It isn’t unusual for the public to see Sergio Mendoza working in his office, since Interstate 5, Oregon 62, Oregon 238 and all of the other state-managed highways located in the Rogue Valley are essentially his office.
As ODOT’s incident responder, Mendoza works in coordination with local emergency responders to reduce traffic delays caused by crashes, mechanical breakdowns, and debris blocking the travel lanes.
His incident response truck is equipped with traffic control equipment and communication equipment, including a variable message board to alert the traveling public. The rugged build of the incident response truck means it can also push or pull vehicles off the roadway as needed.
The truck also carries basic tools so Mendoza can provide roadside assistance, which often involves helping motorists with flat tires or empty fuel tanks.
“The focus is on safety and keeping traffic flowing,” said Mendoza. “Assisting motorists and getting them back on the road lessens their exposure on the highway shoulder. The fog line provides no protection.”
According to Assistant District Manager Jeremiah Griffin, the number of highway incidents ODOT responds to in the Rogue Valley is the second-highest in the state, trailing only the Portland metro area. Traffic and congestion along Crater Lake Highway and I-5 (from Grants Pass to Ashland) are major contributors to the high volume of incidents.
“Weather, incidents, congestion and special events all can contribute to congestion,” said Griffin. “During peak travel times, a minor crash or mechanical breakdown interrupts the flow of traffic and creates long queues and delays. There’s also a safety risk of distracted drivers that can lead to secondary crashes.”
Mendoza is part of a larger traffic incident management strategy embraced nationwide to limit the duration of incidents in order to minimize their impact and restore smooth traffic flow as quickly as possible. The program also saves the commercial trucking industry money by reducing travel delays.
Several times a year, Rogue Valley emergency service personnel from local fire and police agencies, Mercy Flights and area tow companies meet to debrief and review ways to better respond to specific incidents.
“The emergency service meetings are effective in improving safety and building necessary relationships,” said Griffin.
Emergency providers share experience and tips. For example, Mendoza provides training on best practices to push or pull a vehicle out of a travel lane to get traffic moving again.
“My role allows ODOT maintenance to better connect and coordinate with local emergency response agencies, whether we meet on the road or at a strategy meeting in a conference room,” said Mendoza.
“These meetings allow all agencies involved to work together and create a safer environment for the public and the responders,” said Oregon State Police Sergeant Jeff Proulx. “Once we get on scene, we can implement the plans quickly and safely.”
Before the incident response program started in the Rogue Valley, emergency calls required pulling maintenance crews off other assignments.
“Historically, our maintenance personnel handled all crashes,” said Griffin. “By having a dedicated responder we’ve reduced interruptions to maintenance work by 40 percent.”
In July 2013, the local ODOT maintenance office initiated a two-year pilot program for a dedicated incident response service patrol.
“At the end of the pilot, general consensus was that the incident response program provided tremendous value to both the traveling public and incident responders in terms of safety and efficiency,” said Griffin. “Likewise, the incident response program helped enhance the efficiency of our maintenance operations by allowing crews to dedicate more of their time to maintenance work and less time responding to incidents.”