Spokane Journal of Business

Incident responders smooth I-90 traffic

Driving solo, members help clear accident sites, get broken-down cars running

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If you drive the Spokane-area stretch of Interstate 90 on your way to work, chances are youve passed by Ernie Sims.

If so, hes already at work. His job is to ensure that nothing slows you down as you traverse the metropolitan area along I-90, which carries more than 100,000 cars a day at some points.

Sims is a member of the Washington state Department of Transportations three-person Incident Response Team here. He and two co-workers cruise the freeway during rush-hour traffic, clearing accidents and debris and helping stranded motorists get back on the road. The team is one of 44 currently operating statewide.

Most traffic-clogging incidents are pretty mundane, Sims says, although he has rolled up on some strange scenes.

In one recent incident, a motorist stopped his car in the middle of I-90 and just left it there.

Sims laughs and shakes his head as he remembers another incident. He came upon a man who had parked along the freeways shoulder.

He was on drugs, probably meth. He started going crazy, running around the car and all over the place, Sims says, flailing his arms in imitation of the man.

Sims called law-enforcement officers to the scene after he returned to his truck, then watched the man until the authorities arrived.

Incident responders are trained in traffic safety and basic vehicle maintenance, but not law enforcement, and dont act in any sort of law-enforcement capacity.

So, when an incident requires law enforcement, Sims says he radios for help and keeps a safe distance.

The DOT launched the Incident Response Team program statewide in July after a nine-month pilot program in Spokane.

We love it, says Ted Trepanier, the departments Eastern Region traffic engineer, who oversees the response team here. Its one of the best-bang-for-the-buck programs we can do.

The DOT says studies have shown that 60 percent of all congestion on urban freeways is caused by collisions, disabled vehicles, or fuel spillsand for every minute a freeway lane is blocked, traffic is delayed four to 10 minutes due to congestion.

Thats where the incident responders come in. To help clear lanes faster and keep traffic moving, theyre on the freeway here from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekends, Trepanier says.

The response team here currently has only one truck. Each member drives it alone, either on the day or swing shift. Trepanier says the team likely will get a second truck in December to reduce wear and tear on the lone truck, but the hours of the teams patrols arent likely to change.

Between July 1 and Sept. 3 this year, the Spokane team responded to 522 incidents. About half of those incidents involved disabled vehicles. Other incidents included automobile accidents, debris, and abandoned vehicles.

About 20 percent of those incidents blocked one or more lanes of trafficthe rest obstructed part of a shoulder, median, or ramp.

Overall, it takes an average of 16 minutes to clear an incident.

Sims says he responds to six to 12 incidents a daymore during big storms. Time spent at each incident ranges from a minute or two to help refuel a motorist who has run out of gas, for example, to well over an hour to help direct traffic after a serious car accident. Responders carry a handful of items, such as gasoline and jumper cables, to help idled motorists get on their way.

Traffic management

The incidence-response team gets many of its calls from the Spokane Regional Traffic Management Center, which DOT opened in July. The high-tech center, located in the Spokane Intermodal Center at 221 W. First, monitors I-90 via video surveillance. Five video cameras are placed along the busiest stretch of the interstate, between Sunset Hill to the west and Havana Street to the east.

If traffic-management operators in the center observe an accident or other traffic impediment, they can dispatch an incident responder to the site. Those operators also receive reports from city, county, and state personnel regarding traffic conditions and pass those along to the incident responders.

Earlier this month, the transportation department began staffing the center seven days a week, largely coinciding with incident-response team hours. Previously, the state staffed the center only on weekdays.

While there isnt always someone at the center, the cameras are on continuously, and their images can be seen on the departments Web site. Al Gilson, the DOTs Eastern Region spokesman, says more cameras eventually will be added throughout Spokane to monitor traffic flow.

When all is said and done, between the city, county, and state, were planning a network of 64 traffic cameras, he says.

Such cameras dont record the images they transmit and arent used to look for traffic violations, Gilson says.

Trepanier says he hopes eventually to hire additional incident-response team members to work U.S. 395 and U.S. 2 here in the future. Funding isnt available for that yet, but during busy holiday weekends, when a lot of people are traveling, the DOT dispatches maintenance workers to patrol as incident responders.

Two of the three current incident responders previously worked in DOTs maintenance shopSims, for example, worked as a traffic-sign installer before the new program started.

Prior to starting the incidence-response program, the department had maintenance workers on call to respond to broken-down vehicle reports or to help manage traffic during a serious accident. Such on-call help still is available when incident responders arent on duty.

In general, however, the department is responding to three to four times more incidents than when it operated strictly on an on-call basis with maintenance workers.

Linn  Parish
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Editor Linn Parish has worked for newspapers and magazines since 1996, with the bulk of that time being at the Journal. A Montana boy who has called Spokane home for some time now, Linn likes Northwest trails, Deep South foods, and lead changes in the ninth inning.

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