VDOT joins first responders to clear interstate crashes

Ed Carter, assistant residency administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation in Edinburg, volunteers to assist first responders with incident management of crashes on interstate highways to speed up the cleanup process. Rich Cooley/Daily

When a tanker truck carrying 8,000 gallons of gasoline overturned on Interstate 66 in the Front Royal area in 2013, the line of cars soon stretched back three miles.

“You’ve got all of that traffic sitting back there within a couple hundred yards of an 8,000-gallon bomb,” said Ed Carter, assistant residency administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation in Edinburg, who was on the scene that day.

The truck was tangled up in the metal cable wire guard rail, and the threat of an accidental spark was too great to risk simply hauling the wreck away. The gasoline company sent its contractors to siphon out the gas but discovered the valves on the crashed truck were too damaged to use. At one point, the contractor even considered drilling directly into the tank.

To make matters worse, the established detour route had flooded overnight due to 7 inches of rain. VDOT officials at the scene were able to work with neighboring districts to lift traffic restrictions on other roads in the area to create an alternate route.

In total, it took 15 hours to fully re-open the road.

During crash scenarios such as these, law enforcement, fire and rescue and VDOT officials have to collaborate in order to accomplish their own responsibilities. Recognizing this, the Virginia Transportation Research Council launched a pilot project in 2016 in the Staunton District to add VDOT officials to the group of first responders for interstate vehicle wrecks.

Participants were given pagers that sent alerts as soon as 911 dispatched their units, giving VDOT a critical head start of anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour.

Though the first responders did support police at crash scenes, their priority was to help clear the road and to manage the queue of backed- up cars.

“VDOT’s job is to take care of the road,” said Sandy Myers, VDOT Staunton district communications manager. “It is not our job to take care of the fatality or the things going on around that or the investigation.”

VDOT assigns backups a monetary value by calculating “user delay,” a figure that takes in the duration of the traffic jam, the number of cars in the queue and the number of lanes closed. With an average of 150 to 300 vehicles per mile in interstate traffic jams, Carter said it doesn’t take long for the economic cost to jump up well over $100,000.

“Incidents on all roads throughout the state cost the state a humongous amount of money in terms of economic impact,” Carter said. “In 2014, across the state of Virginia, that amounted to $192 million.”

By getting to the scene alongside law enforcement and fire and rescue from the get-go, VDOT can become a part of the “unified command structure.” If the crash will take 30 minutes to clear, VDOT can decide not to spend an hour establishing a detour. Or, if the wreck is severe, VDOT and other first responders can clear the wreckage to the median to free up traffic lanes and return later to handle the recovery process.

Aside from the economic impact, effective queue management is vital for preventing secondary accidents.

“What happens is (drivers) are coming down the road at 70, 75 mph and pop over a hill and all of the traffic’s at a dead stop,” Carter said. “We had one the other morning on 317 in Frederick County. Tractor trailer came up on a stopped vehicle in front of him, he went down over the bank and turned over. Fortunately, there were no injuries.”

When the initial accident occurs, state police are the first to contact a wrecking company. The trooper on the scene calls for the next wrecking service from a list the state cycles through. However, if that service isn’t able to handle the magnitude of the crash, time is lost and user delay cost soars.

“They may be a little wrecking service, and yet you might have a humongous truck out there. And the little wrecker, he shows up and, ‘Well, that’s not something I can do.’ Then they’ve got to call the next guy on the list,” Myers said. “Ed, he can communicate with the wrecker and talk to them and maybe they’ve got somebody else they can call, maybe they just say they’re not the best ones and they go to the next one.”

These wrecking services often partner with each other for severe crash scenarios. Since it may not be efficient to have multiple $200,000 heavy-duty pieces of equipment sitting around for the infrequent big job, wrecking services have found it’s more cost-effective to join together to handle large wrecks.

“Traditionally, VDOT’s been an after-the-fact entity,” Carter said. “There’s a lot of resources VDOT has that can be (critical at crash scenes). That first responder being there — he recognizes that stuff and can put it into motion much sooner than coming up a half hour later.”

The pilot program concluded in November 2016, and the subsequent report found significant reductions in average lane clearance time, “thereby providing conclusive evidence of the effectiveness of the first responder pilot.”

However, the concept has not yet evolved into a fully fledged program. Carter and Jeff Boyer, VDOT environmental specialist, continue to operate on a volunteer basis. They don’t respond to every crash regardless of the hour, unlike during the pilot program. During those shifts, participants had to be able to get on the interstate within 5 to 10 minutes at all times.

“We’re pretty passionate about the incident management out there. It takes that type of passion to make it work right, and it takes the relationship with our partners to make it work right,” Carter said. “It’s not just an Edinburg problem. It’s statewide.”