Volunteers from two rural fire departments in Wisconsin train with battery-powered extrication tools. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

If your social calendar seems extra full these days, you’re not alone. People who missed out on summer fun in 2020 seem to be making up for it in 2021. Folks are rushing from Little League to family reunions, weddings, graduations, silver anniversary parties, vacation Bible School, county fairs and festivals, and celebrations of all kinds. And in some rural areas, it’s not just our neighbors in the stream of traffic on country roads.

The two-lane highway that runs past my house is the scenic route of choice for many people from urban areas downstate heading to cottages, campgrounds, and events Up North. And many of those motorists haven’t learned to back off their speed as soon as they see slow-moving farm equipment, or to just hit the wild turkey in the road rather than brake abruptly in front of someone hauling a trailer. Each year, Wisconsin averages about 24,000 rural state highway crashes and 13,000 county highway crashes. Those are the types of motor vehicle ąaccidents I see as a first responder. Here are some things I’ve learned that might help you prepare for a safer summer.

Secure your cell phone. I can’t recall the last time when a conscious person involved in an accident didn’t ask for help locating their cell phone. At a recent single-car rollover, the phone was found underneath the car after it was up-righted. Luckily, that accident was witnessed and the witness called 911. Otherwise it might have been a long time before someone spotted the vehicle down the embankment and in the trees, and the occupants would have had no way to call for help. And just in case your cell phone goes MIA in a crash, be sure to keep your ICE (In Case of Emergency) contacts, insurance and primary care physician phone numbers in the glove box, along with a photocopy of your health and auto insurance cards. It’s also wise to list key aspects of your medical history, allergies and medications there. Wallets and purses are sometimes as hard to find as cell phones after a crash.

Secure cargo. Years ago, Bill and I stopped at an accident in a neighboring county and stayed to help until emergency services arrived. As I recall, an older man on the way to a family gathering missed a stop sign. In a collision, anything that’s loose goes flying. In that case, it was a large container of coleslaw, which popped open and exploded, landing everywhere including in the man’s hair. If your family has suggested it’s time you stop driving, showing up in a cop car smelling of cabbage and vinegar will not help your case. I learned to be diligent about securing cargo inside the vehicle when I was hit by a drunk driver in 1998. My tool bag was open, and the impact sent lots of sharp and pointed objects flying.

Wear your seatbelt. Our fire department’s assistant chief starts every after-action review with, “Did everyone use their seat belt getting here?” A seat belt / shoulder harness saved my life once, so why anyone wouldn’t use theirs is hard to imagine. Then I remember all the times I had to insist that my mother buckle up — even in the back seat, even if it wrinkled her blouse. But in a collision, an unsecured passenger can be as dangerous to other occupants as flying tools. Seat belt use is one of the most effective ways to save lives — and money. In 2017, non-fatal crash injuries resulted in almost $62 billion in lifetime medical costs and lost work. I can’t afford to not buckle up.

Move over, slow down. Traffic control at the scene of a rural motor vehicle accident is one of the scariest assignments for volunteer firefighters. When I wrote about that a while back, I should have added an explanation about something you might see on the road. When a fire department is dispatched to an MVA, we want to park all equipment on the same side of the road as the crash. We park our heaviest apparatus at an angle at the “upstream” end of the scene as protective blocking for personnel on the ground, leaving room for the ambulance as close as possible to the crash site. At some incidents, this may involve us driving past the scene to turn around and get in position. Rural departments often have apparatus and volunteers in personal vehicles arriving and leaving the scene at staggered times. The ambulance often is last to arrive and first to leave. In other words, there can be lots of moving parts. We want to make sure everyone gets home safely — including passersby. That’s more likely when drivers moving toward an accident scene slow down — way down — well before reaching the scene, and maintain a cautious watchfulness for turnarounds even beyond the scene or after you’ve pulled over for emergency vehicles to pass. There’s an excellent video on how to pass an emergency scene:

Be patient. On a good day, it takes a while for a wrecker to arrive, position, load and depart with a crashed vehicle. Sometimes it takes even longer. Recently at a semi rollover in a neighboring county, a state highway was blocked  for several hours while firefighters and a towing company unloaded 40,000 pounds of butter so the rig could be up-righted. Last summer, a logging truck versus minivan crash blocked both lanes of a state highway in our jurisdiction. The fire department to our east blocked the intersection of the highway and a county road that could be used to detour around the site. My assignment was to block the intersection of two state highways west of the crash site. That 4-way stop has rumble strips and flashers, but vehicles blow through it on a regular basis. That day, despite the yellow fire truck with flashing lights, the traffic cones and my hand signals, vehicle after vehicle stopped in the intersection to ask the same question: “How long before the road reopens?” Ignoring hazard warnings to ask “one quick question” can substantially increase the danger, not only to that driver and their passengers but also to other motorists and to the volunteer on traffic control. Besides, the answer is generally “Sorry, no idea.” The hard truth is there are times when we are so short of responders that once someone in a position to make a good guess has a rough idea how long it might be they have no time to relay that information to other personnel.

