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Enhancing Safety Service Patrol Drivers’ Safety

There is no consistent, recognizable make-up for a Safety Service Patrol vehicle from state to state as there is for other first responders. There has, however, been progress over the years in creating a uniform, identifiable look for Safety Service Patrols.

Enhancing Safety Service Patrol Drivers’ Safety on the Roadside

By Rebecca Kanable

For Safety Service Patrol operators working in high-traffic, high-speed lanes, measures can be taken to improve safety. Lynn R. Self, Courtesy Patrol Program Manager with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) in Texas, explained it like this: “Incidents happen – we want to minimize the damage caused by them.” Measures to improve safety include highly visible vehicles and uniforms. Temporary traffic control devices, communication and training also can make a difference.


MD SHA Emergency Traffic Patrol

The Maryland State Highway Administration enhanced visibility of its Emergency Traffic Patrol vehicles with the addition of chevrons.

In the Safety Service Patrol industry, no standards or requirements exist for vehicle graphics. There is no consistent, recognizable make-up for a Safety Service Patrol vehicle from state to state as there is for fire trucks, police vehicles, ambulances and other first responders. There has, however, been progress over the years in determining what elements can be incorporated into the design of an emergency response vehicle to enhance visibility and safety. There has also been progress in creating a uniform, identifiable look for Safety Service Patrol vehicles.

A 2009 FEMA report looks at emergency vehicle visibility. With regard to color, the report cites a couple of separate studies each drawing different conclusions. Lime- yellow, fluorescent orange and, of course, fire-engine red appear to be the top three preferences. Regardless of the specific color, research performed for this report suggests what is more important is the ability for drivers to recognize the vehicle for what it is (Schmidt-Clausen, 2000). “The use of a standardized color or paint scheme for certain types of vehicles may be helpful in this regard.”

Overall, the FEMA report says emergency vehicle visibility/conspicuity will likely advance from a combi­nation of both active treatments such as enhanced emergency vehicle warning lighting systems and passive conspicuity treatments such as the increased use of retroreflective materials.

Jack Sullivan, CSP, CFPS, Director of Training, Emergency Responder Safety Institute (ERSI), and Managing Partner of Loss Control Innovations, Richmond, Va., said vehicle high-visibility markings should be both fluorescent for improved daytime visibility and reflective for improved nighttime visibility. Eric Lees, President of Bach-Lees Design which has designed and installed graphics on more than 400 safety vehicles most of which were for transportation departments and turnpike Safety Service Patrols, echoes Sullivan’s emphasis on reflectivity for improved nighttime visibility. Optimizing visibility on the rear is crucial, said Lees, because many accidents occur when a distracted driver hits the rear of a Safety Service Patrol vehicle on the side of the road. “In my experience, the best way to improve rear visibility is to add chevrons, using diamond-grade reflective material, on as much of the vertical space as possible, much like the current standards for fire trucks,” Lees said.

Bach-Lees Design specifications include rear chevrons that exceed the coverage area specified by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 standard and 3M reflective materials for all other vehicle graphics. While the NFPA standard is for fire vehicles, it offers a guideline for Safety Service Patrol vehicles to follow that to date has otherwise not been specified for the industry. The NFPA 1901 Standard states:

Striping on Patrol Vehicle Back

The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Courtesy Patrol recently updated its striping on the back of the patrol vehicles to enhance visibility.

“To increase highway visibility, at least 50 percent of the rear-facing vertical surface must be covered with 6-inch reflective red and yellow, fluorescent yellow, or fluorescent yellow-green material. The markings must be in a chevron pattern sloping downward from the center of the vehicle at a 45-degree angle.”

As a result of these recommendations, many departments of transportation and toll road authorities are moving toward requiring high-visibility and chevron markings on Safety Service Patrol vehicles. For example, the Florida Department of Transportation last year updated its Road Ranger Service Patrol contract to require vehicles with high-visibility, rear chevron markings. TCSO, when it took over the Courtesy Patrol from the Texas Department of Transportation designed its truck reflectivity and lighting scheme to be ultra visible and unlike law enforcement vehicles, tow trucks and even TxDOT trucks. Red and white striping was replaced with neon yellow and blue on the back of the trucks, tailgate and toolboxes.


For emergency lighting on the vehicle, the color of choice used by Safety Service Patrols nationwide is amber. Some states designate Safety Service Patrols as emergency vehicles and allow them to display red or blue lights or a combination of the two. TCSO uses blue and yellow to create high-visibility and differentiate itself from police, fire and EMS.

In Maryland, yellow flashing lights indicate the Emergency Patrol as a service agency and red flashing lights (and sirens) indicate the Emergency Patrol is a state-approved emergency agency.  “We have red lights to the rear of the vehicles to take advantage of the Move Over Law, which is 2 years old in Maryland,” said Scott Yinger, Operations Manager-Field, Maryland State Highway Administration, Office of Coordinated Highways Action Response Team (CHART) & ITS Development.

