In a meeting attended by many of Grayson County’s first responders and Emergency Management personnel, Judge Executive Gary Logsdon, as well as the Glendale Fire Department, and led by Kentucky Transportation Public Information Officer Chris Jessie, the nearly two-hour long discussion covered topics ranging from dangerous or difficult to work highway accidents to intra-agency cooperation and communication.
The meeting comes on the heels of the death of 25-year old Glendale fireman Jonathan French, who was killed on August 6 fighting a vehicle fire on I-65, and a conflict later that morning involving the Clarkson Fire Department and a state road official about when to re-open the Western Kentucky Parkway after a single-vehicle accident forced the road closure.
As reported by K105, at Monday night’s Clarkson City Commission meeting, Clarkson Assistant Fire Chief Ken Lashley and Clarkson Fire Department Public Information Officer Ryan Hatfield, voiced passionate concern about being confronted by state road official Ashley Higdon regarding re-opening the Parkway after the accident. Both Lashley and Hatfield, along with Clarkson Fire Chief Andy Cain, felt that re-opening the Parkway would pose a danger to the first responders on the scene, while Higdon wanted the road opened immediately (the roadway had been closed for just over an hour when the disagreement occurred).
Jessie and Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Chief District Engineer Patty Dunaway both agreed that better communication was needed between state officials and first responders that morning, but stopped short of placing blame for the on-scene confrontation.
In answering questions about which agency is the de facto on-scene decision-maker, both Jessie and Dunaway said that the responsibility of closing and re-opening roadways after an accident should fall with law enforcement. But in Grayson County, it has been more of a cooperative effort between law enforcement and fire officials.
At the WK Parkway wreck on the morning of August 6 (only hours after French was killed), and according to the dispatch log and Sheriff Rick Clemons, Deputy Jarrod Mudd asked Clarkson Fire Chief Andy Cain if he thought it would be okay to re-open the roadway (this happened at 9:50) -- at that point, eastbound WK Parkway had been shut down for about an hour. Cain told Mudd, no, he did not want the road re-opened out of concern for the safety of his firefighters. Ten minutes later, Clemons was told the same thing by Cain.
Both law enforcement officials acquiesced to Cain’s wishes by keeping the road closed.
Although in Grayson County intra-agency cooperation is normal operating procedure, twice in four days, two fire officials (Hatfield and Glendale Fire Chief Richie Peters) have alleged they have been told many times by state officials to open a roadway before they felt it was safe, in the interest of commerce.
Dunaway, though, said it’s the safety of the accident victims, as well as first responders working the scene, which is of the utmost importance.
“It’s kind of unclear to me where that came from as far as our District 4 Department of Highway’s Office, that is not something that enters our mind when we have an emergency situation,” Dunaway said about fire personnel being made to open roads before they feel it is safe to do so. “I suspect it might be a governor’s directive or … I know we’ve had incidences on I-65 for example, even with snow and ice, whenever UPS would be complaining about not being able to get their trucks through; I suspect it comes from that. But like I say, I can speak for the District 4 area and the Transportation Cabinet, (and) our first and foremost concern is the safety of the people involved in the accident, keeping the first responders safe and keeping the motorists in mind in trying to open the road so that we don’t have secondary crashes.”
In a post-meeting interview, Peters echoed to K105 what Hatfield claimed at Monday’s Clarkson City Commission meeting regarding feeling pressured to re-open roadways in the interest of commerce.
“I’ve heard it several times, it’s just something that when we shut the road down, the majority of what we hear every time is … ‘you’re costing the state and costing the nation (money)’ because it is a major roadway, and there is a lot of commerce that travels through there,” Peters said. “We understand that, but again, that stuff sitting on there (goods on trucks) can be replaced, but the life that we lost this past week can never be replaced. We did what we thought we could do (the morning French was killed); we left the roadway open, we left one lane open, because we felt we were going to be a safe distance away from everything (traffic).
“The placement of our emergency vehicles … we felt we were a safe distance away from everything that we could leave one lane open,” Peters stated. “We don’t do senseless shutdowns because we know; we’ve sat in traffic when we’ve traveled, and we know people have kids who get cranky, we know people have medical conditions, but again, we can’t trade lives. They’re (drivers) sitting in their vehicle and there’s the potential that they can get hit, but we’re out there where we’re basically moving targets.”
As far as Peters is concerned, closing a highway to allow his department to work unfettered by danger is, after the death of French, the only option. In an impassioned speech at the end of Thursday’s meeting, Peters spoke his mind regarding the road closure controversy.
“Don’t let what happened to Jonathan (French) happen to somebody else. The (traffic safety) training they’re talking about; I’ve been through that training. We set everything up (on I-65 as the Glendale FD battled the car fire), the manpower, the signs … a sign is not a concrete wall. They knew there was an emergency there (on the road). We had red lights, we had yellow lights, we had reflectors everywhere, we even had magnesium blowing up so it looked like the Fourth of July out there.
“This happened (the death of French) because of this very reason right here: to bring us together so we can do something to keep ourselves from getting hurt. To keep another family from losing a family member; that’s what this is all about. I didn’t come down here … I’m not a politician, I’m not a political person, but I do know I want to keep Jonathan’s memory alive by keeping somebody else from getting hurt.
“I will tell you, when there’s another incident in Glendale, Kentucky … I have been forced several times to open roads … I worked a fatality with a two-year old that we were not ready to open that road. Debris was scattered across the road, and we got a call from a Kentucky State police officer who said, ‘The governor says the road has to be open and it has to be done now.’
"The vehicle was still in the road and the (dead) child was laying in the median. I still had apparatus in the road and they made us, MADE US, open the road while the coroner was still there. There was no transport there for the person involved (in the accident). We picked up the two-year old child and laid him in the back of the coroner’s vehicle so that nobody would see what was going on.
“We have been told it’s a commerce thing. I don’t know if it comes from your office (speaking to Dunaway’s) … I don’t care. It’s a safety thing. It’s personal to me now. I’ve made it personal. I am the Chief. I’m the one who gets the State Police that comes and says, so and so says you have to open this roadway.
“We’re not opening the roadway anymore until I am 100 percent sure that we are completely done. We had the two trucks out there that’s talked about in training. (The trucks) did there job, they protected the scene. We had equipment on that truck that was needed, and he (French) was getting that equipment. All the training in the world … but it’s not us, we can do everything text book. It’s not us that we have to worry about. It’s those people driving those vehicles.
“This is an eye-opener, people.
“We’re changing our policies. Not to offend the state of Kentucky, but there isn’t no … I don’t care if it’s a car load of elephants, there is nothing coming past my fire trucks anymore. They’re going to have to have a bulldozer to push it out of the way. My fire truck is blocking both lanes of the road. Sorry guys, sorry truckers, sorry commerce, I’m not burying another firefighter. My trucks will be blocking the road.”