Thursday, May 21, 2020

The superheroes of the highway hit the road with new ways to protect the public, themselves during the pandemic

By DiAngelea Millar

It wasn't that long ago that I accompanied Josh Stuckey and later Ken Buretta, two of our Incident Response Team drivers, on ride alongs — you know, back when you could do things like be in the same car with someone else.

But due to the coronavirus pandemic, things look very different as I work in the Traffic Management Center and see our IRT drivers on camera, even from just a few months ago.
Ken Burett, an IRT lead in the Seattle area, shows off one of the
new flashcards our team is using to communicate with the public.

As the state turns the dial and reopens in phases, our IRT drivers across the state are taking extra precautions as more people return to our roads and traffic picks up. It's mind boggling to think how their jobs have changed in the wake of COVID-19, including donning additional protective gear such as cloth masks, face shields, gloves and goggles.

All that gear is heavy, making it more challenging to move, thus taking longer to clear some incidents. The gear traps heat too, so on warm days our IRT drivers are out keeping everyone safe with a heavy gleam of sweat. That's added another degree of difficulty to an already tough job, but the IRT team's mission remains the same: helping stranded travelers safely get back on their way.
Richard Ostrander wears his personal protective equipment while
assisting a driver on I-5 in Tacoma.

Beyond additional gear, IRT drivers have also added several other COVID-19 safety procedures – including special flashcards that allow travelers to stay in their vehicles while still communicating with our drivers.

The laminated flashcards were inspired by our partners at the Oregon Department of Transportation, and allow our drivers to approach from the passenger side of the vehicle to better maintain six feet of distance. The flashcards ask drivers if they are ok, provide the IRT member's cell phone number to call and ask if a translator is needed. This allows people to still get flat tires changed, a little gas to get moving or other assistance without ever stepping out of their vehicle or even rolling down a window. In other cases, IRT drivers also use bullhorns to communicate while keeping a safe distance.
All IRT workers are wearing tags that ask people to keep six feet
 of separation during interactions.

To ensure their own safety and that of anyone they come in contact with, all IRT employees also have bleach wipes to disinfect their vehicles before, during and after a shift. New tags on their uniform also ask that people keep six feet of separation to follow CDC guidelines.

With so many changes, one important fact remains the same — our workers need space.

We highlighted National Work Zone Awareness Week in April, providing information about the dangers our employees often face while working on the roads. Recently, one of our IRT drivers was hit while clearing a collision on I-5 in Seattle.

While the number of vehicles on the road is still less than average, it's still important to be safe if you do need to travel. Please follow speed limits, keep an eye out for first responders and move over to give crews room to work so each person can go home safely at the end of the day.