With the help of an ophthalmologist, Minnesota studied emergency lighting on a number of different vehicles (fire, DOT, ambulance). Based on this study, John McClellan, Minnesota DOT RTMC Freeway Operations Supervisor, suggested:

  • Have some lights as vertically high as possible.
  • Lights should project a big image.
  • Outline the shape of the vehicle (add extra lights on vehicle edges and lower).
  • Lights should attract attention but not overwhelm.
  • Lights with a flash pattern should be more on than off.
  • Lights need to be brighter during the day than at night.
MN Vehicle

Minnesota DOT Freeway Operations conducted studies on lighting to determine the best use of colors and light patterns during day and night hours.

Before adding or upgrading lights, McClellan said nothing beats testing them in an open area (like a parking lot) and looking at them from 1,000 feet, 200 feet, in bright sun and in the dark. “When we compared different colors and different options from different vendors, there were some pretty stand-out differences,” he said.


Next to the vehicle, Safety Service Patrol operator’s uniforms can provide heightened safety through increased visibility on the highway. The Federal Highway Administration Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) provides guidelines on worker safety and visibility, which refer to ANSI standards for high-visibility clothing. In recent years uniforms have evolved from a basic vest to head-to-toe high-visibility jumpsuits to meet these guidelines.

The New York State DOT H.E.L.P. program recently upgraded operators’ uniforms to an ANSI Class 2 fluorescent lime green polo shirt and an ANSI Class 3 safety vest, rain jacket, winter jacket and jumpsuit. In addition, orange hard hats with reflective tape are worn by operators when they are outside of the vehicle. Rebecca Gibson, P.E., NYSDOT – System Optimization Bureau, noted the switch from orange themed uniform options to flourescent green and the upgrade to ANSI Type 2 shirts as the most effective improvements for H.E.L.P. operators safety.

“Safety Service Patrol operators because they are working in daylight and nighttime conditions should be working in an ANSI Class 3 garment (at minimum) and Class E pants, especially if they are working in high-speed, limited-access highways at night,” Sullivan said. When Safety Service Patrol operators are on the roadway, different states have different regulations for them, but Sullivan said the general consensus is to recommend wearing a hard hat or helmet. In line with this consensus, Maryland recently issued hard hats and Yinger noted that operators always have worn steel-toe shoes for safety.

MN Uniforms

Minnesota DOT FIRST patrol drivers wear orange vests with yellow stripes which offer more contrast next to their yellow vehicles, making them more visible to passing traffic.

Contrast in the colors of Safety Service Patrol operator uniforms is also viewed as providing additional visibility by ensuring operators do not blend in with their landscape. As part of its uniforms, Minnesota has orange vests with yellow stripes, which McClellan said provides more contrast when operators are standing next to a yellow truck. TCSO replaced its fluorescent orange courtesy patrol uniforms with ANSI Level 3 reflective, neon green uniforms. Neon green is not a color motorists see commonly, said Self, adding TCSO felt that with orange barrels, orange cones, orange construction signs, there’s too much orange on the road.

Recent upgrades to operator uniforms in Texas, New York, Maryland and other states not only enhance visibility with updates in colors and design, but industry professionals say newer garments increase safety for operators. Some high-visibility garments in use today have been in service for a number of years. Sullivan says it’s possible they may be soiled or have deteriorated to the point that they no longer provide high-visibility features. “It’s important to inspect high-visibility garments and make sure they’re in good condition,” he said. “If they’re not, they need to be replaced, repaired or cleaned.”

That’s one of the things ERSI is trying to bring to people’s attention too. “Just because you bought something 5 or 6 years ago and used it every day since doesn’t mean it’s going to provide you the protection that it should,” Sullivan continued. (For more information see the Federal Highway Administration brochure on Decommissioning High-visibility Apparel.)


“Using temporary traffic controls (TTC) for traffic incident management helps move traffic safely and expeditiously past or around an incident, reduces the likelihood of secondary traffic crashes, and keeps motorists off the surrounding road system. Temporary traffic controls include traffic cones, arrow panels and warning signs.” – Field Operations Guide for Safety/Service Patrols

Although they are one of the most controversial traffic control devices, ERSI advocates chemical flares for day and night use because they also are one of the most effective, Sullivan said. Some states don’t permit their use. They have environmental concerns and there’s always the risk of fire, Sullivan explained, but they are very effective getting people’s attention and making them aware of an unusual incident.

A law enforcement officer who is the first to arrive on scene may deploy flares, and the Safety Service Patrol will set up cones and temporary traffic control signs. “There are always going to be some motorists who don’t pay attention and happen to run into our cones,” Self said. “We want to make sure our cones are spaced far enough behind our vehicle so that motorists can take evasive maneuvers before impacting our vehicle.”

