First Responders Come to the Aid of Turnpike Travelers
By Trish Bodack

What happens when you're driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and suddenly there's a blowout on your left rear tire? Maybe a man sitting next to you at the service plaza complains of chest pains. Worse yet, you could witness or even be involved in an accident.

Along the 506 miles of highway the Pennsylvania Turnpike maintains, calls of incidents like these come into the communications center in Harrisburg every day. That is why the Turnpike employs emergency response workers known as Turnpike First Responders.

Reports of incidents from the call boxes located each mile along the Turnpike, from cellular telephones (*11), from customers, and from Turnpike personnel, are all directed to one central location in Harrisburg -- the Turnpike's communications center. Within seconds, the First Responder closest to the location of the incident is immediately dispatched to the scene ready to help.

First Responders must be prepared for almost any situation, as the full extent of a call is always unpredictable. Often, little information is known about the problem and First Responders are faced with a diverse, more complex situation than first anticipated.

Their job includes a wide range of duties. First Responders are called to clear debris from the roadway, transport customers whose vehicles may have broken down, plug and contain diesel fuel leaks, give CPR, and even set up traffic patterns at the scene of an accident.

A First Responder's primary duty is to assess the situation around them, then to inform the communications center of the exact details so they can, in turn, dispatch the proper assistance, be it towing, fire or ambulance service. The Pennsylvania Turnpike can also have Life Flight helicopters dispatched or waiting on standby if the First Responder deems the situation to be life threatening.

First Responders at Harrison City Maintenance Jack Lemke and Jim Ninehouser explained that upon arriving at the scene of an incident you have to ask yourself: Is the scene safe? What is the best course of action for this situation? Don't forget, traffic moves at 55 to 65 miles per hour and a vehicle may be completely stopped in the middle of the roadway.

Once the situation is assessed and Harrisburg is informed, the First Responder then must make the scene safe and maintain the situation, which might include anything from setting up flares or traffic patterns to alerting other drivers, containing a diesel leak, or tending to an injured person.

A First Responder for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission must be certified both in CPR and Emergency Response by the American Red Cross. Then they are recertified each year in CPR and every three years in Emergency Response by a certified trainer.

The job of a First Responder comes with much responsibility. Often, the First Responder is the first person at the scene of an accident. In a matter of seconds, they have to access the situation, account for injuries, advise Harrisburg of the situation and handle traffic.

According to Nick Colao, First Responder at Homewood Maintenance, "You're trained to look at everything, the extent of the injuries, the impact on the car. The ambulance services really appreciate that because a thorough report helps to make their job a bit easier."

A First Responder has to be ready at all times, because the extent of the circumstances they encounter is absolutely unpredictable. Each emergency response vehicle they use is equipped with a variety of supplies including pediatric and adult oxygen, first aid supplies including a splint, flares, cones, gloves, even a broom and shovel for clearing debris.

First Responders are also trained in Incident Management, where a chain of command is set up to handle a major accident or incident. It is set in place when the situation is too much for one person to control.

A chain of command is set up where certain individuals handle only certain aspects of the situation. All communications and directives go through one person who relays information to and from the communications center. This constant contact with the communications center enables the incident to be handled in the most prompt and efficient manner possible.

Handling a major accident, especially for the first time, can be a difficult responsibility to fulfill. Over the years, through different situations, especially ones that involve coworkers, it can have its effects.

There is also a wonderfully rewarding side to the job. According to Gary Price, First Responder at Gibsonia Maintenance, "When you go out there, people are glad to see you. There's a real need and you go out and give them help. It makes you feel good to help them. It's very rewarding."

Pam Swartzwelder, a First Responder at Donegal Maintenance recalls a couple she helped one Christmas Eve. Their car had broken down. Pam normally doesn't like to work on Christmas Eve, but helping that couple get home for their holiday made the evening special. According to Pam, "You can respond to one accident and do something good, and it makes your job all worthwhile."


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