First responders learn how to dodge traffic while clearing safe path for drivers

Columnist

First Sgt. Alvin D. Blankenship, who is with the Virginia State Police, teaches a practical, no-nonsense safety course for police and emergency personnel who must respond to traffic incidents.

This is one of the practical lessons: “Use all your senses.” Listen for the sound of rapidly crumpling emergency cones. Recognize the crunching noise that tires make when driving over a debris field.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Blankenship shows a video from the camera in a police cruiser. An officer is leaning toward the window of a car stopped on a roadside. Suddenly, he jumps away, just in time to avoid the full impact of an oncoming vehicle that strayed off the road.

What Blankenship wants the class to notice is that the officer didn’t see the vehicle, just heard it. Alert senses saved his life.

The class members, who routinely work amid speeding traffic, take it in stride, offering casual nods.

This is chilling. We’re not in Jurassic Park, where velociraptors launch themselves from the bushes. It’s common, everyday traffic.

These people shouldn’t have to worry about us behaving like prehistoric predators. Their lives shouldn’t depend on sensitivity to the sounds we make when flattening orange cones.

But Blankenship and Chief Melvin Byrne of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, who shares some teaching duties, use much of the class to raise the responders’ awareness of the effects they have on traffic.

Every minute they keep a road closed adds four minutes to the time it takes the traffic to recover once the road reopens, Blankenship said, so work with a sense of urgency.

Make sure the operations center knows the precise location of an incident, not only to aid other responders but also to alert drivers about exactly what they need to avoid.

Think “upstream” by worrying about what’s happening back where the traffic is congealing. Police and other responders need to recognize the possibility of secondary crashes as drivers slow down.

Blankenship and Byrne, representing different agencies, emphasized the need for responders to talk to one another.

Blankenship remembers — not fondly — the scene at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in 1998 when authorities shut Interstate 95 for five hours after a man threatened to jump from the bridge.

Among the issues studied in the aftermath — besides the fact that traffic backed up 20 miles — was the lack of communication among the D.C., Maryland and Virginia officials responsible for various parts of the bridge.

“That wouldn’t happen today,” said Blankenship, looking disgusted that it ever happened.

His classroom overlooks the focal point at the McConnell Public Safety and Transportation Operations Center in Fairfax County, where representatives of emergency agencies can gather to coordinate their responses. The center opened in 2008.

Even a routine response to a highway crash gets complicated: Units from the police, fire department, transportation department and medical services arrive.

They assess the scene, communicate with one another and their dispatchers, help injured people, position their vehicles and place safety devices to block lanes — but no more lanes than they think they need.

They get the victims treated, they call the proper size tow truck to the scene, get the busted vehicles removed and clear the debris.

Meanwhile, they’re trying to keep from getting clobbered by the rest of us. One of five crashes nationwide is a “secondary crash,” the type that occurs when a driver becomes distracted near an accident scene.

While Blankenship and Byrne focus on training responders, they think it’s important for the rest of us to understand what’s going on at a scene and how we can avoid becoming part of the problem.

Apparently, we find it easy to be part of the problem. Trainers such as Blankenship cite five D’s relevant to such behavior: drunk, drugged, drowsy, distracted “or just plain dumb.”

A driver straying across lanes isn’t necessarily under the influence. “A lot of our commuters are just tired,” Blankenship said. Then again, there’s that dumb thing.

Example: Emergency officials warn that their bright lights can have an unintended consequence: Drivers may stare at the flashers, and steering wheels will turn in the same direction as their eyes — straight toward the emergency crew.

All the technical training, the lessons about how to properly place vehicles and set cones, the protocols for dealing with hazardous materials at crash scenes and the advisories to drivers to move over and slow down can be reduced to Blankenship’s goal for his people and the public: “We all want to go home at night.”

And we can help one another do that.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
Or, e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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