The Federal Highway Administration says, “Reassess TTC devices regularly – every 15 minutes is recommended. Take some step, however small, to improve traffic at the incident scene, such as straightening or extending cone lines, relocating a responder vehicle or reducing emergency lighting.” Sullivan expanded upon this recommendation with a reminder that Safety Service Patrol operators must always keep in mind the big picture.


“Before setting up a lane closure taper with traffic cones, Safety Service Patrol drivers should activate an arrow panel. After traffic cones are in place, the vehicle may need to be relocated.” – Field Operations Guide for Safety/Service Patrols

The most effective temporary traffic control devices that Safety Service Patrols bring to an incident scene are arrow boards or variable message sign boards, Sullivan said. “The bigger, the better,” he added.

Variable message boards offer the ability to display not only an arrow, but a text message such as “left lane blocked” or “merge right.” “They are very effective in helping to control traffic and to provide a safe work area at an incident scene,” Sullivan said.

Minnesota upgraded its vehicle-mounted sign boards to digital, full-matrix LED, which McClellan said project “a good strong image.” While they can display text messages, he said usually they use arrows with a moving chevron. Any time a lane is blocked, a sign board is used. McClellan advises Safety Service Patrols to get the best sign board that they can. “It’s going to be the most important tool that you’ve got for traffic control visibility,” he said.

To balance the sign board, which is so bright and visible, Minnesota added two LED lights on the back of the trucks at a cost of $200 per truck. Mounted on the toolboxes, over the lift gate, a blue light is on the right side and an amber light is on the driver’s side.

In addition to using the arrow board on their vehicles, John R. Easterling IV, P.E., PTOE FDOT Turnpike Enterprise, said in recent years Safety Service Patrol drivers have been deploying fabric, mesh-type signing. The signs are put out in advance of an incident scene when it appears a lane will be closed for more than 30 minutes.

“With traffic volumes at a high level, picking the right place for the signs and getting them deployed is tricky,” Sullivan said. “By the time you get the signs set up, the backlog may have gone past where the signs are set up. You may need to relocate the signs or set out more signs, depending on the volume of the traffic. Sometimes the traffic can overwhelm the ability to get the signage in place in a reasonable timeframe.”

Easterling added, “We want to give people the most distance and advance notice that the lane they’re in is getting ready to drop and they’re going to have to merge.” Advanced notice has the ability to not only decrease the likelihood of a secondary incident, but also aids in informing motorists of an upcoming incident and to drive with caution, increasing the safety of the Safety Service Patrol operator.


Beyond the vehicle markings, the uniform colors and design and the signage available to Safety Service Patrol operators, the type of equipment and the placement of it in the vehicle can also increase safety. The key to staying safe is spending less time in an unsafe area, Yinger said – so the more efficient the equipment the better.

Having the right equipment can help Safety Service Patrols get the job done faster. Maryland drivers have cordless impact wrenches, which greatly speed up a motorist assist requiring a flat tire change. Floor jacks can be rolled under a car easily. Air compressors can fill a spare tire on site. Adding these resources to the Safety Service Patrol helps to ensure assists at incidents are performed quickly and efficiently resulting in less time spent in an unsafe area.

Tarrant County Sheriff Courtesy Patrol Vehicle Slidebeds

The Tarrant County Sheriff patrol utilizes bed slides to enhance safety for its Courtesy Patrol drivers and to ensure they keep their feet on the ground when accessing equipment at an incident scene.

Where equipment is located on the truck can also make a difference. “When we got our trucks, we designed them so that our employees would not have to climb into the back of the truck,” Self said. “When feet are on the ground, they’re more able to move in an emergency and get out of harm’s way.” Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office created the same desired effect with equipment such as cones, tools, quick-dry material and jacks placed on a bed slide that can be retrieved at waist-high level allowing Safety Service Patrol operators to remain planted on the ground.


Utilizing all of the right equipment and safety precautions still cannot ensure the safety of a patrol operator. To make the most of what they have, Safety Service Patrol operators need to receive initial and ongoing training, Sullivan said. “That training really needs to be done in a multi-agency-type environment, so the department of transportation Safety Service Patrol operators are cross training with state police, other law enforcement, towing and recovery companies, fire and rescue, EMS, agencies that they would be working with out on the roadway,” he said.

“We’d like for them to get to know each other and their operational strategies and tactics before they get to an emergency scene. It just makes things flow more smoothly and safely for everybody involved including the motorist.” In 2012, the Federal Highway Administration introduced new national traffic incident management training, a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional train-the-trainer program.

“Ongoing multi-agency training, communication and collaboration is critical,” Sullivan said, noting it’s done better in some areas than others. “If there’s one area that we could do better, I think that’s probably one of them.” Again, as Yinger said, the key to staying safe is spending less time in an unsafe area and training with other first responders is another way to ensure response times are shortened and incidents are resolved efficiently to get everyone involved away from an unsafe situation.


