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Back to Archives | Back to July 2004 Contents 

Managing Highway Incidents with NIMS

By Earl M. Sweeney, Assistant Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Safety, and Chair, IACP Highway Safety Committee

Two converging national forces promise to revolutionize the way highway incidents will be managed in many local jurisdictions in the coming years. The first of these forces is the nationwide adoption of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.1 The second is the implementation of efforts by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) urging the passage of a combination of new laws, the adoption of revised training, and the institution of new procedures for relieving congestion and achieving quick clearance of highway incidents.

Although the fire service has for a number of years used the incident command system (ICS) that was pioneered for fighting wild-land fires, law enforcement as a whole has been slow in adopting it. Other municipal and state government agencies and certain private entities such as towing and recovery services have scarcely heard of the concept or understand its implementation. That is all changing now because the Department of Homeland Security has made the adoption of NIMS and the provision of NIMS training prerequisites for receiving homeland security grants. Eighty percent of these grant funds must be distributed to local and county agencies. This new federal requirement provides a strong incentive for states to adopt NIMS by statute or administrative rule, and for localities to embrace it.

The FHWA through its state and regional offices is facilitating meetings to spur the use of incident management tools to provide quick clearance of highway incidents to reduce congestion and improve traffic flow. FHWA is tying this effort into the larger nationwide Intelligent Transportation System initiatives.2

Model Procedures Available
Resources are available to help states and local jurisdictions implement NIMS. The Model Procedures Guide for Highway Incidents is available from the U.S. Department of Transportation and on the department's Web site.3 The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances has published model "quick clearance" legislation for jurisdictions to use as a guide for developing their own laws and ordinances on this topic.4 The National Association of the Towing & Recovery Industry has issued a guide to their members called TIMTOW, which explains the theory of traffic incident management and identifies a role for towing and recovery operators in the quick clearance of highway incidents.5

With traffic incidents being the historic leading cause of line of duty deaths for police officers and the second most frequent cause of deaths for firefighters, the quick clearance of roadways can be a lifesaver for first responders, other motorists and onlookers. In addition, the FHWA estimates that trillions of dollars are lost to the U.S. economy every year due to traffic congestion, much of which is caused by highway incidents.

The traffic incident management system (TIMS) is a component of NIMS and adapts well to the control of traffic incidents. TIMS can be used to manage all highway incidents, including major crashes, bridge collapses, snowstorms, terrorist incidents, landslides and other disasters, as well as planned events such as highway construction projects, parades, and public gatherings. The system can be expanded or contracted as an incident escalates or gets under control. It enables unified command under a single incident commander but with each participating entity represented in the command center as partners controlling their own resources through their own command structures at the scene.

The system is flexible enough to be used regardless of which agency or discipline has overall command of the incident. Depending on state law or local practices the police may be designated as the scene commander, in others the fire service may be in overall command.

In many jurisdictions the rule of thumb is, "If it bleeds, leaks, fumes, or smokes, the fire chief is the incident commander; otherwise, police chief is." In either case, the other agency has an important role to play and is part of the unified command structure.

If the police are in the supporting role, they are usually responsible for security and order at the scene and at the command post as well as communications, traffic control, crowd control, the criminal investigation, and enforcement. If there is a separate EMS department, it handles the emergency medical services. If traffic will be disrupted for any significant length of time, the state department of transportation is called in as part of the command structure to provide services ranging from barricades and detour signs to assistance to motorists whose vehicles have stalled and will not restart to rapid erection of a temporary bridge if appropriate. State or local environmental protection personnel and regional hazardous materials teams may be called in when hazardous chemicals, explosives, biological hazards, or radioactive materials are involved.

Assistance is even available from the private sector, since the towing and recovery services are increasingly providing their employees with reflective clothing, temporary traffic control devices, and training in direction and control of traffic. Tow truck operators properly trained can lend a hand directing traffic at the scene while waiting to hook up their tows. Public utilities such as the electric power, gas or water companies will become involved if their services are affected. Downed electrical lines happen with some frequency and need to be rendered safe quickly. If the incident becomes protracted, then disaster relief agencies such as the Red Cross will need to be activated and incorporated in the command structure.

The news media has a role in handling major incidents. During the local planning stage for adopting NIMS the news media should be involved in planning and then participate in the drills preparing for incidents. This will establish ownership in the parameters set for the media at scene of incidents and provide the media with plan of action for obtaining information. Besides reporting on the incident the media can serve as allies in broadcasting public notification to keep motorists and the traveling public away from the area of a major incident and to inform the public about available detour routes.

