First responders face challenges on I-64

Jimmy LaRoue
Contact Reporterjlarouejr@vagazette.com

When Glenn Robinson heads out to the Interstate 64 construction zone to tow a car, he sometimes has to lay down under the tow truck to get the vehicle on the flat bed.

Any wiggle room he once had is gone. The Jersey walls and shifting lanes will be in place until at least 2019 as the highway is widened to three lanes and a 12-foot-wide shoulder is added on each side from Newport News through James City County.

So in order to hook the chains under a car to pull it onto the truck, Robinson will at times lay on the white line marking the edge of the road. It’s a white-knuckle experience.

“When I’d be out there with the flat bed, I’d be hooking up on the interstate and there’d be cars whizzing by me at 65 miles per hour less than a foot away,” said Robinson, a fleet supervisor for AAA Tidewater.

First responders and Virginia State Police face challenging — sometimes life-threatening — conditions when responding to incidents in the 7-plus miles of Segment II construction on I-64. That segment stretches from about a mile west of Route 199 at Humelsine Parkway (exit 242) to about a half-mile east of Route 238 Yorktown Road (exit 247), where the Segment I project ends.

Virginia penalizes those who speed in work zones and enforces a Move Over, Slow Down law to help first responders.

The law calls for drivers approaching a stationary car or emergency vehicle with flashing lights that is traveling in the same direction, to move away from the stationary vehicle if safely able to do so or slow down if not.

But Robinson says the law doesn’t help when he and the other 95 AAA tow truck operators in the Tidewater region are on their backs.

“We hope everybody adheres to the slowdown law, but nobody does.”

The challenges

Just getting the pinpoint location of an incident is the first obstacle.

“Our biggest challenge, and this is a challenge anywhere on the interstate, is the callers giving us the most accurate information of where they really are, where the incident really is,” said James City County Fire Chief Ryan Ashe.

Fire crews from James City and York counties typically respond to incidents along I-64, while the Williamsburg Fire Department lends an occasional assist.

Virginia State Police spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Anaya said it isn’t unusual to get calls from people who don’t know where they are on the interstate.

“We can maneuver more quickly than the fire department through the traffic and we’re often times the first on the scene and can tell them exactly where the accident is,” Anaya said.

First responders also need to know how much equipment to bring and find the best way to access a scene, especially in the often bumper-to-bumper traffic going in both directions on I-64. How they approach the scene also depends on whether traffic is simply blocked or completely shut off.

A typical response, Ashe said, will include two engine trucks, two ambulances — split between York and James City fire and rescue crews — and one rescue truck.

York County Fire Chief Stephen Kopczynski said the lack of access to shoulders also hurts first responders.

“That affects our ability to maneuver in and around incidents,” Kopczynski said. “If you can imagine an accident that occurs at mile marker 243 and we have to access it, it’s hard for us to get to it because there’s no way for the people to pull off the edge of the road for us to have access to it.”

Learning on the fly

James City and York crews have had a lot of practice responding to accidents in Segment II. Work began on that section in mid-October 2016, and since then there have been 151 accidents, according to Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle crash data, which that runs through July. None of the accidents were fatal and most of them took place since February, when Segment II construction began in earnest.

Those first responders have learned from their counterparts in Newport News, who have responded to 454 crashes in I-64 work zones since Segment I construction began Sept. 8, 2015. Those crashes resulted in two deaths and 141 injuries, according to the DMV.

Segment I extends 5.6 miles north of Jefferson Avenue in Newport News (exit 255) to near Yorktown Road (exit 247).

The more than 600 accidents along I-64 between through those construction zones have given first responders a chance to learn on the job.

Improving communication was a priority even before Segment II construction began.

The Virginia Department of Transportation coordinated public safety meetings with localities and first responders before any construction started to outline what first responders could expect in the work zones, VDOT spokeswoman Brittany McBride said.

The groups continue to stay in regular contact, she said.

Robinson also coordinates with VDOT to lead a traffic incident management class for first responders on how to handle interstate and emergency conditions.

Understanding incidents

Responders have also learned to let Virginia State Police do a quick triage of the accident scene to determine the needed level of support.

Troopers have an easier time maneuvering in the construction zone in a patrol car or motorcycle, and are often the first to get to the scene of an incident, Anaya said.

“We are trained in that aspect, and we can tell more than likely if it’s going to be a fatal (accident) or it’s going to be one with life-threatening injuries,” Anaya said.

Then the trooper can relay that information directly to first responders and tow crews.

“That really helps us before we go commit resources in one direction, we’re able to confirm the location and commit the resources in the right way,” Ashe said.

And, rather than having the two fire departments use their own channels to communicate, they stay on a York County channel for interstate incidents.

Anaya said a trooper’s responsibility at an accident scene or dealing with a disabled vehicle is to investigate the incident and try to clear it as soon as possible.

If the trooper isn’t able to open a lane of traffic within 30 minutes, Anaya said the trooper is required to send a message to VDOT headquarters in Richmond to advise the agency what is happening at the scene, and that the interstate will be shut down indefinitely.

“I think we’ve got a good, working system,” Kopczynski said.

First responders at the fire stations and 911 centers in both counties also have access to VDOT 511 camera feeds, which can alert them to incidents even before they get a call, and they can pull up the feeds en route to the scene.

Constructing solutions

For all the improvements that have been made, things could still get better.

First responders said clearly marked mile markers would be a big help. Now, the markers are placed every mile. VDOT should consider placing more of them at closer intervals, responders suggested.

Kopczynski says callers should be aware of their surroundings so they can best help the 911 dispatch center locate the incident and relay that to the fire and rescue crews.

“The best thing people can do is pay attention and go with the flow,” Robinson said.

Kopczynski said drivers need to follow the posted 55 mph speed limit in the construction zone for their own safety and the safety of construction and highway workers. Drivers should also keep plenty of distance between them and the vehicle they’re following in case of a sudden slowdown.

Anaya said work zone accidents are due largely to inattentive and speeding drivers.

Another issue for first responders — the width of the shoulder — should be solved when the widening project is complete. Kopczynski said the I-64 crossovers have been improved to ease access for their large fire engines.

An incident management coordinator and safety service patrol are assigned to the I-64 work zone 24 hours a day, according to VDOT. The department also hires off-duty troopers to provide extra work zone patrols.

McBride said all detours and alternative routes in the construction zone were planned and coordinated with localities in case any roads or ramps needed to be closed due to an incident or construction.

Still, there’s only so much room to work along the highway.

“Unfortunately because of the Jersey walls — they’re like a pinball machine,” Anaya said. “There’s nowhere for them to go, so they bounce from wall to wall, and a lot of that has to do with speed.”

If you have an accident:

» Do not drive away from the scene of an accident, even a minor one.

» If able to do so safely, pull over to the side of the interstate, turn on your flashers and set up flares.

» Call police and emergency personnel using 911, even if there are no serious injuries.

» Police usually get information from parties involved in the accident, but if the police do not respond to the accident, get the name, address and phone number of everyone involved in the accident, passengers and drivers, and ask to see an insurance card for vehicles involved. Get any information from witnesses and get a police report number if police do respond.

Labor Day traffic

Traffic deaths are on the rise this year throughout Virginia.

529 death have been reported so far this year (477 at this point in 2016).

Labor Day travel in 2016 saw:

8 traffic deaths (16 in 2015).

707 traffic crashes.

During the holiday in 2016 troopers cited:

8,676 speeders.

2,772 reckless drivers.

739 safety belt violations.

201 child safety seat violations.

Source: Virginia State Police

LaRoue can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342, by email at jlarouejr@vagazette.com or on Twitter @jlaroue.

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