4 Ways to Prioritize Emergency Response Vehicles and Improve First Responder Safety

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The most common place for on-duty firefighters to lose their lives is not in a burning building; it’s in a motor vehicle-related collision. The same is true for on-duty law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians (EMTs), according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

Emergency responders spend extensive time on the road, operating a whopping 160,000 fire apparatus and supporting vehicles, 410,000 police vehicles and 48,000 ambulances in the United States alone, according to a 2016 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety.

Due to a lack of recognition of emergency response vehicles by other drivers, high traffic volumes in certain areas and driver fatigue from working long hours on irregular shifts, emergency responders face many challenges while on the road. The faster – and safer – they can arrive on the scene, the better it is for everyone.

Fortunately, there are a variety of solutions that can help, so I’ve gathered a key selection for you in order of low to high tech:

Photo Credit: NACTO.org

Speed Cushions

Though a helpful traffic-calming measure in many applications, speed humps force emergency response vehicles to waste crucial seconds by slowing down. Fortunately, they can be modified to prevent this.

Sometimes called a speed pillow or speed lump, speed cushions are essentially low, expansive speed humps narrow enough for fire vehicles to pass over unimpeded, but wide enough that standard vehicles and trucks cannot.

Constructed longitudinally in the roadway, they’re proven in field tests to slow most traffic while causing no delay to fire vehicles specifically.

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), speed cushions are successfully being used in place of speed humps in many jurisdictions. Austin, Texas and Mobile, Alabama both found speed cushions to cause no delay to fire vehicles, and Sacramento, California found them to save nearly 13 seconds of emergency response time per roadway segment compared to speed humps.

For maximum safety, construct speed cushions only in areas with sufficient lighting and visibility. Also, ensure there is a sign warning drivers of the impending speed cushion, as instructed in MUTCD section W17-1.

Offset Speed Table

For a vertical measure that accommodates all emergency responders, leverage an offset speed table. Unlike a regular speed table, which stretches from one side of the roadway to the other, an offset speed table covers just one lane of traffic at a time.

Each lane’s speed table is several feet apart, allowing emergency responders to avoid the entire speed table with a simple s-curve.

Because of this, offset speed tables work best on roadways at least 40 feet wide, according to a Portland, Oregon study.

Designed in a way that doesn’t delay emergency responders, offset speed tables are a valuable traffic-calming measure for when every second counts.

Photo Credit: Jeff Gulden

Emergency Vehicle Preemption System

Though traffic signals are designed to create safer, more efficient intersections, they pose a hazard for emergency response vehicles.

Because the current length of the yellow light phase is largely based on passenger vehicles, it is as much as 1.5 seconds shorter than the optimal length for fire trucks and ambulances.

This puts those vehicles at greater risk, especially if other drivers aren’t paying attention, according to the 2016 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety. Of course, the risks are even greater when emergency response vehicles deliberately run red lights to save critical time.

That’s where emergency vehicle preemption (EVP) systems come in. When an emergency vehicle approaches a traffic signal, the EVP system automatically adjusts the timing of the light cycle to ensure a green light. This saves valuable seconds and protects emergency response vehicles, especially as they enter an intersection from a minor road. In addition, EVP systems leverage the same devices as connected vehicles, including roadside units (RSUs) and onboard units (OBUs), which makes EVP systems much more cost-effective.

According to an FHWA report, “A review of signal preemption system deployments in the United States shows decreases in response times between 14 and 50% for systems in several cities. In addition, the study reports a 70% decrease in crashes with emergency vehicles in St. Paul, Minnesota, after the system was deployed.”

System costs will vary according to the amount of signalized intersections and emergency response vehicles.

Emergency Vehicle Warning System

Danger for emergency response vehicle drivers starts the second they leave their stations, merging into traffic often comprised of distracted and unsuspecting drivers.

Add another crucial layer of safety to your EVP system by integrating it with an emergency vehicle warning system, which can also incorporate connected vehicle devices.

By flashing LED-enhanced signs or beacons upon activation, this system warns drivers of a nearby emergency response vehicle leaving its station and entering the roadway. An emergency vehicle warning system from TAPCO offers multiple activation and power options and is ideal for roadways with visibility challenges, such as broad curves and hidden driveways.

Connected Vehicle Technology

With connected vehicle technology, vehicles can communicate with infrastructure and other vehicles about a host of roadway events and conditions. This includes the location, direction and speed of nearby emergency response vehicles, improving the rates of drivers who swiftly move out of the way.

That communication is made possible with a connected vehicle interface, which is an Ethernet interface that communicates critical road information to nearby roadside units (RSUs) for in-vehicle driver notification. As connected vehicles become more popular, companies like TAPCO are on the forefront, creating robust interfaces that can send easy-to-understand alerts in real time.

Costs vary greatly according to the amount of roadside units (RSUs) needed and how they are powered, but connected vehicle technology is an investment more and more communities are making.

Columbus, Ohio is currently launching a connected vehicle pilot program that includes an emergency response vehicle component. Says Columbus Project Manager Ryan Bollo, "The onboard unit will make a decision to display a message to the driver to get them to make a decision about what to do next."

With better decisions comes safer roadways, not just for emergency response vehicles, but for everyone who relies on them.

Learn more about protecting first responders with a Emergency Vehicle Warning System >

Aleischa Kronshagen

TAPCO | Product Manager

With several years of experience in the traffic safety industry, Aleischa manages TAPCO's dynamic curve warning solution product line and most other specialty solution product lines, including emergency vehicle, icy road and intersection conflict.

Previously, she was a member of TAPCO's customer service team, which fostered a passion for process and data analysis, as well as creative problem solving.

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