Be patient part 2. If, God forbid, you’re the reason the rural road is closed, you need to know it may feel like help takes forever to arrive. Fire and EMS personnel in rural areas generally aren’t at a station waiting for calls. They leave work, home or the ball game or drop kids at grandma’s to come to your aid. At the scene, they have to set up traffic control to keep a bad situation from becoming worse. They will look for additional hazards like power lines impacted by the crash. They will stabilize the vehicle with cribbing, chocks, shoring, winch or chains. The firefighter looking at their phone may be using an app to locate the battery and other safety features on your particular vehicle so they can be disabled before extrication. They may have to remove the windshield, which sounds pretty scary if you’re under a blanket to protect you from glass. They may have to spring doors or peel back the roof to access the passenger compartment, or pull up the dash rail to free your feet or legs. Firefighters and EMTs train for this, but every situation has a hundred variables to consider. It all takes time, able-bodied people, and equipment. Our department still carries a hydraulic Jaws of Life®, which operates off the engine — and that requires an extra person at the controls communicating with the extrication team via hand signals because of the noise. But our mutual aid partner now has battery-powered tools — a cutter, a spreader, a combination tool and a reciprocating saw. Those rechargeable tools are easier to get up and down steep embankments and to maneuver in the awkward positions required when a crashed vehicle ends up wedged among trees and boulders. If your local volunteer fire department is raising money to replace their old Jaws, donate generously. 

First on the scene. If you witness or come upon an accident on a rural road, before you do anything else pull off to a safe place, turn on your hazard lights, and keep your seat belt on while you call 911. You will want to report:

  • Location. Be as specific as possible. If you can’t see a fire number or mail box for an address, give “between X and Y” with the crossroads. Even local landmarks help (“at the curve by the potato fields”). It always helps us to know which side of the road, if applicable, and the current road conditions at that location such as black ice, standing water, or high winds.
  • Observation from a distance. From a distance you may be able to see how many vehicles were involved, what kind of vehicle(s), if any were towing anything, if it appears to be a rollover, a head-on, or a T-bone collision, if it appears that there are people in and/or out of the vehicle(s).
  • Closer requires caution. If you are able and willing to get closer, first put on a high-visibility vest (keep at least one in your glove box) before getting out. Check your mirrors before opening the door. Watch out for downed power lines, spilled fuel, broken glass, blood and other hazards as you approach the site of the crash. 
  • Report additional details. If you are not still connected with 911, call back to report the number of people you can see in the vehicle(s) and your initial impression of their condition. If they can’t tell you otherwise, assume injuries may be serious. All of your observations (“there’s a big dog howling in the car”) help emergency services be better prepared when they arrive on the scene. It’s okay to call 911 back with additional information as it becomes available. For example, if the driver appears uninjured but complains of chest pains, report it immediately. 
  • Stay there. If it seems safe to do so, stay on the scene until help arrives and a sheriff’s deputy has taken your contact information and witness statement. If it was you involved in a crash you would really, really appreciate both the moral support of a Good Samaritan and the awesome beauty of a complete accident report when you go to file an insurance claim. If it’s not safe to stay put, tell the 911 operator you must leave and where you are going. One slick, snowy night a neighbor stopped for an accident where the driver was already out of the vehicle. Our neighbor told the dispatcher he wasn’t comfortable waiting on a bad curve in those conditions with his baby in the truck and the driver wasn’t dressed to stand in the cold until emergency services arrived so he was transporting the driver to the fire station. From a legal standpoint it might be risky to help someone involved in an accident leave the scene, but in this case — where he kept the 911 operator advised of his actions — it was the smart choice.

There are more non-fatal than fatal motor vehicle accidents on rural roads. Nevertheless, almost half of crash deaths occur on rural roads. Teens especially are at elevated risk during the summer. Rural or urban, on average 260 teens die in car crashes each month during the summer — about 26% more than other months of the year. That’s why the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day is called the 100 Deadliest Days of Summer. And at any age, on any type of road, we all face a higher risk on Saturdays, when there are almost twice as many traffic fatalities as on weekdays. Please, please keep that in mind as you set out for all the social events you’ve missed in the past year.

Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in eastern Langlade County, Wisconsin.