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Public Roads - March/April 2015

March/April 2015
Issue No:
Vol. 78 • No. 5
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Clearing Crashes on Arterials

by Dave Bergner and Kimberly C. Vásconez

Local departments of public works and DOTs play a vital role in managing traffic incidents. But what exactly are they responsible for? And how can the TIM responder course help clarify their functions?

Michigan DOT’s Employee Memorial (shown here) is a permanent tribute to highway workers from across the State who lost their lives in the line of duty. Each figure represents a work activity conducted by DOT employees and is constructed of materials salvaged from highway jobs. The memorial, located at the Clare Welcome Center on U.S.127 in Clare County, MI, serves to educate the public about the human cost of building and maintaining Michigan’s transportation system.

The roadway maintenance personnel of local departments of public works and transportation are often needed for major traffic incidents. The mix of public safety professionals who respond to an incident varies, depending on the complexity of the event, special conditions at the crash site, and the roles assigned by city and county chief executives to the pertinent public safety organizations.

Public works agencies, DOT maintenance crews, and safety service patrols play an important role in controlling the work areas around incidents. They establish temporary traffic control operations; clear debris and routine hazardous materials; alert oncoming motorists by setting up arrow boards, cones, flaggers, and portable message signs; provide alternate routes for the public; and conduct temporary repairs to the roadway infrastructure. All of these activities help mitigate congestion and reduce the likelihood of secondary crashes.

Traffic incidents like this one sometimes require quick repair of asphalt or other roadway infrastructure. Public works and transportation workers carry the right equipment to make rapid repairs to help get traffic moving again.

Recognizing the hazards that road maintenance workers face daily, the Michigan DOT manages a memorial and Web site for public works and DOT professionals who died in the line of duty. The New Hampshire DOT is fundraising to build a memorial for public works employees who died while performing their duties.

Sometimes, the role of public works and DOT maintenance crews in traffic incident management (TIM) may not be fully understood. The Web site of the American Public Works Association defines public works as “the combination of physical assets, management practices, policies, and personnel necessary for government to provide and sustain structures and services essential to the welfare and acceptable quality of life for its citizens.”

The association also states that at present the structures and duties of public works departments are far from uniform: “In the real world there is no one, ideal structure for a public works operation. Even though some public works services are considered ‘must haves’ in every community, they may not be readily identified on a city organizational chart, or delivered in the same way, or to the same level, from one community to the next. In fact, some municipalities may not even have a department named public works.”

The American Public Works Association, the Institute of Municipal Signal Association, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hold the view that local public works and transportation maintenance workers are emergency responders. The 2007 version of the I–95 Corridor Coalition Coordinated Incident Management Toolkit for Quick Clearance states: “City and county [public works and traffic engineering] agencies have roles similar to the State DOTs. They are responsible for the highways not included under the State’s highway system.”

The division by jurisdiction, however, is clearer. For example, DOTs are generally responsible for interstates and State routes, even those within municipal corporate boundaries. Likewise, town, city, and county public works departments are limited to their jurisdictions’ street and road systems, unless the departments specifically request assistance from their State DOTs.

Therefore, local and State maintenance crews do not work the same incidents unless the jurisdictional boundaries overlap. For instance, a DOT will respond to a major incident on an interstate in an urban area, while the local public works crew will handle the traffic detoured to adjacent surface arterial routes.

Police and fire often call upon local public works and DOT personnel to aid them in responding to incidents on local arterial roadways, particularly in complex situations such as hazardous materials spills, multivehicle crashes, fatalities, or damage to infrastructure. These professionals help make the scene safer for motorists and responders by deploying proper temporary traffic control, clearing debris from roadways, and quickly repairing damaged or defective infrastructure. A key performance measure of a successful TIM operation is rapid opening of traffic lanes with few or no secondary incidents.

Efficient Use of Resources

Public works and transportation maintenance workers and service patrol personnel may serve as the initial incident commanders if they are first on the scene. Typically, though, the operation transitions to an incident command system (ICS) structure directed by police or fire supervisors. At that point, the public works and transportation crews, if still needed, are integrated into the incident command operation.

Effective and efficient TIM resource management relies upon the use of appropriate personnel who are best qualified and equipped for the various tasks. As an example, public works and transportation personnel can take over directing traffic at incident scenes. The other responders then can redirect their attention to tasks, such as accident investigations and treatment of victims, that are specific to their roles.

