How Traffic Control Devices Help Keep EMS/ Fire Units & The Public Safe

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For 2014, the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), recorded 21,300 injuries to EMS personnel on duty. While most of those injuries were sprains and strains, far too many were serious or fatal.

EMS safety is always under review by NEMSAC (National EMS Culture of Safety) with new safety protocols introduced all the time. It is not only workers who are putting themselves at risk, but the patients to whom they are responding, even innocent bystanders in some cases.

There are many reasons why EMS-related injuries are too high. One of the most predominant is unsafe emergency driving through traffic.

Ambulances in Traffic – The Risks

Many EMS ambulance drivers feel overprotected inside their vehicle. This can lead to driver error. Overuse of the emergency lights and sirens can add to this false sense of invulnerability. This is despite the fact that EMS staff are trained to make safety a priority. Fatigue also plays its part.

EMS ambulance drivers have the single objective of reaching the accident scene as fast and as safely as possible. They do this by trying to negotiate traffic in the most efficient manner.

Other drivers, however, aren’t always cooperative with approaching EMS units. Here’s why:
1. They may not hear the sirens if they’re playing loud music on their car stereos.
2. Especially at night when most accidents occur, there are a higher proportion of fatigued or drunk drivers.
3. Some drivers become confused when they see or hear emergency vehicles approaching. This confusion can cause them to over-react, or to fail to react.
4. Many drivers who are aware of the emergency vehicle behind them don’t know the right way to respond to it. The law dictates that as an emergency vehicle approaches, the driver must pull his vehicle over to the right and stop. Some drivers stop on the left, however, or even try to race the ambulance.

Fire Trucks in Traffic – The Risks

Much of the above also applies to fire trucks and the firefighters who drive them. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data shows there are over 30,000 fire truck crashes a year. That’s a staggering 10% of all crashes involving special vehicles. Most fire truck accidents are caused by speeding or passing maneuvers near intersections. Traffic accidents cause 40% of firefighter mortality in the line of duty.

Fire trucks are big and heavy vehicles, so fatalities that are a result of collisions are even more likely to occur in the other vehicle concerned. Often, again, a driver has failed to let the emergency vehicle pass safely.

TOMAR Preemptive Traffic Control Systems

The engineers at TOMAR Electronics can’t change driver behavior. But we can design innovative new products that enable EMS units to respond to accidents more quickly and more safely.

TOMAR’s STROBECOM II Optical Preemption System removes much of the risk from emergency response journeys. It allows emergency vehicles to weave through heavy traffic faster. It does this by communicating with the traffic control systems found at intersections as the vehicle approaches. Shorter emergency response times are the result.

Even reducing response times by a minute can mean all the difference between a patient dying of a heart attack or not. It can also mean the difference between putting out that building fire or not.

Heavy traffic can slow emergency vehicles to a crawl, even halt them. This can increase emergency response times, sometimes with fatal consequences. STROBECOM II works by giving emergency vehicles a green light as they approach a major intersection.

In effect, STROBECOM II preempts the traffic control systems. At the same time, the lights cycle to red for all conflicting approach roads. This means traffic will be moving as quickly as possible on the approach road the emergency vehicle is using. Congestion is reduced and queues are avoided.

The STROBECOM II system requires the installation of specialized electronic equipment. An optical transmitter is mounted on the roof or light bar of the emergency vehicle. Integrated with the emergency lights, this transmitter emits a rapid-flashing Xenon strobe light. Intersections equipped with TOMAR optical detectors lock onto the strobe light from as far away as 2500 feet.

An Optical System Processor connected to the traffic controller receives these optical signals. First, it verifies that the approaching vehicle is a valid emergency response unit. If so, it sends a preemption request to the traffic controller, which in turn cycles the lights according to a predetermined algorithm. Multiple approaching emergency vehicles can be prioritized if required.

The oncoming emergency vehicle receives a green light within 3 seconds, straight from red if necessary. If the light is already green, it stays green. The traffic signals in all other directions change first to yellow, then red. Once all conflicting traffic signals have turned red, a floodlight on the traffic signal cross-arm will flash. This alerts the emergency vehicle driver that the preemption system has activated and he has free passage.

Once the emergency vehicle has passed, the strobe light will break contact with the traffic controller. Normal traffic signal cycling resumes for that intersection. There’s also an automatic shutoff installed as standard in TOMAR optical emitters. This will switch off the strobe light when the vehicle is in park or neutral, helping prevent intersection gridlock.

TOMAR’S Fire Station Mounted Emitter System (FSEMIT) is another great innovation saving lives. FSEMIT allows crews to clear traffic from nearby intersections while they’re still preparing the fire truck. A simple push of a button preempts the traffic signals in the fire truck’s favor for a predetermined time. FSEMIT enables traffic congestion to be cleared in advance outside the fire station exit. The fire truck gets off to a good start by exiting the station onto an empty road.

Quicker emergency response times combined with safer driving reduces fatalities and injuries. The lives of those saved are not only the emergency responders and their patients, but often civilians caught in the same traffic.

Both the STROBECOM II and FSEMIT systems can quickly pay for themselves if installed at strategic intersections. Just saving the cost of one emergency vehicle crash, certainly one expensive lawsuit, will mean it is money well invested.

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