Opinion: Dispatched Emergency Responses to Crashes on I-90 Near Arlington Heights Rd Need Quality Assurance Review to Save Lives

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Crashes on westbound I-90 just east of Arlington Heights Road sometimes cause confusion and mismanagement of the emergency response plan to the crash sites. Saturday morning was one such case. The injuries in a crash Saturday morning were apparently non-life-threatening, but the mismanagement of future crashes in this location could cause unnecessary harm or death in more serious crashes. The crash this morning is not the first time that Arlington Heights fire equipment has been incorrectly assigned to the westbound lanes, east of the Arlington Heights Road interchange. It is important to note that situations similar to the following tollway crash response operation have the potential to occur on tollways and expressways all over Chicagoland, even though jurisdictions are carefully planned to allow the best and safest performance of emergency rescue personnel.

Illinois State police received a report about 5:49 a.m. Saturday that a crash occurred in the westbound lanes of Interstate 90 in front of the Daily Herald building — clearly east of the Arlington Heights Road interchange. Crashes at that location are not assigned to Arlington Heights Fire Department, which may seem to be odd because Arlington Heights Fire Station 3 is only about 3900 feet away. The paradox is the result of operations that involve safe access. In routine crashes, where the tollway is not shut down, it is unsafe and unacceptable for emergency vehicles to travel the wrong way up a ramp or along expressway lanes. Therefore, in order for Arlington Heights firefighter/paramedics to safely respond to a westbound crash just east of Arlington Heights Road, they have to access eastbound I-90 at Arlington Heights Road and travel all the way to a turnaround on the tollway near the former Des Plaines Oasis, and then head westbound back to the crash scene. That is a round trip of about 7 miles — a long trip, even in good weather. Considering that crashes and poor traffic conditions cause traffic congestion, rescue vehicles might average about 35 miles per hour during the round trip, which would take about 12 minutes — about twice the maximum acceptable time of 6 minutes for EMS response. This is why authorities plan responses to crashes that consider direction of travel with traffic for the best response to emergencies. This is also why Elk Grove Township Fire Department is assigned to crashes in the westbound lanes east of Arlington Heights Road, and why Arlington Heights is assigned to crashes on westbound I-90 west of Arlington Heights Road.

The crash call for help this morning describing the Daily Herald location was clearly east of Arlington Heights Road, but a Northwest Central Dispatcher overrode the computer aided dispatch system by placing the location west of Arlington Heights Road so that the computer aided dispatch would accept Arlington Heights as the responding fire department. For whatever reason, this should NOT have occurred. Firefighter/paramedics from Elk Grove Township, Des Plaines or Mount Prospect should have been dispatched. No round trip. No wrong way traffic assignments.

At about 6:04 a.m. the Arlington Heights Battalion Chief arrived on the scene in slick and snow conditions and reported that the crash was east of Arlington Heights Road in the westbound lanes, and that the crash incident was Elk Grove Township’s call. Arlington Heights equipment was held up, as it would take longer (compared to the Elk Grove Township response) to respond all the way to the turnaround at the former Des Plaines Oasis location and respond back westbound to the crash scene (the seven-mile round trip). Elk Grove Township firefighter/paramedics were then dispatched at about 6:05 a.m. — about 6 minutes after the crash was first reported. Elk Grove Township firefighter/paramedics likely arrived to the crash scene about 6:15 a.m. to 6:20 a.m. When they arrived, they assessed their crash scene and requested two additional ambulances for multiple injured crash victims.

Arlington Heights Ambulance 3 was dispatched again at 6:25 a.m. as a third ambulance for a report of multiple injuries for the same crash on the request of Elk Grove Township firefighter/paramedics. Arlington Heights units had already told the Northwest Central 9-1-1 dispatcher at 6:05 a.m. that they had to proceed all the way to the Des Plaines Oasis location for turn-around, but they were dispatched again. The crew from Arlington Heights Fire Department Ambulance 3 dutifully responded to their assignment, but the second and third ambulances should have come from Des Plaines and Mount Prospect, since both fire departments would have straight westbound access to the crash scene.