In addition, using public works and transportation trucks to block lanes reduces the need to position expensive fire trucks. Should a public works truck or safety service patrol vehicle be struck, it would cost less to replace than a customized fire apparatus would. Some public works and DOT maintenance trucks have crash attenuators mounted on the rear that are used for routine road maintenance operations to protect workers. These same units are also valuable at traffic incident sites.

TIM Capabilities And Constraints

Public works and transportation personnel can relieve police from directing traffic and blocking lanes at crash scenes like this one, where a Maryland State Highway Administration truck is helping block traffic. Police can then redirect their focus to other tasks more specific to their training and duty, such as crash investigations.

As noted in the FHWA publication, Best Practices in Traffic Incident Management (FHWA-HOP-10-050): “Frequently, transportation personnel assigned to TIM duties have other full-time responsibilities in maintenance, traffic engineering, or ITS [intelligent transportation systems]. Further, transportation emergency management is often distinct from TIM in organizational and reporting terms although these activities are most often carried out by the same people at the field operational level.”

Few DOTs are equipped for round-the-clock operations, unlike law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services (EMS), and private towing partners. Instead, most public works departments must call in off-duty personnel when emergencies occur outside normal working hours.

Calling up public works personnel can significantly affect their departments’ budgets because of the unpredictable nature of overtime costs. Furthermore, usually the notified personnel have to go to a maintenance facility first to pick up a vehicle and other equipment before responding to the scene. This lag time may prove frustrating to other responding personnel. However, some agencies in southern Florida are experimenting with placing critical vehicles and equipment at designated locations for quicker access.

Even during normal work hours, personnel engaged in routine maintenance tasks might be unable to shift quickly from those activities to respond to traffic incidents. Agencies cannot afford to have personnel on constant stand-by just for emergencies. First responders typically understand these organizational, logistical, and financial constraints on local public works departments and DOTs that prevent them from around-the-clock operations. However, first responders recognize that these organizations often possess an on-call process that enables them to mobilize during urgent situations to clear roads, fill destructive potholes, aid utility restoration, and assist with critical needs on arterials to support traffic incident responses as needed to ensure public safety.

Temporary Traffic Control Devices and Skilled Personnel

As appreciation for the operational and safety benefits achieved by rapidly establishing proper traffic control at incidents continues to increase, local public works and transportation crews are likely to be more involved, particularly in addressing arterial roads. Police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances cannot carry all the temporary traffic control devices that may be needed for larger incidents. Although some State DOTs in larger urban areas have well-equipped service patrol vehicles, most public works departments and DOTs rely on the regular maintenance force to provide the requisite equipment, employees, and expertise. These employees must be fully prepared to provide this service, a major reason why TIM responder training is important.

The Need for TIM And ICS Training

Preparing workers to respond to traffic incidents involves more than providing equipment, such as trucks loaded with cones, barricades, and signs. Professional capacity building entails training all personnel--workers, operators, supervisors, technicians, and even dispatchers at traffic management centers--in the fundamental concepts, protocols, and practices of managing traffic incidents.

Significant operational and organizational differences exist among public works, transportation, and other emergency services disciplines such as law enforcement, firefighters, and rescue specialists. The core functions of the uniformed disciplines include reacting to emergencies, whereas public works and transportation departments are focused on designing, constructing, maintaining, and operating transportation infrastructure.

In recent years, awareness has grown of their critical role in all-hazards emergencies and managing traffic incidents, as indicated by Presidential Policy Directive 21, “Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience.” The Presidential directive identified public works and transportation disciplines as part of the emergency services sector.

Traffic management centers, like this one in Broward County, FL, adjust the timing of traffic signals to mitigate congestion and delays from incidents. They also dispatch appropriate resources, such as public works and DOT maintenance crews.

As a basic requirement for their regular functions, all public works and transportation field maintenance personnel are trained in traffic control in work zones, per the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Contractors and utilities working in the roadway also are required to take this training. The International Municipal Signal Association, American Traffic Safety Services Association, or each State’s Local Technical Assistance Program provides training and certification. Some DOTs and public works departments conduct their own training and certification in work zone traffic control that complies with the MUTCD.

Public works and transportation employees are quite experienced with traffic control in work zones as they use it every day, whether they are patching potholes, repairing traffic signals and streetlights, installing pavement markings, fixing guardrails, or cleaning culverts. On the other hand, first responders may have had some training in temporary traffic control, a key element of traffic incident management. But, due to the increasing number of professional training requirements, first responders often do not reach the level of training in temporary traffic control possessed by city and county public works, DOTs, and safety service patrols.

