Scene management: The first 10 minutes after a multi-vehicle collision

Any line officer or front-line supervisor arriving first on scene to a multi-vehicle collision is faced with a multitude of initial scene management procedures


The following applies to states where incident command authority is vested in the appropriate law enforcement agency having primary traffic investigative authority on the highway where the incident occurs. 

After seeing the news footage of the more than 130-vehicle traffic collision in Fort Worth, Texas on February 11, I thought it would be appropriate to review basic incident management principles as they relate to these large-scale events.

Any line officer or front-line supervisor arriving first on scene to this type of collision is faced with a multitude of initial scene management protocols that can seem overwhelming. Rest assured, you are quite capable of successfully navigating these scene management responsibilities. 

We have all taken National Emergency Incident Management (NEIMS) mandated courses during in-service training. Most of us don’t remember all of the fancy acronyms and flow charts that go along with NEIMS as we roll up to these types of major highway collisions. For this reason, I will try to keep their use to a minimum in this article.

Repetitive exposure to high-risk/high-frequency events builds a cognitive framework in us. This cognitive framework provides the tools we need to establish an initial incident management foundation. This foundation can be developed appropriately as responding resources arrive on-scene. This is the Incident Command System (ICS) at its core.

Assume Incident Command responsibilities

We have all been trained to provide life-saving actions and secure a safety zone as one of our initial arrival protocols. These life-saving and scene safety protocols are critical to initiate. It is important, however, to remember, that when you become too focused on these first responder protocols, you cannot visualize the dynamics of the entire event. You will need to be able to communicate what you have observed and what preliminary resources you think you will need to manage the event at the onset. In other words, you must assume incident command responsibilities.

Be confident in the fact that you are the Incident Commander, even if you are a line officer, until a higher-ranking officer relieves you. As the Incident Commander, you should not be the Investigating Officer at this evolutionary stage of a highway collision of this magnitude.

It is important to fully comprehend the distinction between investigatory responsibilities and incident command responsibilities. In an incident of the magnitude that occurred in Fort Worth, an attempt to manage both tasks will negatively impact initial command and coordination tasks. As officers, we are hard-wired to begin collecting information for documentation, but this task needs to be delegated for the time being. 

You have now been on scene for about five minutes. If your incident is evolving like many I have worked, you probably have three-to-five line officers arriving on scene, so resources are limited. However, you can still set up the foundation for incident management.

Set up a Command Post

The command post will probably be the hood or hatch of your patrol vehicle for the time being. Murphy’s Law will dictate you do not have a flag or printed sign, but in a crisis, you can use a marker to place the Incident Command Post designation on your patrol vehicle. You may need to relocate your patrol vehicle from its original position in order to secure sufficient space for appropriate representation from responding entities. 

Assign an Operations Coordinator

After communicating the resources you will require, assign an officer as your Operations Coordinator. This officer should immediately establish a safe working area for other responding personnel.

I have learned through the years that the fire department has protocols for equipment set-up and triage staging locations that are unique to their operational responsibilities. Don’t try to second-guess the fire department. The Operations Coordinator should think big at this time. A safe working area large enough for aircraft landing should be made available both in front and behind the incident along with good but controlled access to the scene. 

At the five-to-seven-minute mark, the next wave of responding officers is now arriving. Your Operations Coordinator should task them with medical aid and triage responsibilities pending the fire department’s arrival. 

You will probably have fire departments from multiple jurisdictions responding to your event. Allied law enforcement agencies will also respond. These departments/agencies will, in all probability, be communicating on different radio frequencies. For the time being, your Operations Coordinatoshould coordinate issues related to electronic communications.

Ask the FD to assign a Safety Officer

When the fire department arrives, I strongly recommend you request they assign a firefighter to serve as your Safety Officer. The Safety Officer is a mandated component of the Incident Command framework, and trained fire department personnel are very comfortable in assuming this responsibility.

Once the fire department begins operations, you have the beginning of a Unified Command Structure. They should now assume responsibility for medical/triage responsibilities. I recommend that you have a fire department supervisor stay with your Operations Officer and you at the ICP to assist in the synchronicity of operations.

Assign a logistics officer

Now you should assign an officer to handle logistics responsibilities. The Logistics Officer is responsible for gathering the specialized assets that will be required as the event evolves. Examples include specialized investigatory units, highway cleanup resources and hazardous material specialists.

Consider media outreach

The next thing you should think about is media relations. Do not try to coordinate this on your own. Your overall scope of responsibilities will not permit this. Until the arrival of your agency's public affairs unit, your Logistics Officer should assign an officer to establish an area far enough from the scene to allow appropriate viewing without interference with ongoing rescue/investigatory responsibilities.

Incident Command System structure

If you have accomplished what we have discussed so far, ranking personnel arriving on scene can quickly develop your management framework into a large-scale Incident Command System structure using the building block formula you have established. The following components will be established:

  • Command: A unified command structure involving management personnel from assisting law enforcement agencies, fire department personnel and medical services specialists.
  • Operations: A working group coordinating on-scene activities under the directions of the Unified Command.
  • Planning: A working group coordinating events focused longer term.
  • Logistics: A working group responsible for gathering specialists, assets and equipment.
  • Finance: A working group coordinating all fiduciary issues as the event evolves.

As this advanced ICS structure becomes fully operational, the personnel you initially assigned ICS responsibilities can rotate into the incident command framework under section chiefs to help ensure a smooth continuum of operations through the first operational time period.

As the first officer or supervisor on scene, your ability to set up these initial components of the ICS structure will ensure transitional success. You might not remember the acronyms, but you will remember what needs to be done. 

major incident management in action

A few years back I was sitting on an oral board for the LAPD. A candidate came in, an older officer who appeared hesitant about participating in the interview. We had been informed that his commander had highly encouraged him to compete in the promotional process for sergeant. The candidate was a man of few words, and I could not see how he could assume leadership responsibilities.

As the interview progressed, a specific question regarding the most significant large-scale critical event the candidate assumed leadership responsibilities was posed. The candidate reflected for a moment or so, and responded by saying that he could not recall a specific incident that met the criteria for the question. The candidate then said he recalled an incident from a few years back that he would like to describe in response to the question, but he was unsure of its relevance.

We listened as he related an incident involving the explosion of an oil tanker coming into the Los Angeles Harbor. I remembered the incident well. I was walking into a friend’s house about 10 miles away on that fateful day and I heard the explosion and felt the ground shake. I later found out that several people were killed in the incident and many more seriously injured.

The candidate was the senior officer working that evening. We listened as he described his incident priorities and his direction to junior officers. He used no acronyms or ICS terms while describing the event but he knew exactly what had to be done pending the arrival of senior staff. He set up a perfect incident command environment including a field morgue, triage center and staging center for responding personnel.

We sat in silence as he narrated his actions over a period of about half an hour until relieved by senior staff. He concluded by saying that he was unsure if this incident would qualify for a large-scale critical event where he assumed leadership responsibilities. Needless to say, he scored very well in the interview. I later found out that this humble officer was held in high regard for his leadership skills in this specific incident. The candidate felt that his actions were just reflective of his repetitive involvement overseeing critical incidents of a much smaller nature. 

We all have some of the characteristics of this candidate in us. With repeated exposure, you will know what needs to be accomplished during the first operational period of this type of event. 

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