Where Is the Data on Emergency Personnel Being Struck by Vehicles?

In March of 1998, 25 years ago now, there was a crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that changed my focus on the broad subject of firefighter safety. Up until that crash I had worked to implement the guidelines about firefighter safety as outlined in NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Service Occupational Safety and Health. In the crash on the Turnpike, ten volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel who were working a previous vehicle crash scene were struck by an out-of-control tractor-trailer. One of the firefighters was killed in the line of duty and the other nine personnel were injured, some seriously, with long lasting effects. That crash forced me to look at the subject of roadway incident response procedures to see if there was anything we could do to prevent a recurrence.

Alex Hagan, the author of Thriving In Complexity: The Art & Science of Discovering Opportunity in the New Normal, says “While all the data we have is about the past, all the decisions we make are about the future” (Source). In the safety and loss control world, data is often the road map to finding, analyzing, and then fixing workplace safety problems. Looking at the data seemed like a logical place to start to look for possible solutions for protecting firefighters and EMTs at incident scenes.

One of the first things I did was look for data to see how often emergency personnel are struck by vehicles. I found several examples of similar incidents at that time but not many. I also found three fire departments in the United States that had an SOP/SOG related to highway response procedures. Each of those fire departments replied to my request for copies of their SOPs and sent me their documents. Much to my surprise, all the SOPs were almost identical except for the FD name on the document. Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue, Plano (TX) Fire, and the Phoenix (AZ) FD all sent me copies of their SOPs that were in effect in 1998. There may have been other FDs around the country who had similar SOPs at that time, but I couldn’t find them even with the help of the National Emergency Training Center Library, operated by the U.S. Fire Administration. The NETC Library was and still is an invaluable resource.

I started to use various internet search tools available to me at that time to find news reports and stories of similar incidents involving firefighters and/or fire apparatus struck at incident scenes. I was looking for clues that would help me identify strategies and tactics to help prevent line of duty deaths and injuries from being struck by a vehicle. I just couldn’t find much organized data about those occurrences. Sadly, almost 25 years later, that data is still scarce and yet it remains the most frequent question or request we get from people who follow or find ResponderSafety.com and who are looking for solutions to an ever increasing problem: protecting emergency responders at roadway incidents from being struck by vehicles. Where is that data?

Mike Schmoker, an English teacher, football coach, and the bestselling author of the book Results, says “Things get done only if the data we gather can inform and inspire those in a position to make difference.” (Source: http://www.mikeschmoker.com/). I was not only looking for solutions but also for ways to share the information and to provoke action by fire chiefs around the country to change their standard procedures to prevent another struck-by incident like our crash on the Turnpike.

Failing to find the data already packaged and ready for analysis, the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association/Emergency Responder Safety Institute has, for the last several years, worked on different fronts to instigate various organizations, government agencies, and research entities to help us collect, analyze, and share emergency responder struck-by data with other response organizations nationwide. The hope is that the data will help lead us all to better solutions, strategies, and tactics for protecting emergency responders from being struck by vehicles in secondary crashes. We began to track and report on emergency responders struck and killed by vehicles at roadway incidents. Over the past four years (2019 – 2022), we tracked incidents involving an emergency responder (e.g., law enforcement officer, firefighter, EMT, fire police officer, tow operator, road service technician, safety service patrol operator or DOT personnel) who was struck and killed by a vehicle while working at a roadway incident scene. The results are concerning, as shown below.

We gathered this information by searching news reports, monitoring social media, and depending on our ever-growing list of emergency responders who visit ResponderSafety.com, follow our social media accounts, and use our Responder Safety Learning Network (RSLN.org). We are pretty sure that we have at least some very conservative numbers of fatalities. ResponderSafety.com’s yearly fatality data and reports are available from 2019 to the present on our Yearly Fatality Reports page. Until recently, due to the limited resources available to us, we didn’t have the capacity to track the number of incidents where a responder is struck and injured or when an emergency vehicle is struck and damaged or destroyed.

In 2022, we were able to design a basic data collection page for ResponderSafety.com to collect reports from emergency responders of struck-by incidents, secondary crashes, and close calls. Now, by filling out a simple form on ReportStruckBy.com, anyone can report a secondary crash where a responder or an emergency vehicle was struck. It takes about four minutes to file a report. You can file a report anonymously. But if you do include contact information, we’ll be able to follow up to better understand the incident. We hope to get as many reports as possible during the year. It’s ok if there are duplicates. We’ll sort those out as we review and analyze the data. We’ll be looking for trends and other clues that might give us a better understanding of how, when, and where these struck-by incidents occur so we can design training and resources to address the contributing factors.

We need everyone’s help! If you know about an incident where an emergency responder and/or their vehicle was struck, or there was a close call, please take a few minutes to report it to ReportStruckBy.com. Your participation is crucial to helping us track these incidents. Even if you don’t have all of the information asked about in the form, just report what you do know. Every piece of data will help. Even an incomplete report will give us notice that an event occurred and point us toward other places we can look for more details.

The more accurate data we collect, the better we will be able to analyze various characteristics about these secondary crashes. Are they happening in daylight or nighttime conditions? Are there more crashes on high-speed, limited-access highways, or secondary roads? What type of weather conditions were in the area? Were there roadway features that contributed to the crash? Was a driver suspected of driving under the influence involved? Were traffic incident management devices deployed and in use? Until we have good data that helps us identify common causal factors, we won’t be able to move on to next level protective measures that might save additional lives each year.

This editorial was authored by Jack Sullivan, Director of Training, Emergency Responder Safety Institute.

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