Public works and transportation personnel also should be trained in the principles and practices of the national incident management system, as set forth by FEMA. FEMA has developed a guide to help State, territorial, tribal, and local leaders understand who on their staff needs to take what level of training offered through FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (

The introductory training in the national incident management system, IS-700, is recommended for all personnel with a direct role in emergency preparedness, incident management, or response. The online course defines this training as needed for “emergency response providers and disaster workers, entry level to managerial level including [EMS] personnel, firefighters, medical personnel, police officers, public health personnel, public works/utility personnel [emphasis added], and other emergency management response personnel.”

Maryland’s Coordinated Highways Action Response Team has specialized vehicles, shown here set up for temporary traffic control, which often help with incidents on larger interstates or arterials. Located at the start of the TIM area, where the responders cordon off their operational space, these personnel face higher risk of being struck by passing vehicles.

Public works and transportation employees also should be trained in the basic courses: ICS-100 Introduction to Incident Command System and ICS-200 Incident Command for Single Resources and Initial Action Incidents. Supervisors and managers should take the intermediate (ICS-300) and advanced (ICS-400) incident command courses.

After completion of the training, ICS practices need to be incorporated into routine operations. Unfortunately, this has not happened in many public works departments and DOTs, and the fundamental knowledge is lost over time. This can make integration of local public works and transportation personnel into an ICS structure more difficult, as they are not accustomed to using ICS organizations, language, and operating protocols. If a public works or transportation official is the first to arrive on the scene and does not know ICS protocols and procedures, then communications, control, and cooperation can be hindered.

TIM Responder Training

TIM represents a new facet of public safety. Certainly, law enforcement, fire, rescue, EMS, and others conducted traffic clearance processes ever since the first car took to the streets. But in recent years, a coordinated public safety approach has arisen based on those early TIM operations, plus locally developed policies, procedures, best practices, tools, and lessons learned.

In recent years, TIM stakeholders from across the Nation developed a new foundational training course through the second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP2). FHWA is responsible for deploying the 4-hour course, which is designed for responders from all disciplines. Participants learn best practices and “walk in others’ shoes” through tabletop exercises in which individuals must perform the duties of responders from other disciplines.

The TIM responder course teaches them to plan, train, and work together. The course provides responders with a common set of core competencies and assists them in achieving three key objectives: responder safety, quick clearance, and interoperable communications.


The course has been mostly provided through State law enforcement and transportation and local fire and rescue agencies. However, public works and transportation organizations that want to host the training, directly, for either the short 4-hour course or the train-the-trainer course, should contact FHWA’s TIM responder course program manager, Jim Austrich, at The International Association of Fire Chiefs has a TIM Web site ( that also lists courses by location and date.

In 2012, FHWA introduced a TIM train-the-trainer course. Demand for the course has grown exponentially. FHWA trains instructors from various disciplines. And, in return, FHWA encourages the new instructors to conduct the free 4-hour TIM course and to include the course as part of the required curricula for public safety professionals, offering it through State and local public safety training academies.

Currently, FHWA is exploring opportunities to see if the training could be presented effectively using a virtual classroom format.

As of February 2015, 85,361 TIM professionals had received the training in a classroom format, and 5,663 more had qualified as instructors. FHWA expects that over a million responders will be trained over the next several years.

Support for TIM Training

Although many public works and transportation personnel have participated in the TIM responder course, more still need training. To that goal, FHWA is working with the professional associations that represent the majority of public works and DOT employees. For example, the International Municipal Signal Association hosted the train-the-trainer course at its annual meeting in July 2014. The American Public Works Association also has expressed interest in conducting the TIM responder course at its regional chapter meetings. To date, about 10 chapters have asked to host the course.

In late 2014, FHWA held a meeting of senior leaders from those associations and others. (For a list of the participating organizations, see the sidebar on page 35.) The purpose was to gain their formal support and involvement in TIM training and other initiatives.

The leaders noted that public works and transportation practitioners are underrepresented in the TIM responder classroom sessions, especially in comparison with the other TIM disciplines. The group would like to come up with practical strategies to bring more TIM responder classroom sessions to this segment of the TIM community and to learn about the classroom sessions in advance so public works and transportation workers can participate with law enforcement, fire, rescue, EMS, towers, and others.

In addition to FHWA’s responder course, the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association’s Emergency Responder Safety Institute and the I–95 Corridor Coalition offer free online courses aimed at various responder disciplines. Also, the National Fire Protection Association in 2011 established a Technical Committee on Professional Qualifications for Traffic Control Incident Management. Although the primary audience is firefighters, the association expects that the final product will be applicable to all responder disciplines.