Because a major incident will result in detouring a significant amount of traffic along alternate routes, or causing congestion for many miles removed from the incident, adjacent jurisdictions can be seriously and unexpectedly affected by a traffic incident. Each regional jurisdiction must be a part of the planning, notification and implementation process. When an incident occurs, the adjacent departments need an early notification that their roads and streets will carry a sudden surge in traffic. In this way the adjacent jurisdictions can facilitate the traffic flow.

TIMS provides a balance among the sometimes competing interests of quickly providing emergency services. Each agency has a role in removing traffic blockage, protecting first responders and those in their care from hazards of moving vehicles, protecting motorists and cargo from the hazards of the incident, facilitating emergency vehicle movement, and facilitating traffic flow past the incident and in the vicinity.

A Multistep Process
Generally, the implementation of an effective traffic incident management system will involve the following activities:

  • The passage of effective laws and ordinances
  • The formation of incident management committees with representation from all the public and private entities that would contribute to the clearance of a traffic incident
  • Training of first responders, both public and private

Many states are now incorporating these principles into their motor vehicle codes. Typical provisions of these codes include the following:

Move-Over Provisions: These regulations require motorists approaching a stopped emergency vehicle or a roadside incident to recognize that they have entered a de facto work zone, to reduce their speed, to obey the directions of workers at the scene, and to keep clear of any lane that is totally or partially blocked.

Avoidance of Lane Blockage: Old state driver's manuals told a generation of drivers to stop at the precise point of impact and wait for the police to arrive and investigate; now under the new laws motorists are obligated, if their vehicle is drivable and they are capable of moving it, to pull off the road at the nearest safe location when involved in a crash. This avoids blocking the roadway and reduces the risk of secondary collisions.

Authority of the Scene Commander: Police officers, acting on orders of the incident commander, are authorized to tow, with or without the owner's permission, any vehicle that is blocking traffic at the scene, and to order the immediate removal of any spilled cargo. With the availability of technology such as photogrammetry today, it is no longer necessary in most cases to leave vehicles that were involved in a crash in the middle of the road for hours while police dissect the crash.

Compensation of Incident Removal Costs: Persons, such as towing and recovery companies, removing vehicles or cargo from an incident at the request of the designated incident commander have the unqualified right under these statutes to be compensated for their work by the owners of the vehicles or cargo removed.

Exemption from Liability: Any persons, including police officers, firefighters, EMS providers, DOT employees, and towing and recovery personnel, if acting at the request of the incident commander, are exempted from liability for any damage done to vehicles, equipment, or cargo as a result of enforcing the quick clearance law, provided they act without wanton or willful negligence or malicious intent.

Once these laws are in effect the state or local DOT should post signs conspicuously along roadways informing motorists of their obligations in highway incidents. Also necessary is an educational campaign to inform the public of the changes.

When adopting TIMS, the department needs to hold a meeting with all the potential first responder partners and adjacent jurisdictions to discuss each other's respective roles. Regular follow-up meetings to analyze responses to incidents will provide improvements to the local system. All of the involved entities should implement TIMS policies that complement each partner and jurisdiction as well as provide training to their employees. Joint training exercises should follow the initial training with additional training throughout the year.

Managing the Incident Scene
Once an incident occurs, the responsibilities of the incident commander include the following:

  • Take immediate steps to stabilize the incident, provide for life safety, and establish traffic control. A perimeter for the scene needs to be established and evacuate persons as required.
  • Evaluate the situation and call for needed additional assistance.
  • Triage the injured and provide appropriate field treatment and emergency care transportation.
  • Extend the area of operation to ensure safe and orderly traffic flow through and around the incident scene.
  • Provide for the safety, accountability, and welfare of personnel, a responsibility that will be ongoing throughout the incident.
  • Restore the roadway to normal operations after an incident has been cleared.

What Are the Procedural Changes?
In the past, operations at the scene flowed sequentially, with the police arriving, determining if fire and emergency medical personnel would be needed, then calling in any hazardous materials mitigation teams, and finally calling for towing services. Under TIMS wherever possible, all equipment and personnel arrive at a staging area, not necessarily at the scene, and the necessary personnel and equipment is dispatched to the scene when needed. This practice avoids a massive amount of recovery equipment stacking up at the scene and contributing to the congestion, and it enables the clearing of the scene much more quickly than waiting for these resources to arrive as each prior operation is completed.

