Working together during tough conditions to make travel safer

I-380Responding to a traffic crash is never fun and can often be one of the most dangerous tasks asked of emergency response professionals including Iowa Department of Transportation field staff.

To improve traveler and responder safety and to keep traffic moving as smoothly as possible during an incident, emergency response professionals from all over Iowa are training together to improve traffic incident management, often called TIM.

Pink and black signs
New pink and black warning signs are being used to catch motorist’s attention of an upcoming change in traffic patterns.

Employees in our southeast region have been leaders in training professionals who deal with traffic mobility to understand and implement the elements of safe and effective incident response. This past summer Ted Shipley from our Traffic Operations group who provides Traffic Incident Management training around the state, traveled to Southeast Iowa and assisted Brad Lauderman, Traffic Operations Technician; the Iowa State Patrol; and Iowa Fire Service Training Bureau in training Iowa DOT maintenance staff, two county emergency managers, one law enforcement officer, and 14 first responders on the basics of working together to make each crash scene safer and get traffic moving more quickly.  

About a month later the training was tested. Two of our maintenance employees, Cory Steele and Justin Wessley, were clearing debris on a southeast Iowa highway when they came upon a line of slow traffic due to a crash. Traffic was attempting to get around the blockage on both lanes of traffic by driving onto the inside shoulder and median. Bruce Hucker, the district maintenance manager for the area, said, “Their Traffic Incident Management training kicked in. Since our employees were the first on the scene, they assessed the situation and came up with a solution.”

In this incident, a van had flipped on its top and was blocking northbound traffic. The driver of the van was already out of the vehicle and appeared to have only minor injuries and was being attended to by other motorists who had stopped to assist. Since there were no fatalities and a high risk of a secondary crash, the Iowa DOTers knew they needed to clear the road as soon as possible. They asked a farmer who was working nearby with a skid steer loader if he would help them. He agreed and used his equipment to push the van over and open one lane to traffic. This was one of the first implementations of Iowa’s new “Steer it, clear it” law (House File 313 to amend Iowa Code 321.262) and “Removal of obstructions deemed an immediate hazard law” (Iowa Code 318.5) by DOT field forces.

“Hucker said, “We were lucky to capture the response on the responding sheriff deputy’s dash cam. We now have footage of a real-life situation that was handled well.”

He continued, “In addition to being a safety initiative, Traffic Incident Management training also helps all of the responders build relationships. Having relationships in place, as we did with the sheriff in this incident, helps all of us learn and get better at working together. Collaboration is the key. The sheriff is allowing us to use the deputy’s dash cam video as a teaching tool for future Traffic Incident Management training.”

Another crash that utilized Traffic Incident Management principals happened near Knoxville on Iowa 92/5 where a crash between a passenger vehicle and a farm tractor resulted in the death of the tractor driver.

For this incident, the principle of a unified command kicked in to help get the road opened quickly. Unified command is an understanding that while each responding agency has separate roles in responding to the incident, they are operating with the common goal of getting the road opened as quickly as possible. “The TIM training helps everyone understand the command structure. This helps all those on the scene communicate, cooperate, and coordinate efforts,” said Hucker.

Since one direction of traffic on this four-lane road was closed by the crash, we were able to set up head-to-head traffic in the two open lanes. Hucker said, “Our people, in coordination with the Iowa State Patrol, acted quickly to get that traffic pattern switched to make sure people could still safely move through the area while we cleared the crash on the other side of the road.”

While not all our field forces have received Traffic Incident Management training, our southeast Iowa District 5 is working toward the goal of training all staff. More and more employees are learning lessons that include shutting down ancillary operations like painting or seal crack filling if there is an incident nearby. These operations can cause additional back-ups or increase the risk of a secondary crash.  Shutting them down helps reduce the risk to both motorists and employees. In addition, the employees involved with those operations are freed up to respond to the incident if necessary.

“One of the great things that we’re seeing come out of Traffic Incident Management training is the empowerment of our people,” said Hucker. “They know what should be done and take the initiative to do it.”

Good thinking. Any improvement regarding incident control is always useful, and will help cut down on secondary collisions and speeding in the incident zone. Those who do speed should have the hand of the law land on them like a gondola railcar full of bricks - way more than just a ton of bricks.

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