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Advance Warning for Highway and Roadway Incidents: Make it a Priority

How many times have you responded to a crash or incident on a highway and after arriving you quickly realize that your emergency lights are not effective, or you just can't be seen well by the approaching traffic due to the location's topography or other conditions? How many times have you known that you and/or your crew were in a dangerous position? Maybe the approaching traffic is not able to react to your vehicle positioning, or emergency lights. Maybe the traffic volume is light and there is no backup, and the vehicles are coming at you at high speed and then have to over-brake and maneuver wildly. We have all heard those skidding tires and are quite familiar with the smell of hot semi brakes, and burned rubber. We have all winced, and tensed up seeing, hearing, and smelling it unfold. We were lucky. Others were not.

Interoperable communications and pre-planning with other agencies are essential to advance warning for incidents that will impact traffic for long durations. This Interstate was closed to all approaching traffic just as Engines arrived on this crash scene, allowing for safer conditions for the responders and the public. This also allowed for quick clearance with the vehicles removed to the shoulder after extinguishment, and the roadway opened to traffic in only 30 minutes.

Every one of us can agree that none of us wants to be in this type of position. . This situation can happen on the sunniest days, and the darkest nights. It happens in the rain, the snow, and on bone dry pavement. How can you best avoid these situations? Two words: Advance Warning. What is advance warning? Simply stated it is an effort to warn approaching traffic of an incident ahead that may require them to adjust their speed, and/or deviate from their lane of travel. Advance warning could be signs, flares, or even an emergency vehicle with it's flashing warning lights activated, parked well in advance of an incident in a manner to warn approaching traffic of an incident ahead. It is a recommended practice taught in Traffic Incident Management (TIM) courses nationwide. It is well understood to be a critical component of incident traffic control. The MUTCD Chapter 6i states "On-scene responder organizations should train their personnel in temporary traffic control (TTC) practices for accomplishing their tasks in and near traffic and in the requirements for traffic incident management contained in this Manual. On-scene responders should take measures to move the incident off the traveled roadway or to provide for appropriate warning. All on-scene responders and news media personnel should constantly be aware of their visibility to oncoming traffic and wear high-visibility apparel" (FHWA 2009) (1).

Curves and limited sight distances are definite considerations for Advance warning. Communicate this in your initial scene size up, and give estimation on the anticipated amount of time a lane or lanes may be blocked. Incoming crews may provide this assistance if they are given clear instruction prior to their arrival. This example shows the downstream view from the Advance warning sign on the right shoulder just ahead of the cone taper placed by another incoming crew.

So in the case of the fire service how can we begin to make advance warning a priority when we now try to respond, (most times with minimal staffing) with an appropriate number of response vehicles, block and protect the scene in a manner so as not to disrupt traffic flow, handle the objectives needing to be met such as scene size up, patient care, extrication, fire suppression, etc.? In the case of law enforcement how can we gather driver information/evidence, investigate, make criminal enforcement decisions and strategies, conduct traffic and occupant/bystander control, take witness statements etc.? We work hard to make it a priority as safety service patrol (SSP) functions but at times our limited staffing numbers, hours of service, and areas covered are stretched by the volume of incidents and capabilities we can provide on a scene such as traffic control, removal of vehicles from travel lanes, clearing debris, etc. But collectively we can COMMUNICATE, COORDINATE, and COOPERATE with each other as emergency responders and make sure everyone goes home safe.

Some best practices that are recommended are placing advance warning signs, flares or an emergency vehicle with the emergency warning lights activated just prior to the incident in a position and location that provides adequate time for the approaching traffic to react to it. Another best practice is recognizing quickly the need for advance warning and requesting other resources for assistance in providing it as soon as possible. Another best practice include designating a member of the response crew or partner agency as a look out to warn other responders on scene of unsafe or changing conditions using radio communication, and/or audible warning device such as a horn, siren, or whistle. The Responder Safety Learning Network has several modules that provide training and best practices relating to advance warning, temporary traffic control, safe blocking and positioning of emergency vehicles, and much more all free of charge to all responders.

Some agencies are addressing this by implementing advance warning protocols in their TIM standard operating procedures (SOPs). Others are initiating response protocols that dictate the number of response vehicles dispatched to include additional blocking and/or advance warning vehicles. Another way this can be achieved is through good, clear, communications between response agencies, and pre-planning for these types of incidents. The MUTCD Chapter 6i also states: "Responders arriving at a traffic incident should estimate the magnitude of the traffic incident, the expected time duration of the traffic incident, and the expected vehicle queue length, and then should set up the appropriate temporary traffic controls for these estimates" (FHWA 2009)(1).

