ResponderSafety.com Podcast

The Emergency Responder Safety Institute presents the ResponderSafety.com podcast, a closer look at hot topics, new information, innovative approaches, and case studies in responder safety at roadway incidents and in traffic incident management. Listen for practical, actionable information you can implement today at your next roadway incident response to improve safety of emergency response personnel and the public, no matter which agency you work for. Come learn from interviews and special features with experts and leaders in emergency services. All agencies who respond to roadway incidents — fire, EMS, fire police, law enforcement, DOT, safety service patrols, special traffic units, medevac, and towing and recovery — are all welcome and will find value in what we discuss.

2022
Episode 5: Towing and Recovery with Angela Barnett and Brian Riker - On the newest episode of the ResponderSafety.com podcast, Angela Barnett, Executive Director of the Arizona Professional Towing and Recovery Association, and Brian Riker, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Towing Association, join us to talk everything towing and recovery — training, relationships on-scene with other emergency response organizations, incident command and management, protecting tow operators when they work, public education, and the biggest issues facing the profession in roadway incident response.
Episode 3: Rich Marinucci - On Episode 3 of the ResponderSafety.com podcast, Chief Rich Marinucci, Executive Director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA), offers his take on the biggest safety risks to firefighters today, the role of the safety officer at roadway incident responses, why preventable deaths from operations like backing up apparatus are still happening, and the FDSOA’s new Certified Traffic Incident Management Technician credential.
Episode 2: Loveland-Symmes - Today we're going to take a closer look at the emergency services unit of the Loveland-Symmes Ohio Fire Department.
Episode 1: In the Beginning - Steve Austin and Jack Sullivan from the Emergency Responder Safety Institute discuss how the organization and ResponderSafety.com got started and plans for the future. Bob Beamis of the Pennsylvania State Police recounts his experience being struck and injured while working at a roadway incident scene.

Rod Ammon: Welcome to the ResponderSafety.com's podcast brought to you by the Emergency Responder Safety Institute, a committee of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman's Association. We've traveled a long road since this COVID situation started. We hope you're all enjoying the holiday season and we wish you a safe and joyful time whether you're alone or with friends and family, as you gather into the new year. This is a great time to pick up the phone and connect with those you miss, or just those you want to check in with.

To remain mindful of why we do this work we start every podcast with an update of emergency responders struck by fatalities. As of today, December 13th, 2021, 58 emergency responders have been struck and killed while operating at a roadway incident scene. We have information on the loss of these responders and a Memorial tribute available respondersafety.com/fatalityreports. Our thoughts are with the families and their colleagues.

Today we welcome investigator Sheryl Harley with the National Transportation Safety Board Office of Highway Safety. She is an investigator in charge and senior survival factors investigator in the office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials investigations.

Investigator Harley joined the NTSB after a 26 year career with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC and 15 and a half years as a firefighter with Montgomery County Fire Rescue. In 2020, she completed three investigations specifically in exposure risk to emergency responders and highway workers operating on active roadways. She's here today to talk about her work and the broader role of the NTSB investigating incidents on our nation's roadways. Investigator Harley, thank you for joining us today.

Sheryl Harley: Thank you, sir.

Rod Ammon: Let's start with the NTSB. What's the NTSB's role and their goal in investigating highway incidents?

Sheryl Harley: The NTSB is a small independent federal agency empowered by Congress to investigate all transportation related accidents. That includes highway, railroad, Marine, pipeline, hazards material, and aviation.

Rod Ammon: Okay. The goal in investigating these incidents?

Sheryl Harley: The goal of the NTSB is to bring about safety changes to improve and enhance the safety in transportation.

Rod Ammon: Great. We appreciate that work. How do these incidents get selected? There's a lot of incidents I know this year so far. I think I just looked at 57 struck-by's in the United States, how do these incidents get selected for investigation by the NTSB?

Sheryl Harley: The NTSB looks at whether or not they can make a positive contribution to safety. They look at it in terms of a national rather than just a local contribution to safety. They also look at if by the NTSB getting involved and investigating it, if there is something that we can do to assist various agencies and jurisdictions in increasing safety in the area and across the country.

