Safety Service Patrol Perspective: Situational Awareness for Highway/Roadway Incident Response.
More than ever before Safety Service Patrol (SSP) responders are being faced with an ever-changing environment and are being tasked with even more dangerous, unique and challenging incidents on our nation’s Interstates, highways, and roadways. SSP personnel are routinely responding to much more than the common debris clearance, disabled motorist, and flat tire changes. The modern-day responses for most of the full-service DOT/SSP Units can routinely include multi-vehicle and mass casualty pile up crashes (involving dozens of vehicles), passenger and commercial vehicle/cargo fires, Hazardous Material/cargo spills, and medical emergencies involving motorists and/or passengers. Then there are the numerous Police activity incidents that play out in, on, or near Interstates, highways, and roadways such as road rage incidents, vehicle racing/stunting, active shooter incidents, psychiatric episodes, domestic assaults, pedestrian/homeless traffic emergencies, suicidal people, civil unrest, protesters (manmade traffic blockages/disruptions) and infrastructure damage/failures both natural and manmade. Understanding Situational Awareness and the barriers that can influence it, along with dynamic decision making are key to keeping ourselves, other responders, and the public safe at incident responses on the Interstates, highways and roadways.
So what exactly is Situational Awareness? According to Dr. Richard B. Gasaway “Situational awareness (SA) is a person’s ability to perceive and understand what is happening in their environment, in the context of how time is passing, and then being able to make accurate predictions about future events… hopefully in time to prevent bad outcomes“ (Gasaway, Dr. Richard B.).
With these challenging environments it is very important for the SSP Operators/personnel to always maintain their situational awareness and be vigilant in their personal safety and the safety of other responders and motorists. Traffic control objectives both temporary and long term are difficult tasks to accomplish, and even more difficult with a quickly escalating or evolving scene that may involve a multiple agency/discipline response. This also means there needs to be better access to clear, concise, and interoperable communications. Another component for building and maintaining a strong mindset of situational awareness comes from the multi-discipline cross training concept like the one that was adopted in the development of the National Traffic Incident Management (TIMs) program. There needs to be training that directly involves or at the very least acknowledges the role of the DOT/SSP personnel that are tasked with establishing and maintaining traffic control, diversions, and/or guidance during these types of roadway incidents.
When performing roadway incident response work it is quite often done with a sense of urgency. This is due to the exposure of personnel in a very dangerous environment and the time compression is placed on our dynamic decision making. The danger being faced from unpredictable, fast-moving traffic that is approaching, or soon will be approaching our location or incident scene will affect our decision-making process. This is where strong situational awareness, initial, and on-going job training, comes into play and where we should rely on well-developed standard operating procedures and best practices to reduce our exposure and accomplish our objectives in the safest manner possible. The need to manage the urgency will be key in building situational awareness, and the need to resist complacency will be key in safely achieving objectives.
The broad scope of the task to safely establish and maintain traffic control at roadway/highway incidents by SSP personnel can be overwhelming and are most often handled by a single operator in the initial stages of an incident. The function of SSP traffic management at these incidents is to safely establish temporary traffic controls to divert, and/or guide approaching traffic around and/or through a Traffic Incident Management Area (TIMA) or Incident Zone (IZ) in order to keep the responders, victims, and motorists safe as they perform their duties. This approach may seem to put the SSP responders’ safety behind that of the approaching (motorist) traffic in order of importance, but they are inter-connected in this respect. With that being said the task of initially setting up and establishing the TIMA or IZ and the demobilization of the TIMA or IZ can be considered the more dangerous of the activities performed at a roadway/highway incident due to the exposure of the responder/s to the moving traffic.
When performing these duties or tasks as a single SSP Operator the need for strong situational awareness is critical. This type of awareness must be developed over time and is not instantly acquired. It comes from multiple responses to incidents of varying difficulty or scope and involve dynamic and ever changing conditions that are occurring throughout the incidents. It is important for SSP agencies to develop the proper response parameters and then instruct, train, and follow the procedures to ensure a consistent safe approach to completing tasks using situational awareness as a guiding principle. SSP operations are a vital component of Interstate and highway traffic incident response teams and there is a need to utilize situational awareness in every aspect of the duties carried out by these organizations. In closing, with the ever-increasing number of ‘D’ drivers, and the number of roadway responder struck-by incidents Situational Awareness should remain in the forefront of our training and development procedures so that when applied by personnel it will enhance the core ability to safely detect, verify, and respond to roadway incidents. Situational awareness will also help to safely mitigate the incidents as both a single responder and as part of a roadway incident response team in any type of conditions. There are numerous resources available regarding Situational Awareness that offer training online, in-person, and that also help with program development for continuing education on this topic. As always please refer to the Emergency Responder Safety Institute at Responder Safety, Training, Learning Network for 100% FREE online learning modules relating to all manner of roadway incident safety and response for ALL disciplines.
Stay SAFE and keep learning and TRAINING because your life depends on it… BE PREPARED for any and all of the incidents that you will face on the road!
References Gasaway, Dr. Richard B. (2022) Retrieved from: https://www.samatters.com/situational-awareness-think-past-present-future/
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. Mr. Sullivan is also a Captain FF with the Pegram FD, and a TIMS, EVOC, Vehicle Extrication Instructor, and is a Committee Member for NFPA 1091 Standard for Traffic Incident Management Personnel Professional Qualifications. John has been married 22 years and he and his wife Teresa have a teenaged daughter.