This picture shows an overhead Dynamic Messaging Sign. Wet roadway conditions are a consideration for increasing the distance of the advance warning. The blocking vehicle has an advance waring sign placed over 500' behind it on the shoulder, and is parked over 250' from the activity area.

Now, more than ever, we have to do our best to make advance warning a priority to keep responders, and the motoring public safe. In some urban areas, there are the digital message signs overhead that are utilized to pre-warn traffic. What about the inherent nature of distracted drivers? Do they recognize advance warning when it is in place? The one thing that most drivers will pay attention to most of the time are the brake lights of the vehicles ahead of them. If they are not seeing vehicles slowing, braking, signaling, or changing lanes ahead of them most will not consider altering their driving pattern. Advance warning is one of the ways to get the attention of most of the approaching traffic and prepare them for these maneuvers. There are many considerations when it comes to utilizing advance warning.. Hills, crests, curves, poor visibility, weather and roadway conditions are all factors that determine the type, and scope of advance warning. It should be done in a manner that gives the most benefit to the motorist, allowing them to adjust their driving patterns accordingly.

How often have you approached a long-term construction work zone on the highway and not seen advanced warning? Chances are never. These types of work zones are completely structured, and regulated to follow MUTCD standards. There are heavy barriers, barricades, and traffic control devices set up to divert or guide traffic around the work zone and to protect the workers inside of them. There are signs placed at specified distances, with specified coloring, sizes, and dimensions. Even with all of that in place there are still countless highway work zone incidents every year.

This picture shows the right mirror view of the advance warning vehicle positioned over 300’ upstream on the right shoulder. Note the advance warning sign placed in the channelization/gore upstream, and the curve of the roadway.

As emergency responders to incidents on the highway and roadways, our scenes are characterized as 'Incident Work Zones' and we as responders need to begin to establish them, and properly set them up that way in order for our scenes to be safer areas to work in and to try meet the guidelines set forth in the MUTCD. We are all aware that our time on scene in the roadway seems temporary and short term in nature a majority of the time. Unfortunately, this leads to complacency. How long are we on scene blocking one or more lanes? Did you know that with every passing minute on scene blocking a travel lane the likelihood of a secondary incident increases 2.8 percent? On scene and blocking for 10 minutes? That chance has increased to 28 percent! 20 minutes equals 56%! See where this is going?

This issue regarding the time a lane or lanes are blocked is a critical reason that we need to prioritize and plan for advance warning. It must be considered for not only the longer term, major incidents, but also the minor incidents that only start out as minor incidents. They can grow and expand beyond the lack of proper traffic control very quickly. Consider this and make it part of your response plan on every call. According to The Responder Safety Learning Network "When an incident duration exceeds 30 minutes, it becomes an intermediate duration incident as defined by the MUTCD. During this period, efforts should focus on clearing the scene as expeditiously as possible. For extended duration incidents such as hazardous materials situations, command should request appropriate traffic incident management personnel and resources. When the lane or road closure exceeds two hours in duration, MUTCD-compliant traffic control measures should be in place" (2).

Coordinate and meet with responders from other disciplines in your area, to discuss ways that you can assist each other with advance warning. Consult your local DOT personnel and ask for their assistance and guidance on best practices that they employ. Consult the MUTCD and any state DOT MUTCD supplement manuals. Encourage others to check out the Responder Safety Learning Network; Use and learn about all of the training and resources available for FREE to ALL responders. Most of all stay safe, and train often, like your life depends on it. Prepare in advance for the situations you will face on the highways and roadways.

Advance warning for FD blocking at an Injury crash on an exit ramp. Inclement weather conditions increase the need for advance warning.


(1) FHWA, (2009). Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Washington DC.

(2) Roadway Incident Safety Teaching Topic Package 10: TIM FOR THE NEXT GENERATION. Retrieved from:

About the author John M. Sullivan:
John M. Sullivan is a Highway Response Supervisor 1 with the Tennessee Department of Transportation 'HELP' Unit serving Nashville and Middle Tennessee since 1999. John serves as a member of National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee (NFPA 1091), Standard on Traffic Control Incident Management Professional Qualifications for 2020. Mr. Sullivan is also a Lieutenant FF with the Pegram FD, and a TIMS, EVOC, and Vehicle Extrication Instructor. John has been married 20 years and he and his wife Teresa have a 13 year old daughter.

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