel lanes. Those involved in more serious accidents should wait for the arrival of law enforcement officers, he said.

Smith said darkness, bad weather and times of peak traffic make it especially hard to prevent secondary accidents spawned from road hazards created by an initial collision.

Much of the class was spent on ideas for communicating information accurately and quickly and avoiding disputes and misunderstanding among those arriving at an accident scene.

Smith showed a video news clip from Louisiana on Saturday as an example of what can happen when trust and communications break down. The clip told of how a sheriff’s deputy arrested a firefighter who refused to move a pumper truck parked at a minor crash scene to shield firefighters and EMS responders from traffic.

“We don’t want to see that happen here,” Smith said of the Louisiana incident.

Part of the class described how to organize a command structure in which a single person or designated individuals from several agencies take charge of managing an accident scene.

The incident in Louisiana underscored the need for clear lines of responsibilities and communications, Smith said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com