Firefighters urge caution near accident scenes

Effingham firefighter Ken Hayes and Capt. Jeff Landry stand with some of the safety equipment the department is using in an attempt to prevent death or injury during emergency responses on the interstates. Landry is holding the remains of one of two pop-up cones struck during the department's response to a fatal accident. Graham Milldrum photo

Passing cars flattened two safety cones at a fatal accident on May 23. Effingham Fire Chief Joe Holomy said it could easily have been a firefighter that the vehicles struck.

Emergency crews responded to an accident at 10:50 a.m. that day on the eastbound lane of Interstate 70, where George W. Stillman, 72, of Saint Charles, Missouri, left the roadway, overturned and was killed. Holomy said he was concerned distracted drivers would strike one of his firefighters, despite a bevy of warnings and giant red vehicles.

Similar problems continued at an accident scene on I-70 on Sunday.

"People weren't pulling over until the last minute, but that's getting to be the norm out there," Holomy said.

Although Illinois has a pull-over law, which carries a possible fine of $10,000 dollars, Holomy said the roadway is becoming more dangerous. The law requires that drivers slow down when they approach a vehicle with flashing lights. Additionally, they are required to pull into the other lane, if possible.

Using handset cellphones to make calls or take pictures while driving is already illegal in Illinois. It's even more important when near an accident scene, said Holomy, as he's seen drivers swerve or suddenly slow down to snap a quick picture.

The risks on the interstate have a special resonance for Holomy, whose close friend Fire Chief Ed Switalski, of Comstock Township, Michigan, was killed on June 14, 2017. Switalski died when a driver going nearly 90 miles per hour was distracted by his phone, hit a median wall, crossed the highway and stuck Switalski, according to prosecutors.

That accident scared Holomy for himself and his firefighters.

"I was truly terrified to go out there," Holomy said of the first call after the fatal accident.

Holomy remembers shaking as he was walking on the grass near the interstate.

"Any building in this city I am less scared of than that interstate," Holomy said.

The fire department is trying more ways to make its equipment obvious, beyond the reflective chevrons recently added to most of the vehicles and the sheer size involved. It's also borrowing a number of techniques used by construction teams to enhance safety at their work sites.

One is a large fabric diamond saying "Accident Ahead," while another is a large lighted message board.

For all these additions, Holomy said it still comes down to people paying attention, pulling over and slowing down.

"We can't make these trucks any brighter," Holomy said.

Holomy said they had considered closing down the interstate, but find the dangers generally outweigh the positives. When the highway is closed, traffic backs up, and there are often accidents at the tail end of that blockage.

And concern isn't exclusively at the top.

"I used to enjoy going out on the interstate and helping people," said Capt. Jeff Landrus. "Now it just gets scarier and scarier."

Landrus produced a banner and launched a flyer campaign at truckstops, talking to drivers about the need to watch out for first responders.

Graham Milldrum can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 131 or by email at graham.milldrum@effinghamdailynews.com

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