Rod Ammon: How does it work? As an investigator how do you get dispatched to a case? What are you investigating and what do you do specifically?

Sheryl Harley: The NTSB has what we call a response operation center and it actually monitors both news outlets and social media in regards to transportation accidents that occur around the country. We also receive information from the National Response Center that gets reported. Incidents are reported to them either by local law enforcement or other federal agencies. Sheryl Harley: At that particular point, the NTSB then looks at the incidents and again, we're looking at the ability to be able to provide some kind of assistance and to increase safety and do it on a national level. That's usually how we pick our investigations. In addition to that, sometimes investigators can bring to the attention of the director, for example, a safety issue. Again, it has to kind of meet that criteria for them to go forward with it.

Rod Ammon: Okay. Specifically relating to your work, what type of investigations do you specialize in? What do you do? Tell us about a typical day.

Sheryl Harley: As a survival factors investigator, I look at the circumstances that surround the crash and how it impacted the victims. For example, we look at the injuries that people sustain, serious injuries as opposed to fatal injuries. We look at what caused those injuries. We also look at occupant protection. We look at crashworthiness of vehicles and we look at emergency response. We look at the timing to get medical attention, the appropriateness of the medical attention and we also look at training for emergency responders in order to provide the services that are needed in various types of accidents.

Rod Ammon: One thing that came to mind and it's similar to what I hear from fire investigators is the fire's over and very often they show up could be 20 minutes, could be when it just went out or could be 20 minutes, an hour or a day after the fire. In your situation I'm guessing that the same thing happens with safe quick clearance as they try to do on a lot of highways and continue to reduce congestion and move forward. I'm guessing that a lot of times you show up to a scene that's been cleaned up and there's very little left. How do you do your investigation with that in mind?

Sheryl Harley: We actually have a very good working relationship with a lot of the emergency responder agencies. If it's something significant, they will notify us and if we're going to send a team out, we will usually ask them to hold the scene. Now that's not always possible, but on the other hand, they have the ability to impound or preserve evidence. For example, the vehicles that were involved in a crash, they will ask us for example, what we need and they may be able to gather that information while we are preparing to launch a team there. We actually work together and ultimately in the end we work very closely with the emergency responders that were on the scene. They're the ones that are our eyes and ears on the scene since we weren't able to get there at the time that the scene was active.

Rod Ammon: Sounds like there's a good relationship and that's always good to hear. I want to focus in on three investigations you conducted last year into the exposure risk to emergency responders and highway workers operating on roadways. All three of those collisions involved emergency personnel, highway workers, and emergency vehicles. Can you tell us a little bit about those three incidents first and what your goals were, and then we'll get into the conclusions?

Sheryl Harley: Sure. To kind of start, the NTSB had not up until this particular point actually focused on the emergency responders struck-by incidents. At the time that we actually started to look at these, this was something actually kind of new for us but it was also a situation where we were beginning to see that this was becoming a serious issue. They were occurring more and more frequently. At that particular point, it was the reason that we decided, "Okay, we're going to take a look at this. We want to actually determine what that exposure risk to emergency responders and highway workers really is and if this is something that needs to be looked into on a national level to improve safety."

Sheryl Harley: The first investigation that we actually looked into was the North Charleston South Carolina collision. That happened in July. July of, I'm sorry at, it happened on July 1st, of 2020. In that crash, it involved a commercial vehicle that drove into a stationary law enforcement vehicle that was stopped on the side of the roadway to assist a disabled motorist. As a result of the collision the law enforcement officer received serious injury and the tow truck operator that was servicing the disabled vehicle was actually struck and killed in the crash.

From there we decided to go backwards and look at incidents that had recently occurred. One of the incidents we looked at was in Arlington, Wisconsin. Now that incident occurred June, of 2020. That was a secondary collision investigation. We have a crash that occurred little around 3:30 in the morning on Interstate 39 in Arlington Township. You have the highway workers that arrive on the scene, we have the Wisconsin State Patrol at the scene and at this particular point they're cleaning up from the earlier collision which actually has debris blocking one of the roadways. They do their hazard mitigation plan. They set up flares, they have an emergency vehicle that's blocking the right travel lane in order for the highway workers to clean up the scene.