In all the confusion, Elk Grove Township firefighter/paramedics told the Northwest Central dispatcher (by about 6:31 a.m.) to tell the Arlington Heights Ambulance 3 crew to wait at the interchange so that Elk Grove Township firefighter/paramedics could transfer their patient to the Arlington Heights ambulance — preventing the long round trip. Unfortunately, it was too late because Arlington Heights Fire Department Ambulance 3 was already committed to eastbound I-90, which would amount to a trip to the crash scene in snowy weather lasting at least 20 minutes. Actually, the crew on Arlington Heights Ambulance 3 reported they had made the turn-around at the Des Plaines Oasis at 6:38 a.m. — 13 minutes after they were dispatched and only halfway to their trip to the crash scene in the westbound lanes. They probably had another 13 minutes to arrive on the crash scene — considering the bad weather and the likelihood that traffic on westbound I-90 would be more congested with a backup because of the crash on the westbound side. That’s a total response time of 26 minutes.

The delay of Elk Grove Township being properly dispatched as the primary assigned paramedics resulted in delays in the entire rescue operation. The Des Plaines ambulance that responded to the crash finally transported one or more patients to Alexian Brothers Medical Center at 6:50 a.m. — one hour after the crash was initially reported. Arlington Heights transport time was unknown this morning.

There are several possible solutions to this type of mismanagement of I-90 tollway crashes near Arlington Heights Road:

1. Northwest Central Dispatchers need to be better-trained to understand how crashes east of the Arlington Heights Road interchange in the westbound lanes should be handled by Elk Grove Township, Mount Prospect and/or Des Plaines firefighter/paramedics.

2. Northwest Central Dispatchers might need to have the authority to override instructions from personnel on the scene that are requesting Arlington Heights to the scene (Elk Grove Township firefighters/paramedics might have requested Arlington Heights). The dispatchers would then dispatch the proper equipment from Elk Grove Township, Des Plaines, or Mount Prospect who would make the straight westbound trip to the crash instead of a trip that would take twice the amount of time because of the necessary eastbound to westbound turnaround. Additionally, Battalion Chiefs with thorough understanding of the response plans should be aware of all of these calls the instant they are dispatched, so they can make command decisions that result in the best response to the incident.

3. State Police dispatchers also need to be aware with improved training that westbound calls that are east of Arlington Heights require a response from Elk Grove Township, Des Plaines or Mount Prospect. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of Northwest Central Dispatchers to understand their jurisdictions and have the common sense to understand that fire departments that need to travel “upstream” in the tollway traffic are going to take longer to respond than fire departments that are flowing “downstream” to the crash. Operating procedures should clearly outline whether State Police have authority to override Northwest Central Dispatch or not. There are many instances where State Police do not know exactly what community they are near when they are on the tollway, so they probably should not be making the command decision regarding what fire department should be responding. State Police should primarily provide an accurate location via a mile marker, landmark, camera observation, or other witness report.

4. Officials need to clarify dispatching procedures and review the performance of this call to reduce future response delays caused by incorrect emergency vehicle assignments, and also review other interchanges for incorrect assignments or similar problems.

5. Technical solutions, including additional traffic camera installations and use of the Google maps traffic layer that shows traffic congestion locations, should be considered as part of operations to locate the precise location of crashes on tollways and expressways.

Why this is so important
[1] A crash victim with life threatening injuries would likely be in much more serious condition or might have died in the botched response with associated delays that happened this morning. Although weather made the situation worse, it is likely that paramedics didn’t reach any of these crash victims until at least 6:10 a.m. or 6:15 a.m. — at least 20-25 minutes after the crash was first reported. With proper dispatching and proper assignment, Elk Grove Township with their straight approach probably would have arrived in the existing weather conditions within 10-15 minutes of the crash report time (about 6:00 a.m. to 6:05 a.m.).

[2] The failure of proper dispatching puts firefighter/paramedics in jeopardy as they are placed in compromising situations that might lead them to have the urge to travel the wrong way in traffic in situations that aren’t acceptable, and in situations that wouldn’t occur if proper plans were followed. Firefighter/paramedics may also be at more risk of injury themselves because they might transfer a victim over a divider wall where they have decided to place their vehicle in the opposite lanes. Or they may have been at more risk had they transferred a patient from one ambulance to another near a roadway remote to the accident scene where no police traffic control existed. Rescuers are more at risk if they have to perform with the need to make up for lost time.

[3] The failure of proper dispatching also commits emergency vehicles unnecessarily to the tollway, which makes them unavailable for other fire calls that might occur in their communities. Delays, especially compounded by bad weather, could make a huge difference in the rescue of fire victims or in the amount of damage and fire loss that could occur to a house or a business. Although mutual aid agreements exist for other communities to fill busy positions, the delays still occur, and the system should be all about minimizing events that put emergency vehicles out of district for prolonged periods.

[4] The failure of proper dispatching also prolongs the time that lanes are obstructed, prolongs traffic congestion, and opens up opportunities for risks of additional accidents.

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