Traffic Safety on Emergency Scenes -Part 2

by mobrian on March 6, 2009

Tips for Working on Roadways with Apparatus

Blocking ApparatusBy: Michael Eckert, Deputy Chief


In our last article, we discussed the imminent implications of 23 C.F.R. Part 634 –Worker Visibility, a federal regulation mandated by SAFETEA-LU, the 2005 act that funds US transportation for a five year period. It became effective on November 24, 2008. Hopefully, by now, all firefighters are wearing their vests diligently, whenever they are working in the right of way. Remember, “If your feet are in the street, keep your vest on your chest.”

As indicated in the last article, it should always be remembered that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is the last line of defense against a hazard. This rings true with traffic safety on emergency scenes also. If your traffic control program is limited to the use of vests; it is likely woefully inadequate.

Fundamental Principles

The following should be considered the fundamental principles for traffic control on emergency scenes:


  • NEVER turn your back to traffic! This is a cardinal rule that should be preached repeatedly to all emergency responders.
  • ALWAYS have an escape route! This is another cardinal rule that should be repeatedly emphasized.
  • Protect emergency work areas including those used for firefighting, environmental cleanup, extrication, patient care.
  • Protect EMS unit patient loading areas. This is particularly important when initially positioning the ambulance on the scene of a collision.
  • Workers on Foot (WOF) are a primary consideration.  The area where vehicles usually travel is an unfriendly place for people to walking and working when not in a vehicle themselves.
  • When in doubt, shut it down! There are numerous considerations in this scenario, including the potential problem that traffic backups can cause. If a shutdown is necessary, alternative routes, etc. may need to be developed to reduce secondary incidents.
  • AVOID frantic motions. These tend to confuse and upset motorists further and inadvertently can make them increase their driving speed. Always give clear and positive guidance to motorists, pedestrians, other emergency vehicles
  • AVOID pinch points. Particularly important when working as a trained spotter/observer and assisting an emergency vehicle driver backing up.
  • Get in, get your job done and GET OFF THE ROAD! Save the idle chit chat with PD, EMS, towing, etc. for back at the station over a cup of coffee. Remember that the road is an unfriendly place to be walking around.

Night Operations and Roadway Safety


  • Block lane(s) of incident PLUS ONE ENTIRE ADDITIONAL LANE. You will need the extra lane as a buffer and to do your work!
  • Take only whole (not partial) lanes. Taking only a partial lane forces a motorist to make a judgment call as to whether or not they can “squeeze” by. Take the decision making away from the driver and completely block the lane you want.
  • Place apparatus on one side of road, so you don’t squeeze motorists unnecessarily. Similar to above and you want a place for an errant motorist to go (Not into you!)
  • Communicate and coordinate with police and other emergency responders. Don’t wait until an incident occurs to discuss this. Everyone should know and understand what safety controls are in place and why.
  • Use lighting appropriate to the situation. “Task light” your work areas, but do not blind motorists. Amber lights may be suitable in place of red, blue or white
  • Limit use of flashers, beacons, rotators on vehicles. Believe it or not, less can be more. Amber lights may be suitable in place of red, blue or white.
  • Use extreme caution mounting and dismounting apparatus. Watch for motorist blind spots.
  • Place flares/turboflares/cones in advance of vehicle.


  • Always have a trained spotter/observer present when backing fire apparatus, on the scene or in the station. NO EXCEPTIONS (is there anything worse than a “friendly fire” incident?)
  • Driver should roll his window down. This will help to hear the spotter, etc.
  • Radios/Cell Phone use prohibited (unless radio use is for backing guidance)
  • Keep spotter in your mirror at all times, if you lose site of spotter STOP!!!!!
  • One spotter only. Multiple spotters confuse the driver and may create additional hazards.
  • Clear deliberate signals, back, forward, left, right, distance left to destination, etc.
  • Be aware of surroundings and pinch points. Watch out for that tree, rut in the road, other vehicle, telephone pole, etc behind you if you are the spotter.
  • This is 100% attention task, no talking on radios, cell phones, other personnel etc.


One article cannot possibly give the attention that a topic of this magnitude deserves. The author strongly encourages the reader to evaluate the individual capabilities and circumstances in their community and develop a comprehensive plan and then train and equip accordingly, using this and the references below for guidance.


A special thanks to the folks at

for their continued passion and work on firefighter safety and survival issues, including this one. We are truly blessed to have to them watching our back. These and additional references and resources were used to develop this article and are credited here and provided for your use.

Michael L. Eckert is Deputy Fire Chief for the Hartland Area Fire Department in Livingston County. He also serves as Vice President of Risk Services for Kapnick Insurance Group, based in Adrian, MI. He has over 20 years experience as both a safety professional and firefighter and is a contributing editor to Michigan Fire Service and is also the creator of He can be reached at

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