We have another commercial vehicle that comes into the scene and strikes the stationary at the stop patrol vehicle and as a result sets off a sequence of collisions that ultimately ended up with two law enforcement officers and a highway worker being transported to the hospital with serious injuries. The last investigation was kind of a follow up to another investigation that we were conducting in California. During that investigation and my conversation with emergency responders, I was told about an incident that occurred back on Thanksgiving day in 2019.

At that time we had emergency responders, once again this is a secondary collision, emergency responders on the side of the roadway at a earlier collision, we have the hazard mitigation plan that was in place included a blocking engine to protect the ambulance. We have three victims in the ambulance. We had the ambulance crew, two man crew, and we also have a CHP officer that's in the ambulance doing the investigation. We have a driver who is driving a mechanically unsound vehicle at an unreasonable speed in a rainstorm loses control of the vehicle and slams into the ambulance.

As a result of that, the occupant of the vehicle is killed and all the occupants in the ambulance are injured. One of the things that we needed that we were looking at was what happened in all three of these collisions? Why were people being injured? What we found is the exposure risk is extremely high despite the fact that these emergency responders did everything in their power to mitigate the hazard.

Rod Ammon: What specifically had they done? These secondary accidents, I think the number I've heard recently is 10% of all accidents have some sort of secondary collision involved. What had the responders and all the folks that were on those scenes done?

Sheryl Harley: Okay. Let's start with the first one. The North Charleston South Carolina crash. The law enforcement officer that arrives on the scene with the disabled vehicle calls out with the disabled vehicle, that information was transmitted to the department of transportation who activated an advanced warning sign to notify drivers on the roadway that the roadway ahead was blocked. That sign was activated and all the drivers, including the striking driver, admitted that they saw the warning sign that was illuminated.

You also had a law enforcement officer who was using his vehicle as a blocking vehicle to protect the disabled vehicle and the elderly driver within it. He had his emergency lights activated, and he was parked in such a way as to provide a safety buffer between his vehicle and this disabled vehicle. You have the arriving tow truck operator. Once again, he parks his vehicle away from the still active travel lanes. He's got all of his warning lights on, and those are what we expect people to do and to provide the type of not only advanced warning, but to provide the visibility that approaching drivers need.

In the second collision that occurred on June the 20th in Arlington, Wisconsin, we have the State police arriving on the scene, setting up road flares, so that approaching drivers on the interstate can see that the right travel lane is blocked for a distance prior to arriving on the scene. We also have a law enforcement vehicle that is blocking the right lane once again, to provide additional protection to the emergency responders and the highway workers that are working on the scene. We have a highway vehicle that is parked on the shoulder of the road that's also equipped with emergency lights that were activated.

There was also a second state police vehicle that was on the scene. Again, emergency lights activated. This is not a visibility issue, this is not a line of sight issue. This was a driver issue. In the Thanksgiving day crash of 2019 that actually occurred in California, I'm sorry, excuse me. In Fallbrook, California, once again, you have the emergency responder, you have the ambulance that's actually parked off the roadway, off the travel portion of the roadway. The ambulance is actually straddling the center median and the left shoulder to protect itself from moving vehicles on the interstate.

You have an engine company that was parked a distance away, but in such a way to provide protection for the ambulance and the individuals inside of that unit that were being treated. Again, you have this as it's not a line of sight issue, you have emergency vehicles out there, you have emergency lights that are activated, you have advanced warning, this was not about a failure to do hazard mitigation.

Rod Ammon: It's scary when everybody thinks they're doing the right things and these things still happen. Did you have an opportunity to speak to the drivers of the vehicles that struck?

Sheryl Harley: Of course, the Thanksgiving 2019 crash we did not. The state police actually interviewed the driver of the Arlington, Wisconsin, June 2020 crash. Now, what was interesting about that driver was two days before that driver had actually driven into a work zone and collided with equipment in the work zone, and then fled the scene. He was actually arrested 10 miles later and charged with hit and run.

Rod Ammon: The day before?