An unseen team stands behind each incident response on the highway, helping to provide another level of safety to the Safety Service Patrol operator. Florida’s traffic management center has cameras along the road and helps watch how traffic is flowing into an incident. If they see something could be improved, they will inform via radio call the Safety Service Patrol operator.

While the need for this type of communication is significant, there is room for improvement in some cases. Communications capabilities given to Safety Service Patrol operators are sometimes poor to mediocre, Sullivan said. “I don’t think some agencies realize the benefits of having good communications between the traffic operations center and the Safety Service Patrol operators and other agencies they’re working with,” he said.  “If they run into an unusual circumstance or problem or have an unexpected event occur, that gives them the ability to get the assistance they need as quickly as possible.”

“The ability to communicate is huge,” McClellan agreed. Minnesota’s emergency response patrols can easily talk to troopers, by shared radio talkgroups or by computer message. If someone’s in a bad spot, they can request that someone sit behind them on the other side of the curve.

Minnesota’s TMC dispatches the service patrol. “We make it a standard practice that anytime they call out, anytime they are on a stop, we’ll try to find them and point a camera at them and watch them while they’re there,” McClellan said, noting that is true whether the state patrol or the DOT Safety Service Patrol is responding. “…it’s all about co-response.”

TMC dispatchers have enough knowledge and experience to say whether one person can respond or if three people are needed with a rolling slow-down a mile back. Factoring in the dispatch and the tools the TMC has (including overhead signs), drivers are not out on the road by themselves.

The emergency response patrols in Maryland are part of the Coordinated Highway Action Response Team (CHART), which owns and maintains 672 Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) devices throughout the state and has access to many, many more through their network of governmental partnerships in the region. The technology includes closed-circuit television cameras, dynamic message signs to update motorists on the road, highway advisory radio stations, weather detection systems and traffic/speed sensors.

Some traffic operations centers use AVL to monitor where Safety Service Patrol vehicles are located. Florida, with 15 trucks across a 300-mile roadway during its peak period, is among them. It helps dispatch the closest unit. If something does happen, dispatch knows exactly where the driver is on the roadway.

On-board computers or mobile devices can allow Safety Service Patrols to access some of the same information as state patrol. For example, if a driver is dispatched to a flat tire, license plate information can be pulled up. The computers also facilitate report writing and completing log sheets.


When outfitting Safety Service Patrol fleets for safety, funding often is the biggest obstacle. “I don’t know how you put a price tag on safety, but certainly there has to be some decisions made as to what is feasible and what is not,” Yinger said. “We certainly, if we can, want to err on the side of safety.”

“Unfortunately,” Sullivan said, “some Safety Service Patrols have been categorized as courtesy patrols, or a convenience for motorists, instead of incident response or traffic incident management assist. They’re not just a courtesy from the state DOT, they help with traffic incident management and congestion relief and prevent secondary crashes. I think the more they’re portrayed that way, the easier it is to get and maintain funding.”


From the visibility of the vehicles to uniforms they wear to the equipment they use, Self said, “the general principle is to make sure we do everything possible to protect our employees.”

McClellan said, “You can do everything right – and all it takes is a 70 mph, 80,000-pound semi with a driver who is falling asleep and there’s only so much you can do with lighting and conspicuity. There’s no way to make the job 100 percent safe. [As a Safety Service Patrol operator] you’re trying to shift the odds as much as you can in your favor, so if something bad happens, you’re going to have a better chance of getting out of it. So much depends on the traffic and the other drivers. It’s a dangerous job.”

It’s also a very important job. Effective TIM reduces the occurrence of secondary crashes. The likelihood of a secondary crash increases by 2.8% for each minute the primary incident continues to be a hazard, increasing the risk to motorist and responder lives, and making it even more difficult for responders to get to and from the scene. The focus on enhancing safety measures, such as vehicle graphics, uniforms, signs, equipment, training and communications, cannot be lost.

Note from the Author: As I was researching the topic of enhancing patrol operator safety on the road, a Wisconsin town lowered its flags and mourned the loss of a retired police chief and an active community member. Ret. Milton Police Chief Terry L. Hawkins, 61, was killed in a crash on Interstate 39/90 in Janesville. Hawkins was on the way home from a baseball game. Traffic moved slowly as emergency crews were cleaning up a diesel spill after a semi crashed into a guard rail. In a secondary accident, a semi rear-ended Hawkins’ vehicle. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Hawkins was not on the job when he died, but he had responded to his share of traffic incidents and worked to make roads safer in the community in which I live. For me, the July 11 incident in which he died put a face on the importance of highway safety.

Back to Safe Highway Matters: Fall/Winter 2013

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