Wetumpka Fire Department fire chief Greg Willis is urging drivers to slow down and refrain from distractions while driving.
He cited a recent report released by the International Association of Fire Chiefs which showed seven roadway responders were struck and killed by vehicles while in the line of duty the first two weeks of January.
The nationwide data listed two police officers, two fire/EMS and three tow truck operators lost their lives.
“Anytime you see those warning lights, be prepared to reduce your speed and give somebody some room,” Willis said.
Willis said during his stint he’s seen more than enough close calls in Wetumpka and Elmore County.
“We’ve had situations where we had a road blocked with two firetrucks,” he said. “We had just enough room so a tow truck could get between us and a car drove right between the firetrucks at 50 (mph).”
He said U.S. Highway 231 poses more danger to first responders than any other street in Wetumpka.
“One of the places we have the most close calls is 231 at the rest area,” he said. “The way that road backs up down toward Jasmine Hill (Gardens) we try to stage a truck at the top of the hill to warn drivers. The rate of speed becomes an issue along this area of highway.”
Alabama Department of Transportation estimates 27,000 to 37,000 vehicles travel the Wetumpka 231 corridor per day.
Willis said there are departments in other parts of America that use trucks and staff solely to stop or divert traffic from driving into an emergency scene.
“They do not go do anything with patient care or the wreck,” he said. “They are there to set up a barrier so people cannot drive into them. When departments go to that extent, it’s certainly not an isolated problem. I just think distracted driving has become a big issue.”
Willis said most firefighters and ambulance staff have their backs turned to traffic while working a scene which makes for a vulnerable situation.
“You cannot take a blood pressure or splint a leg while looking over your shoulder,” he said. “We’re at the mercy of the drivers. If you read reports where first responders were hit by a car, many times it is because drivers are distracted.”
According to Alabama’s Move Over law, drivers may face fines of $100 or more if they do not safely move over or slow down when an emergency or maintenance vehicle is stopped or parked on or next to a roadway and its emergency lights are on.
“If we are slowing down or stopping traffic, there’s generally going to be someone out there giving direction,” Willis said. “Look for that person to tell you when it is safe to go through.
Especially at intersections, we will have lanes block and someone gets a green arrow to turn. They will follow the intersection lights instead of the person directing traffic.”
Willis said he wants the community to look at the bigger picture when pulling up to scene of an accident.
“Just look at the scope of being inconvenienced for a few moments as opposed to the devastation of being struck by a vehicle,” he said. “At a minimum, that is probably a career-ending injury. Think of how you could impact your life, someone’s livelihood and their personal life and family, especially if it became a fatality.”