Sheryl Harley: Two days before. What was interesting about it and one of the problems that we had was this is a commercial vehicle driver. This is a professional driver and using a commercial vehicle he has violated a work zone and luckily he only caused property damage. No one was injured in that first crash. Two days later driving the exact same commercial vehicle he's now involved in another crash. This time he sends three people to the hospital with serious injuries and that was a problem to us.

Rod Ammon: Yeah, I would say so. What was his explanation? Sheryl Harley: His explanation was that he didn't actually see the road flares or the emergency vehicle in the roadway.

Wow. Okay.

Sheryl Harley: In North Charleston, we did not talk to the driver because at that time he was under investigation by the highway patrol. They were trying to determine whether or not that they were going to charge him criminally for the fatal collision.

Rod Ammon: Well, I'm sure it leaves you wanting more from each situation that I've heard you describe. I personally would just be like, I want to know more, how could this happen? You're in a unique position to really get into the details of these incidents and look across them and identify patterns. From what you've seen, what's your message to emergency responders in highway and roadway service workers?

Sheryl Harley: First off, what we actually see is that emergency responders and highway workers understand the dangers and they're trying hard to mitigate the hazards. We see that. We generally don't have any problem with the hazard mitigation strategies that they are employing, but understand this is a driver issue. What you have to remember is you can set up and employ the best plan possible, but a driver in a second can just destroy that idea. Always remember, keep your head on the swivel. Remember that these drivers are not paying attention and even if you put a large fire truck in the middle of the roadway, we've seen it time and time again, drivers are just driving into them without even slowing.

Rod Ammon: It's mind boggling every time I hear another incident frustration sets in and I know again, this year with the numbers still increasing, the frustration is just unbearable. I'm sure for a lot of people and for some of the folks on our team who monitor what's going on is there something else that could have been done? I know keep your head on a swivel, but at the same time these folks are trying to help people on the roadway. Anything else that you think they could have done to mitigate or avoid these collisions?

Sheryl Harley: What I honestly and truly believe is that we need to help the emergency responders and the highway workers. I think the federal government, I think federal highway, NITSA, I think the NTSB realized that we to provide more support to these roadway workers who are operating on these active roadways. Every State in the District of Columbia has some type of move over law, or some legislation that encompasses that. But we need to do more. We need to make sure that we get the message out that this kind of behavior is not going to be tolerated. It's not enough to have a law, we need to enforce it, and we need to make the penalties count because that's the only way that we are going to change driver behavior and keep people safe.

I think as you say, emergency responders, they've got things they've got to do. They're on the roadway, they're concentrating on saving lives, they need help. They can't do this alone. I think that's ultimately what we realize that we need to do more and we need to do more ahead of the workers getting on the roadway.

Rod Ammon: I'm thinking about the fact that so often when we talk to responders, all kinds of people who show up at these crashes, they often think it's because the drivers are distracted. They think it's the phones or texting or something else. Did you find that? Did you hear about that in any of the investigations?

Sheryl Harley: During The North Charleston investigation there was a question about whether or not the driver had been distracted. Let me back up a little bit. In North Charleston the crash actually occurs on a bridge, the Don Holt Bridge. Underneath the bridge is two large seaports. At one particular point, there was a statement made that the driver was distracted looking at the freighters passing underneath the bridge and that when he looked up that was when he saw the emergency vehicle in front of him.

But again, this is a driver who acknowledged the fact that he did see the advanced warning sign, letting him know that the road in front of him was blocked by a disabled vehicle and yet he didn't move over. Now, his explanation was that he couldn't move over immediately because there was a vehicle alongside of him. The video from the law enforcement patrol vehicle shows that there was no vehicle in front of him, excuse me, beside him, he just failed to move over. We don't really know what the driver was doing but we do know is that even though he was taking in all the cues, he was not responding to them.

Rod Ammon: Wow. I know we spent a lot of time with slow down, move over, move over, slow down and I do see an improvement with that just from my own exposure out on the roads. What do you see, since then, have you seen any improvement? I'm sure you're monitoring what's going on. The numbers are still going up. Do you see any improvement there?

