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The fatal crash in the Northeast highlights the dangers faced by volunteer firefighters in the Erie region

Robert “Doc” Orr recalls a time when, as a member of the fire department of the AF Dobler Hose & Ladder Co. in Girard, was sent to hold up traffic on Tannery Road after a tree fell into the roadway.

Orr, who will soon celebrate his 65th year as a member of the Girard Volunteer Fire Department, parked his truck in the middle of the roadway, astride the yellow line, and took other steps to hold back traffic while crews cleared away the fallen tree.

“This guy came running down the road, passed me and stopped quickly before hitting the tree,” Orr said Tuesday. “Then he went into someone’s garden, around the tree, and went up the road.”

The story highlights the dangers faced by members of area volunteer fire departments serving as fire police when called upon to stop or divert traffic in emergencies such as house fires or traffic accidents.

Over the years, there have been a few instances where a member of the fire service has been injured while performing their duties. For example, in May 2017, a Cambridge Springs Volunteer Fire Department firefighter suffered significant injuries when he was struck by a spinning tractor-trailer while the officer was directing traffic at an intersection on Routes 6 and 19, north of where firefighters were working. fighting a fire that eventually razed the historic Riverside Inn to the ground.

A more recent incident turned fatal.

Shawn Giles, 53, Fuller Hose Co. auxiliary police officer. in North East, died Sunday after being hit by a car while directing traffic on West Main Road in North East Township at the scene of a traffic accident.

The motorist charged with beating Giles, 41-year-old Dawann M. Simmons, a resident of Erie, was charged by Pennsylvania State Police with vehicular homicide and other offenses.

More: Area firefighters line North East Street in honor of the fallen first responder who died Sunday

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“Firefighters have a very dangerous job,” said Jim Jones, fire department captain for the West Ridge Fire Department in Millcreek Township.

Jones noted that, based on the information he has seen, more firefighters are killed in the line of duty than firefighters.

“Simply by the nature of their job, firefighters have a presence in traffic, whether it’s Route 20 or Interstates 90 or 79,” he said.

Keep scenes safe

The primary function of firefighters is to cordon off sections of roads or intersections and, if necessary, divert traffic at the scene of an emergency.

“My main thing is that I’m there to protect the crew,” said Rose Merritt, fire captain of the Edinboro Volunteer Fire Department.

The fire department is commissioned officers under state law and is authorized to direct traffic and control crowds at emergencies and public events, Jones said. They have no arrest powers, but police are typically present in emergencies or can be called to the scene by radio if there is a need for law enforcement, he said.

West Ridge requires its firefighters to take 16-hour courses in basic and advanced firefighting functions, as well as a 16-hour course that covers legal concepts related to their duties, said Jones, a 55-year-old West Ridge member who is member of the fire service for 30 years.

Firefighters use a variety of methods to hold back traffic, including placing cones, barricades, flares, vehicles, and themselves to close off a roadway. West Ridge is fortunate to have a good donation base that allows the department to afford the necessary equipment, including helmets and reflective gear for officers to wear, says Gary Carver, a firefighter who has served West Ridge for nearly 40 years. has served. years.

“It allows us to do an even better job,” Carver said.

Firefighters pay their respects as the body of Fuller Hose Co. volunteer Shawn Giles, 53, is taken to a North East funeral home on August 21, 2023. Giles was assisting Pennsylvania State Police, who were investigating a two-vehicle accident on Route 20 and South Brickyard Road, by diverting traffic into the eastbound lanes of Route 20 when he was struck by a 2007 Lexus RX350 traveling at high speed. drove.

A dangerous job

Orr said the biggest problem he sees with traffic barricades is motorists who he says don’t look beyond the hoods of their vehicles and don’t look to see what’s happening in front of them.

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“They’ll run into you and hit the brakes,” he said.

Motorists seem to be more distracted these days, especially by their cell phones, and in many cases don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on around them to notice an accident scene, Jones said.

In some cases, such as the Tannery Road tree incident to which Orr responded, some motorists simply ignore warnings to stop or change their route, some officials said. Carver recalled an incident where he directed traffic on West Ridge Road, which was closed due to an emergency. One motorist deliberately drove through the emergency cones placed on the roadway and narrowly missed him before the motorist was finally stopped by a Millcreek Township police officer who was also at the scene, Carver said.

“The main concern is how people will respect the directions of the fire department,” he said. ‘Most people do. But there are exceptions, such as the Northeast incident, where people, for some unknown reason, take it upon themselves to ignore clues, barricades, or cones. It not only endangers the fire brigade, but also all ambulance personnel. or firefighters who are on site. It puts them all in danger.’

More: North East firefighter was killed directing traffic in accident identified Sunday

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Shawn Giles was in the east center lane of West Main Road in North East Township early Sunday afternoon, directing traffic while wearing a reflective vest and using an orange flag, according to Pennsylvania State Police. As Giles slowed down and directed traffic, a Lexus driven by Simmons approached the intersection where Giles was standing at high speed and hit Giles, throwing him into the air, the troopers reported.

Giles was taken by ambulance to UPMC Hamot, where he was pronounced dead at 1:43 p.m. Sunday, according to state police and the Erie County Coroner’s Office.

State police wrote in the criminal indictment against Simmons that he told investigators after the accident that he saw a vehicle stop in front of him and change lanes when the firefighter jumped in front of him with a flag and tried to swerve. out of the way, but hit him.

But footage from an officer’s vehicle-mounted video camera showed Giles standing in the center east lane for several minutes directing traffic as the Lexus approached at high speed and did not appear to slow before hitting Giles, investigators wrote in the complaint.

Safety steps

The key to keeping everyone safe in an emergency is to pay attention and follow directions, firefighters say.

“If you see someone wearing a vest and see red lights or blue lights, it should be a warning sign that people should slow down and pay attention,” Jones said.

Orr said it’s also important that motorists drive slowly if they’re ordered to pass an emergency, because you never know when a firefighter will step out to pick up a piece of equipment or get into a truck. Motorists should also dim their lights because it can be difficult for firefighters to see the actions of oncoming vehicles while high beams are shining on them, he said.

Patience and understanding are also critical, says Merritt, a member of the Edinboro Volunteer Fire Department since 2008.

“What I do, if we’ve got an intersection closed or if I’m diverting traffic and I have to stop people, if they’re sitting there for a while I normally walk up, tell them what’s going on and thank them for their patience,” she said.

Contact Tim Hahn at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ETNhahn.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Fatal crash highlights dangers fire department cops face while working in the Erie area

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