Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Help our IRT drivers help keep you safe on the roads

By Barbara LaBoe

Our Incident Response Team drivers have to be able to do a little bit of everything out on the road. These traffic superheroes have to be part mechanic, part problem solver and part guardian angel as they drive our state roadways day in and day out. Their mission? Help keep traffic moving while keeping everyone involved – themselves, passing motorists and owners of crashed or disabled vehicles – safe.
IRT driver Brian Farrar carries a variety of tools in his truck, including jumper cables to help disabled or damaged vehicles.

This is National Traffic Incident Response Awareness Week, so we thought we’d share a little of what our IRT drivers do. I recently spent a day following along several drivers and here’s a list of just some of their tasks:
  • Changing flat tires as traffic zooms by just inches away. Recently they’ve also been showing some pickup truck drivers the new way some spare tires are suspended with cables that require special keys or tools to release. (One driver was ready to take a hammer to his truck until our driver showed him the trick).
  • Providing free gas. (No, they will not fill up your tank; they give you enough to get to the next gas station).
  • Chopping up trees that have fallen into the roadway. (They carry chainsaws and axes among their gear).
  • Directing traffic around crash scenes to keep other emergency responders safe and prevent other crashes. (They use cones, flags, flares, signs and flashing display boards as needed.)
  • Responding to crime scenes on roadways. Our drivers have dodged bullets, responded to vehicles with active meth labs in the trunk and one even emerged from under a vehicle to find it surrounded by officers with guns drawn because the driver was wanted by police.
  • Scanning bridge expansion joints, guardrails and highway signs on a regular basis to report any problems they see starting to develop. This helps maintenance make repairs before something becomes an emergency.
  • Siphoning off diesel fuel from an overturned semi truck’s gas tanks to reduce the chance of a spill or explosion.
  • Pushing or pulling disabled or damaged vehicles out of traffic to the shoulder or nearest exit to help reopen roads quickly.
  • Moving debris and other material out of the roadway. (Once, crews even helped someone retrieve a pair of dentures that flew out a car window during a coughing fit).

No easy task
The IRT drivers patrol a given area throughout the day, concentrating on known of areas of congestion unless they’re called to an incident. They’re also dispatched to crashes or disabled vehicles by the Washington State Patrol.
IRT Supervisor Kathy Vatter’s truck was damaged earlier this year when a driver plowed into it at the scene of an earlier crash. Luckily Kathy jumped out of the way and wasn’t injured, but our truck was totaled.

It’s a tough job. And dangerous. Earlier this year one of our IRT supervisors, Kathy Vatter, had to jump over a guardrail to dodge a vehicle that slammed into her truck so hard it totaled the vehicle. Luckily, Kathy wasn’t hurt, but we have far too many of these close calls each year.

So why do they do it? Drivers said their job is active and never boring. It’s a challenge to figure the best way to clear a complicated crash scene. But, mostly, the drivers all said they like helping people and seeing them get on their way safely.
Brian Farrar of our IRT group checks an abandoned vehicle to make
sure no one needed help before notifying the State Patrol.

“I get to help people very day,” said Zach Forrest, who joined IRT about two years ago.

“And people are really appreciative,” added Brian Farrar.

Safety is at the root of both the IRT program and our overall Traffic Incident Management program, which works with many emergency response agencies to safely clear road crashes or hazards efficiently while also preventing secondary crashes.
IRT driver Brian Farrar keeps an eye out for emergencies while patrolling the Olympia-Tacoma region.

We need your help
Our IRT drivers help people every shift, but we also need help from the public to keep everyone safe and moving. Here are some of the top tips IRT drivers said they’d like to share with travelers:

  • Leave extra space between you and the vehicle in front of you – following too closely is a major factor in roadway crashes.
  • Slow down and move over to the next lane if possible whenever you see an IRT driver at work on the shoulder. Not only is that state law, it helps keep everyone safe and cuts down on secondary crashes.
  • Keep your fuel tank full and your vehicle in good working order – prevention is key in avoiding breakdowns
  • Call 911 if you break down on the roadway or are in a collision. Emergency dispatchers work with our IRT trucks as well as towing companies to get you help quickly and this is an appropriate use of 911. It’s safer for everyone to let the trained IRT staff change your tire than attempting it yourself.
  • Always obey emergency signs, including reduced speed limits. Remember, no missed meeting, flight or other event is worth risking your life or the life of others.

Battery-operated flares help our IRT crews mark off closures without having to worry about flares burning out.

Bottom line, our overall Traffic Incident Management program is about saving lives. The lives of someone broken down on the side of the road, the lives of passing motorists and the lives of our workers and all emergency responders. Please help us honor their work this week – and every week – by doing your part to help everyone make it home safely each night.