After an accident, it's often up to fire department volunteers (and sometimes deputies) to get a rural road safe for traffic again as quickly as possible. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

Whether you live here or are just passing through a rural area, it’s nice to be where there’s not much traffic. Until there’s an accident. Then it feels like forever before help arrives. Someone has to call 911, then the dispatcher pages out emergency services volunteers, and it takes a while for those EMTs and firefighters to arrive on the scene. So it’s not unusual to find a bystander doing some sort of traffic control when we get there. Our fire department once arrived on the scene where a woman stood firmly planted in the middle of the highway. It takes grit to stare down 50,000 pounds or so of flashing, squawking metal and shout loud enough to make it known you’re protecting amputated fingers lying in the middle of the road.

Traffic control takes grit, whether you’re a Good Samaritan with an angel on your shoulder or a trained volunteer. Believe me, it’s scary out there. Folks who are good about pulling over for emergency vehicles running with lights and sirens can’t resist taking a quick peek as they drive past the scene of a wreck. They want to see what happened, what’s happening now, if anyone they know is involved. It’s human nature. But it’s scary to be on an accident scene trying to do your job when motorists are moving through with their heads on full swivel.

It’s even scarier to be the person holding a sign on a pole a quarter mile away trying to stop traffic before it reaches a scene. You’d be surprised how many people don’t seem to notice the flashing lights, the high-visibility gear, or the person holding the sign who looks like he’s ready to dive for the ditch — which he is.

While there’s not much traffic on this county highway, there’s also not much room to work when a minivan runs into a farm wagon. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

Recently we had one of those nights where everyone got lucky. To the best of my knowledge, no one was seriously injured in the vehicle that braked for wild turkeys in the road. I can’t speak to the condition of the people in the vehicle behind — the one that rolled over. But I can say everyone on the scene admired their tie-down skills: Their load was still secure on the trailer they were pulling when it landed at the bottom of a 200-foot embankment.

It was a complicated scene with a lot of moving parts — two drivers, three passengers and two big dogs in two vehicles, sheriff’s deputies, our local EMTs plus paramedics called in from the county seat, firefighters from two departments, two wrecker companies and, finally, a 60-ton rotator to lift the trailer up and over the guardrail. Motorists pulling trailers packed with kayaks or pulling fishing boats, motorcycles, horse trailers — all were safely moved through the scene or detoured around on convenient side roads (rare in this area). But at least twice I heard radio traffic on the private channel we use on-scene about vehicles that had blown through traffic control.

So just in case you don’t have a cousin on the fire department whom you can text to ask what happened, here are three things that may be going on as volunteers work to aid the injured and clear the road. For your own protection and everyone else’s, please keep these in mind when you approach flashing lights on the roadway.

There’s no room. Even on a state highway with wide shoulders, there’s never enough room for emergency vehicles where they need to be positioned. My department’s protocol is to have all vehicles stage on the accident side of the road to minimize risks to people on foot. But it’s likely that when we get on scene there will be someone parked where we want to be. So we make do. Our drivers know what side of an attack truck has to be positioned away from traffic for the pump control operator’s safety. The ambulance is going to pull in where there’s enough room behind to get a gurney out and back in with a patient on board. Nobody wants to blow exhaust fumes at people awaiting extrication and the crews that are there to help them. There are reasons for most of what you see, including emergency vehicles parked at odd angles: We angle those trucks to help funnel traffic, to prevent a rear-end collision from shoving a truck straight forward into other apparatus or people, to keep headlights from blinding oncoming drivers, and to get your attention. And all those cars lining the road farther out? They probably belong to volunteer firefighters who went directly to the scene because it was closer than the station.

After this logging truck missed a curve on a snowy road, traffic on a state highway was detoured for several hours until a 60-ton rotator arrived to help clear the road. (Photo by Bill Kallner)

Everyone is at risk. Secondary accidents are common, whether you’re paying attention or not. You can’t control what the other guy does, so be prepared for him to slow down to get a good picture for Facebook. Or to see two kids on bicycles ride through to see what’s going on. Or for the dog that bolted from the wrecked car to come running back to its owner. Or for the turkeys to make another attempt at their thwarted road crossing. The fire department may be directing traffic long after the ambulance leaves to transport the injured to hospital. To get the road open again, they may help the wrecker crew. Those are the guys who show up without us asking to help direct traffic when we have a structure fire and barely enough people for a different set of tasks. Those guys are also just trying to get home to their families. And their job is so much easier if they can set up at the right angle. So we may reposition our equipment to give them a better line, and traffic control may or may not hear that that’s happening. When you’re sitting waiting for the person holding the stop sign to let you through, just think how much you don’t want to be nearby if a cable snaps. And don’t expect much conversation or details about the accident while they’re trying to listen to radio traffic.

It’s impossible to hear. The noise at an accident scene can be deafening. You have a bunch of big diesel trucks sitting at idle, an engineer ready to pump water in case of fire, and a team firing up the Jaws of Life (whose operators generally use hand signals since verbal communication is so difficult). Add to this din the screech of when a roof is peeled back, distant but closing sirens as mutual aid partners arrive, and the squawk of a dozen or more radios and pagers monitoring different channels. There may even be a medical helicopter landing nearby. And if it’s dark (or getting there), there will be generators running to power lights all over the scene. Then there’s that jacked-up four-wheel drive with muffler problems creeping along ahead of you. So assume that no one, no one, on the scene can hear your vehicle. An EMT taking one step back while loading a patient in the back of an ambulance may be completely unaware of your approach.

As a passing motorist, you have an important role on the scene. We need you to watch out for any and all unexpected movement, and be prepared to stop on a dime or move along briskly if you’re waved at to do so. We’re counting on you. And if you happen to be stopped by traffic control on a hot day and you happen to have a cold bottle of water or Gatorade handy, pass one out the window to the person doing the scariest and most thankless job. They like cookies, too.

Donna Kallner says the incident described here happened on a hot Sunday afternoon in the jurisdiction of a neighboring department. They didn’t have enough responders to roll a third vehicle — the one carrying rehab supplies. So on her way to muster supplies (a 20-minute-plus round trip), she pulled into a family reunion to beg for drinking water for the crew at the scene. “Our neighbors always come through when we ask for help,” she says.

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