If you use Interstate 65 on your daily routine, you’ve likely replanned part of your route or watched the minutes tick by as you wait in stalled traffic due to accidents in construction zones.
The planning and angst is taken to a whole new level, though, for emergency crews that have to figure out how to get massive firetrucks and ambulances to the scene of the accidents, across concrete barriers and around hundreds of waiting vehicles.
Planning and communication are key. If firefighters already are tending to crash victims, an ambulance approaching on the wrong side of the interstate might continue to the next exit and turn around to come back. If no crews have arrived yet, paramedics will climb over the barriers to get to the injured.
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In 2015, there were at least 12 serious accidents in construction zones on I-65 between the Southport Road exit and Columbus. And in the area between Greenwood and Franklin specifically, where the road is lined with concrete barriers while it’s being completely rebuilt, the challenge is even greater for emergency workers trying to get to an accident, Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Harry Maginity said.
Emergency workers and INDOT officials meet and develop a plan detailing how emergency crews get to accidents and discuss changes and additional access points starting when a project is being designed and continuing through construction, Maginity said. And it’s likely to be an issue again this summer as crews continue work on I-65 between Greenwood and Franklin.
INDOT officials meet with emergency workers and consider input from the traffic management center in Indianapolis. For example, next week officials will discuss improvements and adjustments that can get emergency workers to an accident safer and faster, Maginity said.
“Where do we put breaks in the barriers? What equipment do we need if we have to move the barriers? This takes a lot of pre-planning,” Maginity said.
“On I-65, it’s a much more complex project. They’re rebuilding the entire interstate from Greenwood to Franklin, so there are a lot more complications. Emergency workers are going to get there, but how difficult will it be? It’s logistic coordination from a number of different levels. We do the best we can.”
The challenge most often faced when responding to an accident in a construction zone is pin-pointing the exact location of the accident and then deciding which way to enter the interstate, Greenwood Fire Chief James Sipes said.
When the fire department and medics are called to an accident or fires on city streets or in neighborhoods, they can get to the scene faster because a caller gives dispatchers an intersection or home address, Sipes said. But when people call from the interstate, 90 percent of the time they can’t tell you exactly where they are and a lot of times it takes more than a couple calls before dispatch can give emergency crews the specific location, Sipes said.
Then comes the difficulty deciding where to get on the interstate, Sipes said. Anytime fire trucks have limited access to the site of an accident on the interstate, it makes it harder and more of a challenge because there is nowhere for cars stuck in traffic to move and emergency workers could enter on the wrong side of the interstate, Sipes said.
Last year, when the Franklin Fire Department responded to accidents in construction zones on I-65, minutes were added to response times both due to cars having nowhere to move out of the way ultimately slowing down fire trucks and the location of the accident, spokesman Brad Epperson said.
When an accident happened south of Franklin on I-65, which lanes of I-65 the accident happened on made a huge difference, Epperson said.
If an accident was south of Franklin, but in the northbound lanes, Franklin fire trucks and ambulances would have to pass the wreck, exit the interstate re-enter heading north, Epperson said.
On several occasions, Franklin emergency workers just stopped their vehicles on the opposite side of the road with a police car or another fire truck to block traffic behind it while firefighters and medics crossed the median on foot. But that is a difficult decision to make because it can be dangerous, Epperson said.
“Dealing with the interstate, it’s been a challenge with construction,” Epperson said. “It all depends on the severity of the accident. You have to make decisions”
One of the decisions made last year was a joint agreement with the Amity Volunteer Fire Department.
The two departments set up their approach so that no matter which side of I-65 the accident was on, at least one department would be able to start assisting victims while the other went on and turned around to get to the correct side of the road, Amity Fire Chief Jackie Brockman said
Last summer was a logistical nightmare trying to respond to accidents on I-65, Brockman said.
“Last summer was a trying time,” Brockman said. “Once you got on the interstate, you were committed and couldn’t turn around because of lane shifts and barricades. It was a big problem for us.”