Lt. Mark Jones was concentrating on one thing – cutting an injured woman from a minivan that crashed along Earl Rudder Freeway – when his worst fear played out.
“I heard a screech from behind and a crash,” said the Bryan Fire Department veteran, describing how he and other first responders turned to find a second wreck unfolding just a few feet away.
A woman drove straight into the crash site, smashing her small truck into the back of a trailer and pinning her legs under the dashboard, Jones said. As he crawled into the truck to check for signs of life, he felt a faint pulse in the woman’s neck – then, nothing.
“She died almost instantly,” he said.
It happened more than eight years ago, but Jones said he still thinks about it every time he responds to an accident.
He was among 190 participants in a class offered by the Texas Engineering Extension Service this week to teach first responders to stay alive while trying to save the lives of others. Students “responded” to simulated crashes on a vacant airstrip at Texas A&M’s Riverside campus.
A spike in the number of fatal wrecks has made safety while working an even bigger issue, Jones said. The death toll on Brazos Valley roads in the past three weeks was at 17 late Wednesday.
Emergency responders need to be even more cautious because there is no clear-cut reason, such as weather conditions, for the increase in wrecks, Jones said. That means there’s no obvious way to stop the fatalities, he said.
“The pure numbers of it are amazing,” he said. “There’s so many different reasons for the accidents – it’s worrying.”
In a class exercise Wednesday, students responded to a one-vehicle rollover on a two-lane rural road. One lane had to be shut down while paramedics and police worked to clear the accident and reopen the road.
“We always try to keep the traffic rolling, but the No. 1 thing is that we all have to go home at the end of the shift,” Jones said.
It’s important to clear the scene as quickly and safely as possible to prevent more crashes, said Christy Perez, a program manager with the Texas Department of Transportation, which funded the classes.
“These classes show them the proper procedures and layouts, and help them realize the most important goal is clearing the accident, but doing so in a manner that’s safe for the public and themselves,” she said.
Jones said the scenarios were similar to those he faces every day. Sometimes motorists aren’t paying attention and don’t see a crash, he said. Other times, road conditions, such as hills and curves, obscure drivers’ view of the scene, he said.
“We hope this kind of training will help us handle those situations,” he said.
On Thursday, he’ll return to his Bryan fire station, where he’ll teach those under his command what he learned.
“If you hear any kind of screech or acceleration, you jump just a little,” he said, adding that secondary accidents always are a concern for firefighters, paramedics and police officers.
“If we get hit, we’re not helping the person we’re there to help.”