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Trainer’s Corner: November 2012

As if there weren’t enough on the plates of volunteer firefighters, they are falling into a new role: emergency-scene traffic controllers (flagging).

November 1, 2012  By Ed Brouwer

As if there weren’t enough on the plates of volunteer firefighters, they are falling into a new role: emergency-scene traffic controllers (flagging). The risks associated with working in or near moving traffic are increasing and traffic management has become the newest challenge for emergency responders. There are times when we barely have enough manpower to do multi-vehicle extrication and first-response medical. Can we realistically expect the fire services to do everything? What’s next? Are we going to provide towing services as well? Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate the new emphasis on actual emergency-scene traffic-control training. I just wonder at what point are we asking too much of volunteers.

More and more, firefighters are being asked to be traffic controllers at collision scenes but many have not been trained in accordance with provincial regulations.


In British Columbia, WorkSafeBC has changed the Occupational Health & Safety (OH&S) guideline 18.4.1 Section (3) Emergency Scene Management regarding traffic control.  According to the guideline, “Emergency services’ workers are often called upon to control traffic around the site of an emergency or accident.” In such situations, the guideline says it is expected that emergency services’ workers be trained in:

  • traffic-control equipment
  • equipment setup and takedown
  • principles of traffic management outlined in the traffic-control manual
  • use of a buffer vehicle to protect the workplace
  • other appropriate safe work procedures 
  • instruction on personal protective clothing and safety equipment

The guideline says that, where the traffic-control situation will persist for more than two hours, and traffic must be directed through sections of a two-way road temporarily reduced to one lane, it is expected that the emergency-services worker directing traffic would be trained in the manner of the high-risk traffic control person, or TCP.


This training may include in-class coursework and a practical component, such as practice sessions in a controlled environment, and on-the-job training, where appropriate. Training may be delivered by the employer or by a third party. Training must be documented adequately.

The BC Construction Safety Alliance, which was approached by first responders, administers the two-day, high-risk traffic control-person course for WorkSafeBC.

I would like to give special mention to the British Columbia Fire Training Officers Association, the Fire Chiefs Association of B.C., the B.C. fire commissioner, the IAFF, the Langley City Fire-Rescue Service, the Langley Township Fire Department and Frontline Fire Department Training Inc. for their parts in the development of the emergency-scene traffic-controller course.

WorkSafe Saskatchewan reports on its website that highway workers are at a high risk of being injured or even killed while flagging. It says this is due in large part to the high speed of vehicles and can become especially dangerous in high-traffic areas where there is a greater risk of aggressive drivers. Each year in Canada, motorists kill about 20 flaggers.

In August, an 18-year-old woman from New Brunswick died after being hit by an SUV in a construction zone in Saskatchewan. RCMP say Ashley Dawn Richards of Lakeside, Sask., was working as a flag person on a highway when she was hit.

Emergency-service workers are often called upon to control traffic around the site of an emergency or accident. These incidents can be located on roadways where motorists travel at relatively slow speeds or on highways with posted speeds of 100 kilometres per hour (km/h).

All fire departments should have policies regarding traffic control. If you are going to flag, you might as well do it to the expected standards. Train to provincial standards, wear the appropriate PPE and use proper traffic-control measures at all emergency scenes that directly affect traffic on public roads.

I have heard stories of firefighters directing traffic for more than six hours. According to the emergency-scene traffic-control training manual, “Where the traffic control situation will persist for longer than two hours, and it is necessary to direct traffic through sections of a two-way road temporarily reduced to one lane, it is expected that the emergency service worker directing traffic would be trained in the manner of the high-risk traffic control person.”

Firefighters controlling traffic must wear appropriate turnout gear including helmet and high visibility garments – but not just any high visibility garments. To give you an idea on how specific this has become, check out this excerpt from the Traffic Control Manual for Work on Roadways issued by the B.C. Ministry of Transportation: “An approved high-visibility garment must be on a fluorescent-coloured background (lime green/orange); A vertical band of reflective material on either side of the chest, an X on the back and a horizontal stripe around the waist. This band must also have a fluorescent trim of the opposite color of the vest (either lime green or orange). Reflective material on turnout gear must be kept clean and visible reflective bands must be a minimum of five centimetres wide and combine for a total of 200 square inches.”

Other than your PPE being dirty, there are some common pitfalls of reflective garments: colours are not contrasting enough, there is no side bar, or the X on the back is too small.

Even our old stop signs, now called traffic-control paddles, must conform to the manual, which states that paddles must be the standard C-27 stop/slow and have encapsulated lens reflectivity sheeting (high intensity). Support staffs or poles can be used as required at any time if the person directing traffic desires, in order to reduce fatigue and prevent repetitive strain injuries. These support tools must be non-conductive (plastic, wood or metal with a rubber foot).

Signs should be used especially at speeds of 70 km/h and up, and should be placed where they are visible but not where they could obstruct traffic.

The risks associated with working in moving traffic and the ever-changing emergency-scene environment can be reduced through pre-incident training. Firefighters directing traffic must use appropriate devices, which may include channelling devices, control signs and paddles, flashlights and/or wands, portable radios and other necessary equipment, according to operational guidelines.

One item I highly recommend is a marine air horn. The horn emits a loud shrill that can be heard up to 1.6 kilometres away and can be used to signal members involved in the emergency scene if a vehicle fails to respond to traffic-control devices.

There are essentially five parts to the emergency scene:

  1. Advance warning area: to warn motorists of a potential hazard ahead.
  2. Transition area: contains a taper of no less than four cones or tubular markers that direct traffic away from the accident scene and into the clear open lane.
  3. Buffer space: area prior to the accident scene that is free from obstruction where motorists may regain control of or stop their vehicle if they fail to respond to traffic-control devices.
  4. Emergency scene (work area): should be clearly identified, including the debris fields, and closed off to the public using channelling devices.
  5. Termination area: contains a taper to direct traffic back into its normal path.

The greatest risk to emergency responders occurs during setup and takedown. Until warning devices are in position, approaching motorists may not be expecting to find emergency responders and their equipment on the highway. During the take-down phase, tasks are performed under non-emergency conditions, yet the removal of equipment and personnel is just as critical as the setup.

Primary consideration should be leaving the scene safer for those awaiting police attendance or dealing with vehicle recovery. When an incident scene is completely finished with all hazards removed, you can clear the scene. First move fire department apparatuses off the travelled portion of the roadway and clear the traffic lane. Completely stop or slow traffic while an assistant picks up the channelling devices, depending on the location and the amount of traffic. If necessary, use a fire-department vehicle to protect emergency workers while performing this task. Pick up the emergency scene sign last.

When traffic control is to be taken over by another agency, have the relieving agency set up its warning devices and equipment. Once the relieving agency is set up and ready to take over, have fire-department personnel pick up the fire-department equipment and leave the scene.

The preceding points are in no way the complete picture of emergency-scene traffic-control procedures. I urge training officers to first research the following points: motor vehicle act/regulations, local authorization and operational guidelines.

When you have the administrative part down, continue with the practical part – training your department in the following areas:

  • scene setup
  • scene safety
  • personal protective equipment
  • tools for directing traffic
  • spacing and distance
  • safe direction of traffic
  • clearing of the scene
  • recording and reporting of incidents

Some great resources

Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and Greenwood Fire and Rescue. A 21-year veteran of the fire service, Brouwer is a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a wildland urban interface fire-service instructor/evaluator and an ordained disaster-response chaplain. E-mail him at

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