Stamford traffic an obstacle for first responders
STAMFORD — The scramble began about a minute before the fire engine pushing south on Washington Boulevard — lights flashing, sirens blaring, horn sounding — reached the intersection with Broad Street.
Motorists on Washington Boulevard saw or heard the engine coming, but the evening rush hour was on, and there was no room to make way.
Most motorists froze.
The driver of a large pickup truck was the first to move. He attempted to clear a path by putting his driver’s-side wheels up on the median that divides Washington Boulevard. A small sedan took his cue and pulled alongside him, opening perhaps half a lane.
Surrounding drivers glanced in their mirrors, unsure what to do. With the fire engine on their bumpers, they maneuvered a foot or two to the left or right.
But the cars at the front of each lane didn’t budge. Where to go? Broad Street traffic, apparently unaware of the fire engine on Washington, kept moving through the intersection.
The engine driver took charge, using his horn to jolt motorists into motion. Finally one, then a second, of the front cars advanced at odd angles into the intersection, and the engine driver made his way through the break.
Confusion filled his wake as the two cars in the intersection became engulfed in traffic, motorists beeping at them and blocking any path out.
It’s likely the fire engine driver had to repeat the experience at other downtown intersections as he raced to the emergency.
The challenge is not new, but it may be getting more difficult.
Stamford is growing. Its population, about 130,000, is set to overtake that of New Haven to become Connecticut’s second-largest city, according to Census projections.
That’s not counting the number of people who drive city roads to work each week day.
Data USA, an online platform for Census statistics, shows that 70,600 people work in Stamford. Depending on the industry, that’s two to four times more than would be expected for a city its size.
Another statistic helps explain the rush-hour congestion — 66 percent of the people who work in Stamford drive alone.
That means more cars on the road most days, and less space for first responders — the members of the Stamford Fire Department, 98 percent of whom are Emergency Medical Technicians working to arrive at calls within four minutes.
“It gets to be a problem,” Fire Chief Trevor Roach said.
One reason is driver alarm.
“You have a big red thing behind you with flashing lights and sirens. It makes you panic. We understand,” the chief said. “We tell people to try to get to the right as much as they can and open up the lane. But don’t put yourself in a dangerous position. We don’t want anyone to get in an accident trying to get out of our way.”
The pickup truck driver who hopped on the median opened up traffic for the fire engine. But motorists should take such action only if they know they — and their vehicle — can handle it, Roach said.
“We don’t mind you going up on a median; just please don’t damage your car or hurt yourself,” he said. “But if the median works for getting out of the way, that’s all right, too.”
Traffic has been tougher this year, when the city and the state began a number of major road and bridge projects, and utility companies are digging into pavement to upgrade pipes and cables. Motorists citywide have complained about traffic jams.
The fire department keeps track of road projects using police schedules showing officers’ extra-duty traffic-control assignments at work sites, Roach said.
“We change our response routes to take traffic into account,” he said. “We have the ability in our computer system to send our apparatus another way. If we know there is a major restriction somewhere, we will avoid that area as much as we can.”
Stamford Emergency Medical Services does the same, Deputy Chief Edward Podgorski said. The not-for-profit organization provides ambulance service from four stations citywide.
“The dispatch center notifies us of closed roads, and we avoid them and take a different route,” Podgorski said.
SEMS has five ambulances in service during the day and three overnight, responding to 35 to 40 calls a day, he said.
“We are not having any issues” with traffic congestion, Podgorski said, “maybe because the fire department has larger trucks than we do.”
Roach said motorists can help by heightening awareness of their surroundings.
“We all drive around with the windows closed, with the air conditioning on, with the music on. We don’t hear the rigs coming,” the chief said. “It’s about seeing them when they are a block behind you. If you don’t see them until they’re on your bumper, you can’t get out of the way. It’s too hard.”
Firefighters “are very careful,” knowing motorists may react erratically, Roach said, and that a few will make situations perilous.
“We have seen people try to get in front of a fire truck so they can be pushed through a red light. They will pull out in front of the truck so they have to go through the intersection,” Roach said. “We see people get on our bumper and use the truck as a blockade to get through traffic. It’s very dangerous.”