Getting the right people and equipment to the scene is important. To assist in the removal, the TIMTOW guide by the National Association of the Towing & Recovery Industry has published schematic descriptions of the various vehicles and wrecker configurations.6 This guide identifies wreckers best suitable for towing the vehicle. Ideally this guide should be made available in all police cars so that officers at the scene will call for the proper piece of apparatus the first time, and not be confronted with situations where the tow truck called cannot do the job, and another must be summoned after the fact.

For a simple incident, the first arriving officer assumes command and retains command throughout. For more complex incidents, the model expands as needed and shrinks as the incident comes under control. Establishment and maintenance of interoperable communications throughout the incident is paramount, and this needs to be planned in advance.

Under a unified command scenario, the ranking police officer, the ranking fire officer, and the ranking DOT official might work together, one as incident commander and the other two as deputy incident commanders. As the incident progresses, the roles of incident commander and deputies will shift as the emphasis of the incident changes from firefighting and rescue to investigation, scene control, and body recovery, and then to vehicle and debris clearance and roadway repair. The commanders jointly determine objectives, strategy, and priorities for handling the incident.

There is no greater responsibility at a traffic incident than ensuring the safety and well-being of responders, passing motorists, and bystanders. To safely move vehicles and apparatus may be simple or complicated, depending on the location and duration of the incident. The hazard to responders increases as the speed of vehicles passing the scene increases and as the separation between moving traffic and responders decreases. Warning motorists who are approaching a line of vehicles that has slowed or stopped due to a highway incident is vitally important to prevent secondary collisions and additional emergency incidents. Limited visibility, weather, and road conditions can intervene and add to the difficulty.

If traffic begins to bottleneck, it becomes necessary to extend the advance warning area further and further from the incident scene, providing the oncoming traffic ample opportunity to slow up or stop. Next comes a transition area where traffic is shifted or merged into a new traffic pattern around the incident. If the incident will last longer than a few minutes, trained flag-persons should be positioned at each significant change to normal traffic flow; this is where the DOT can help. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices recommends at least 1,000 feet between the last warning sign and the stopped traffic on expressways, 500 feet on rural roads, and between 100 and 350 feet in urban areas, depending on traffic speeds. The activity area is next, and encompasses the crash vehicles or other primary focus of the incident, and the working area around them.

Finally, there should be a termination area that provides for the gradual and orderly return of traffic into the normal pattern and flow, and to provide a safe departure for EMS vehicles, tow trucks, and units returning to service, as they leave the scene. Lateral and longitudinal buffer spaces must provide the separation between workers at the scene and moving traffic. Emergency scene lighting will be necessary at night.

Safety of the emergency workers is a concern. In major incidents a safety officer may be designated to assist the incident commander in overseeing the safety of all personnel on the scene. Responders should never be allowed to risk their lives for property or lives that are already lost. The safety officer or incident commander must have the authority to alter, suspend, or terminate any activity that is unsafe or involves an immediate danger to others. Even fatigue and other personal exhaustion issues need to be considered. For example in severe cold weather it may be necessary to locate places for emergency workers to get warm. Protracted incidents will require water, food, and refreshments for the scene workers. Obtaining and issuing retroreflective clothing and respiratory protection may be required.

Immediate Action Required
Now is the time for law enforcement executives to review their traffic incident management procedures. Use the resources listed in this article to develop the partnerships in order to establish a unified command for the safe and quick clearance of highway incidents. The traffic incident management system can save lives, prevent unnecessary congestion, and ensure the agencies' eligibility for receipt of Homeland Security Department funds in the future.

1 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Emergencies & Disasters, Response & Recovery, "National Incident Management System," March 1, 2004, (, May 10, 2004).
2 U.S. Department of Transportation, Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, Model Procedures Guide for Highway Incidents, March 2004, (, May 10, 2004.
3 U.S. Department of Transportation, Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, Model Procedures Guide for Highway Incidents.
4 National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances, "Current Model Laws of the National Committee," 2004, (, May 10, 2004.
5 National Association of the Towing & Recovery Industry, "2003 Traffic Incident Management Tow Operators Workplan (TIMTOW) Guide," 2003, (, May 10, 2004.
6 National Association of the Towing & Recovery Industry, "2003 Traffic Incident Management Tow Operators Workplan (TIMTOW) Guide": 16.



From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 7, July 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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