Sheryl Harley: The improvement I see is not in the numbers, I think the improvement I see is in the fact that we are now realizing that we need to work together to fix this. I think finally, we've gotten to the point where we realize that this is not a local jurisdiction issue, this isn't a state issue, this is a national problem and it's only going to be fixed if we all work together to fix it. I think the positive side is that we're moving forward to trying to do just that. We're trying to fix the system. We're trying to figure out exactly what's going on out there to see what we can do to fix it. I think the first step is we talk and we move forward as a group.

Rod Ammon: Okay. You've been a responder for decades and I'm sure you've seen a share of your own struck-by's and near misses, I'll just assume that. From your knowledge, what do you think it's going to take to address the problem?

Sheryl Harley: Honestly, I think people need to stop assuming that this is just part of the job. We actually have drivers out there who believe that, "Well, it's part of the risk that emergency responders take when they go out on the roadway." We need to stop that. That is a dangerous mindset. You're right, I have seen struck-by's. I lost a good friend of mine when I was a police officer in 1996 and I was amazed at the District of Columbia mayor, the DC city council, even the chief of police just shrug it off and saying, "Well, it's all part of the job. Yes, we've lost the law enforcement officer in the line of duty, but it's all part of the job." That is the wrong mindset. It should not be the mindset of drivers out there and it should never be the mindset of government officials and it certainly should not be the mindset to the command staff of any agency out there.

Rod Ammon: Yeah. Well, and again, I'll slide in from an editorial perspective here, I understand what they mean by it's the risk of the job. When you think of officers who've been shot in the line of duty people often think, "Yeah, that's why they carry guns. That's why they train for these things." But what I think I'm hearing now is that more law enforcement officers are dying on the roadways than they are by being shot. I'm not sure I'm accurate there but I think so in the past year or two, at least.

Sheryl Harley: Up until COVID. Yes, that was true.

Rod Ammon: Yeah. I think also you mentioned COVID but it sounded like during COVID what I read was that the speeds of traffic were even higher and very often on roads that were more empty than they had been. We had these very fast vehicles moving, and then we have population increases in some of these city centers. I just often think about how it's also road design and all of these things that are going to lead us to hopefully better traffic control. What's your message to the driving public if we can get anything out to them based on what you've seen?

Sheryl Harley: My message is to pay attention. Those advanced warning signs are telling you something. They're there for a reason, traffic cones, flares, the lights you see, slow down. If you can't move over at the very least, slow down. Be aware that they're going to be people on that roadway and they have the right to survive. They're doing a job. They're helping their community. You need to realize that and if you hit one of them, you're not going anywhere anyway. Flying through the area is not going to help you, slow down at the very least. Definitely move over if you can.

Rod Ammon: It's amazing, it's scary that we need to tell people this, but I'm very grateful for your time and I appreciate the background that you've shared with us and the knowledge. I think a lot of times when people think of NTSB they're thinking of airplanes or trains, those are the big things that we see in the media. I hope that what you're doing becomes more visible to the American public and we're very grateful for your time. Anything that I'm missing today or that I've misrepresented?

Sheryl Harley: No, I think we've got the message and again, the NTSB is hoping that we can move forward and work with our federal partners and also work with all the various emergency responder organizations out there. When we say emergency responders, we are also talking about the tow truck operators and the road service workers that are out there helping disabled motors and we want to represent you. Ultimately our goal is to make it safer for you to do your jobs and to help and serve the community.

Rod Ammon: Well, I know we all read what you're doing, the team related to Responder Safety and the Emergency Responder Safety Institute and we're very grateful for that. I would also say I hope they don't mind that we would love to have more involvement with you and engage with your team at any time in the future when the insight of some of these responders that we have across the country might be available to share. Thank you very much investigator Harley.

Sheryl Harley: Thank you, Sir. Appreciate.

Rod Ammon: This podcast, ResponderSafety.com and the Responder Safety Learning Network are made possible by funding from a fire prevention and safety grant from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program administered by FEMA and the US Department of Homeland Security. We appreciate your support and remember, share these podcasts with your colleagues to spread the word about safety practices on roadway incident scenes. Thanks for joining us today on this podcast. Stay safe everybody. We'll see you next time. For ResponderSafety.com, I'm Rod Ammon.