Getting emergency help to the hundreds of drivers who crash in Malfunction Junction each year is a challenge for first responders.
Problems can begin with the initial 911 call.
“That’s the biggest confusion when responding to the interstate – people don’t know where they’re at,” said Irmo fire Capt. Rob Stewart.
Drivers often say a wreck is in an eastbound lane when it’s in the westbound because they’re unsure which way they are headed. Or they report the closest intersection incorrectly because they are speeding by or are shaken by being involved in or seeing a violent collision. Out-of-town drivers are even more confused, fire chief Mike Sonefeld said.
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“Bad information to dispatch means a bad response (to a collision site),” Sonefeld said of delayed arrival times.
Then there is a layer of 911 dispatchers who must take the distress calls and determine which agencies to alert. About 10 agencies, including four police departments, have jurisdiction depending on where and how severe the wreck is.
Once first responders have a location, they must determine which is the fastest and safest route to get to the injured or the disabled cars.
Cameras that monitor traffic along the dangerous highway are key to guiding firefighters and police. “Their camera system is our lifeline,” Sonefeld said of cameras positioned by the SC Transportation Department between 1999 and 2006.
Nine cameras watch a one-mile stretch of I-26 traffic between the Bush River and St. Andrews road overpasses – the core of Malfunction Junction. But each camera can see clearly for only about a quarter mile in clear weather, Stewart said. There also are blind spots, depending on whether cameras are panning or zooming elsewhere at the time of a collision.
Sonefeld said his firefighters answer about one call daily to that overcrowded, poorly designed junction. On bad days, and that tends to be Fridays, there are as many as six wrecks. In the past five years, the state Highway Patrol reported a total of nearly 2,000 collisions in the area dubbed Malfunction Junction.
On some stretches of I-26, if first responders use the wrong access route to get to a collision, they can get caught in traffic backups caused by the wreck. In some spots, they also can be forced to travel as much as eight miles before they can turnaround.
Irmo fire officials also have to decide how many fire trucks to send. Usually an engine and a ladder truck are sufficient. But some intense wrecks require more. Yet sending too many trucks can make the collision site even more unsafe.
Besides providing basic first aid, such as oxygen or splints, firefighters also rescue travelers trapped in the wreckage. Firefighters generally are barred from more advanced medical aid.
Firefighters also close one or more lanes by positioning fire trucks to create safety zones for themselves, victims of collisions and officials who arrive at the scene.
Motorists tend to not slow down as much for fire trucks as for police cruisers, said Irmo fire Capt. Jason Poole. “People will slow down for blue lights, but not for red,” he said.
South Carolina law requires motorists to change lanes if possible when they see a stopped emergency vehicle. They also are required to reduce their speed.
A largely unseen cost of responding to collisions is the price of replacing fire truck tires damaged by shards of metal or glass from colliding vehicles, Poole said. On average, the Irmo Fire Department replaces six tires a year at $675 each.
Stewart and Poole said the most horrific collisions seemed to be tied to drinking, driver distraction or failure to wear seat belts. They recall a pedestrian who was hit crossing the interstate and dragged a mile by a second vehicle.
First responders also have to have strong stomachs.