Traffic Planning For Special Events

Lastly, the same principles, concepts, and techniques used for handling traffic crashes are applicable to planned special events such as political conventions, major sports and entertainment events, demonstrations, county fairs, and so on. Jurisdictions must ensure security, safety, and access, and public works is often involved in some capacity.

As stated on the FHWA Web site on preparing for planned special events: “Unlike traffic incidents, natural disasters, and adverse weather, public agencies typically have access to information on the location, time, duration, and demand expected for a planned special event . . . [Planning for these events] also provides an opportunity for agencies to plan, coordinate, share resources, deploy intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies, and apply proven traffic management techniques to mitigate any possible adverse impacts.”

As FHWA works with public safety officials in delivering TIM training around the country, agency officials continue to be encouraged that jurisdictions are accepting and more frequently applying advanced planning, proactive management, and traffic control in support of planned special events as a TIM mitigation strategy.

Planned special events provide opportunities for TIM partners to think through an operational plan and actually jump into operation if an incident occurs. These events also provide a chance to do a “hot wash”--an after-action discussion of resource sharing, roles, and responsibilities. The hot wash provides an opportunity to evaluate current TIM plans, break down administrative barriers, build relationships and trust that will benefit everyone when a traffic incident occurs, and practice information collection, analysis, and processing for consolidated situation reports on the watch.

A New Perspective And Attitude

“Call us if you need us” has been the prevailing attitude among many public works and transportation agencies. Several professional organizations are taking actions to change this perception so that public works and transportation workers begin to recognize that emergency management is an essential frontline function.

Incorporating TIM into their operations provides several benefits:

  • Participating in TIM training and working with other disciplines on TIM helps to establish relationships that are vital during all-hazards emergencies.
  • Training together helps the others become familiar with local public works and transportation capabilities and the benefits of including these agencies in planning, as they are involved in overall emergency management.
  • TIM training contributes to improved morale and performance of public works and transportation employees by improving their understanding of their role in emergencies.
  • The training broadens their experience with temporary traffic control.

As all incidents occur at the local level, it is incumbent on municipal, county, and tribal governments to plan accordingly. Police, fire and rescue, and EMS will serve as incident commanders on arterial roadways, but, as they integrate good practices taught through the SHRP2 TIM responder training, these organizations may elect to call upon public works and transportation departments for support. So, it is wise for TIM teams to bring local public works and transportation representatives into planning and operations now to be able to address the infrastructure and electrical needs of future roadway transportation.

Public Works and Local Transportation Senior Leader Meeting

On December 10, 2014, FHWA’s Office of Transportation Operations hosted a meeting of professional associations representing the diverse local public works and highway operations and maintenance sectors. FHWA met independently with law enforcement, fire and rescue, and emergency medical services disciplines to discuss the importance of their members’ participation in the TIM responder training course being deployed around the Nation. FHWA believed it important to meet with key groups vital to those often responsible for temporary traffic control and debris removal as a part of crash and incident response in local areas, particularly on arterial roadways. So, the agency invited key executive members of the public works and transportation operations and maintenance associations, including safety service patrols, to (1) better inform the associations of FHWA’s TIM program; (2) help FHWA leadership understand the TIM capabilities of public works and DOTs; and (3) advance TIM knowledge, preparedness, and operational involvement among this large, diverse, and critically important segment of emergency responders. Meeting participants represented the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials; American Public Works Association; American Road & Transportation Builders Association; American Society of Civil Engineers; California Department of Transportation; U.S. Department of Defense Traffic Engineering Program; Intelligent Transportation Society of America; International Municipal Signal Association; International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association; Institute of Transportation Engineers; Maricopa County Department of Transportation; National Association of County Engineers; and the Transportation Research Board. 

Dave Bergner is a retired public works superintendent/traffic operations manager. Currently, he is a traffic incident/emergency management specialist with Monte Vista Associates, LLC. Bergner has a master’s degree in management from Webster University and is a Public Works Leadership Fellow.

Kimberly C. Vásconez serves as team leader of the Traffic Incident & Events Management Team and director of the TIM program in FHWA’s Office of Operations. Vásconez has 28 years of disaster management experience with FHWA, the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh.

For more information, contact Kimberly C. Vásconez at 202–366–1559 or To learn more about FHWA’s TIM program, please visit