Highway rescues are risky business

EMS, police face dangers doing jobs

January 9, 2020 Cranberry Local News

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For first responders, attending to crash victims on roads — especially on interstates — can be nerve-racking.

“Responding to any sort of roadway is one of the most dangerous places we can be,” said Mandy Cousins, Cranberry Township EMS outreach coordinator.

The Sunday death of a Rostraver-West Newton Emergency Services supervisor highlights that risk.

“Matthew Smelser's death is a tragic reminder of the risk taken by emergency personnel across the state each day to rescue Pennsylvanians in distress,” Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday as he ordered flags in the commonwealth lowered to half-staff on all public buildings and grounds.

Smelser was killed helping a crash victim just before 6 a.m. Sunday on Interstate 70 near the Smithton exit in Westmoreland County. He was struck by a vehicle while exiting his ambulance.

In just the first week of 2020, five first responders and tow truck drivers have been killed while responding along roads and highways across the country, according to Cranberry Deputy Chief Matt Nickl.

And while first responders take precautions to ensure their own safety, Cousins pointed out that passing motorists must also take steps to help keep responders safe.

Taking precautions

Staying safe and visible is a priority from the design of an ambulance to an EMT's uniform and on-the-job training.

On Cranberry ambulances, for example, reflective chevrons and flashing lights help passersby identify the vehicle even in the dark.

“It alerts drivers they're driving up to an ambulance,” Cousins said. “You know it's something you shouldn't hit.”

In fact, Nickl points out that not all lights are on because they can be more of a distraction to drivers.

He added how ambulances also have no rear-facing red lights when they're parked because the color red can attract impaired drivers. The rear-facing lights are instead amber, the same color as many cars' check engine light.

When it comes to treating patients, Cranberry ambulances have most commonly used supplies on the passenger, or curb, side of the vehicle. Cousins said the goal is to keep medics from traveling onto the road when responding to incidents.

Police, too, take steps when conducting traffic stops on the road, Cranberry Police Sgt. Chuck Mascellino said. He explained how officers angle their vehicles so that if an oncoming motorist loses control, the officer's car — rather than the officer — is struck.

Even with the precautions, though, it's a precarious spot.

“Every one of the officers (in the Cranberry Police Department) has had some type of close call throughout their career,” Mascellino said. “Especially at night, especially at night and in the rain.”

Steering clear

Pennsylvania law requires motorists to “Steer Clear” when they come upon an emergency scene, traffic stop or disabled vehicle. Drivers must either change into a nonadjacent lane or significantly reduce their speed.

Violations of the “Steer Clear” law include a fine of up to $250 for a first offense, license suspensions for repeat offenders and penalties of up to $10,000 if an emergency service provider suffers bodily harm or death as a result of failing to abide by the law.

“This law will help prevent injuries and save lives, but only if drivers follow the law and use common sense,” the state police website states.

However, according to Nickl, many drivers don't change lanes or slow down.

“It's hit or miss,” he said.

Some of that has to do with the ever-increasing number of distractions drivers face. Sometimes drivers won't see a roadway obstruction because of their children in the back seat making noise or a driver is paying more attention to their phone than to the road, Nickl said.

Mascellino said the distraction doesn't even have to take long for it to significantly impair a driver's ability.

Reading a text means about five seconds of a driver's eyes being off the road, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. At 75 mph — just five miles over the legal speed limit on Interstate 79 — that's 550 feet of distraction. That's about the height of the Washington Monument during which a driver's eyes are focused elsewhere.

Beyond getting drivers to pay attention to the road, Nickl stressed the importance of why Pennsylvania adopted the Steer Clear law.

“Think about the repercussions. The law's there for a reason, so think about the reason,” he said. “It's a law, but it's education as well. Unfortunately sometimes it comes at a cost.”

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Alex J. Weidenhof

Alex J. Weidenhof