OPERATIONAL SERIES Responding to Freeway Incidents

Welcome to our Operational Series. In this series we write about how the fire service manages various types of situations regarding emergency response.  This week's blog focuses on responding to traffic accident on the freeway.

OPERATIONAL SERIES:                              Responding to Freeway Traffic Accidents

Imagine yourself on the freeway, driving home from a relaxing day with friends and family at the Ventura County Fair.  In an instant, vehicles in front of you swerve abruptly to avoid an accident and you successfully do the same.  You immediately look in your rear view mirrors to see concerned travelers pulling over to help the victims involved.  You call 911, from your hands free cell phone device of course, and let the dispatcher know there has been an accident on the freeway.  The dispatcher asks, “Where is the accident?”  You reply, “I’m driving south on the 101 freeway at Main Street.”  The conversation continues with a few additional questions regarding the number of vehicles, the apparent condition of the occupants and a call back number.  You hang up with a sigh of relief knowing a traffic collision was successfully avoided and emergency responders were notified and on their way.  Good job.

Now let’s look at this a little deeper.  However, before we look at the actual response to the traffic accident you reported, let’s go over freeway terminology and how transitions, on and off ramps and overcrossings relate to emergency response.  We use freeways to travel north, south, east or west and as we drive these freeways our travel is described as “northbound, southbound….”  On and Off-ramps are the entrances and exits from the freeway and overcrossings are the roads we travel under as we drive on the freeway.  Overcrossings may or may not have an on/off-ramp.  Transitions are the connection from one freeway to another.  All on/off ramps, overcrossings and transitions are considered as landmarks used to identify freeway incident location.

Think of these landmarks as bookends.  If a traffic accident or hazard happens near one of the above landmarks, the location description will be voiced as “north of, south of, or under the…”  For example, the location of an accident on the freeway will be identified by the location of the landmarks, “…southbound 101, south of California St.”  California St. will be the bookend to the north and the next overcrossing or exit would be the bookend to the south, in this case, Seaward Ave.

It is extremely important to identify these landmarks so the closest most appropriate emergency responder can be dispatched.  Because freeway incidents and locations can be confusing to reporting parties, multiple units are dispatched from opposite directions.  Using the “southbound 101, south of California St” example above, fire engines from both north and south of this location will be dispatched.  Engine 1 from Ventura Ave will travel south on the 101 freeway and Engine 2 from Seaward Ave will travel north.  The two companies will communicate to one another using appropriate terminology to relay the specific location and information regarding the incident, “Engine 2 from Engine 1,”…………”Go ahead,”……….”This incident’s as reported, southbound 101, south of California St, right shoulder, occupants out, Engine 1 can handle, Engine 2 can return,” pretty simple.

Here’s where it gets confusing.  A surprising number of drivers actually know where they really are on the freeway, or are truly answering the location question asked by dispatch during the 911 call.  Drivers have been known to relay inaccurate information regarding direction.  A southbound freeway accident can easily and innocently be reported as northbound.  Having two engines responding from opposite directions is a proactive and effective solution to ensuring units arrive on scene the quickest.

However, location specific information is also inadvertently relayed.  For instance, if an incident located “north of” Seaward Ave, is accidently reported as “north of Main St.” incorrect engine companies will be dispatched and response times may increase.  Enhanced dispatching systems allows dispatchers to automatically identify the closest unit to respond, but is heavily influenced on the information given by the reporting party.  Combining the two examples above will offer a common occurrence in freeway traffic accident response.

So you’re on your way home from the fair, you steer clear of the freeway accident and call 911.  You answer the dispatcher’s accident location question by telling them you are driving south on the 101 north of Main Street.  Here’s our first dilemma.  The accident is on the southbound side of the freeway as you stated, however, it’s actually north of Seaward Ave, not of Main Street, an inadvertent error many drivers make when reporting accidents.  With the accident reported north of Main Street and the two engine response from opposite directions rule for freeway incidents, Engine 5 and Engine 2 will be dispatched.

Engine 5 will enter the freeway on Main Street and drive north, and Engine 2 will enter the freeway from Seaward and drive south, neither of them will find the accident as reported.  Since the accident is actually north of Seaward Ave, Engine 2 missed it by driving south on the freeway as dispatched.  This type of situation is also anticipated and proactively managed by the guideline of having both engines continue farther north or south to the next freeway exit searching for the accident now possibly misreported.  To arrive on scene of our sample location, Engine 5 must travel north one additional exit, get off the freeway, cross over at California Street, enter back onto the freeway and drive south to the incident located southbound 101, north of Seaward Ave. 

Confusing?  Yes, it certainly can be, leading to the primary reason for responding companies to ensure they have increased local knowledge of given areas with the anticipation of freeway incidents being misreported.  Responding companies must be acutely aware of landmark location and incident reporting locations in order to make the most appropriate decision for freeway response.  The driving public must also be encouraged to be more acutely aware of their location and how to relay incident specific information by phone so the most effective response can be initiated.  Communication and situational awareness is key.