Move over: Austin firefighter who escaped serious injury has message for drivers

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) – It was a close call for Austin Fire Station 20’s firefighters on Saturday, Feb.10, when the crew responded to an early morning call in the 2200 block of E. Stassney Lane in southeast Austin, near Interstate 35.

A driver in a Jeep Cherokee ran into the back of the fire truck causing the fire truck’s bumper to fall off and a firefighter on the back ladder to injure her arm.

“My arm hit over here and I held on and it kind of threw me backward,” said Meredith Garee, the firefighter who was on the ladder when the vehicle struck. “Luckily, I was hanging on.”

Today, Garee is thankful the call her crew responded to this past weekend didn’t turn deadly.

“It’s really, really scary to think, what if [the driver] had been two feet over and I had been standing on the ground,” she said.

When Garee’s fellow firefighters saw the crash they quickly got worried as they knew Garee was in the back of the truck.

“I can’t even tell you what was running through my mind,” said firefighter J.J. Gonzalez.

Austin Fire Department Station 20 crew training (KXAN Photo/Candy Rodriguez)

Austin Fire Division Chief Thayer Smith says close calls like this are happening too often. “I believe one of the most dangerous things we do is sending our crew out on the highways,” said Smith.

The “Move Over” law passed in 2003 was meant to keep first responders safe by having drivers move over or slow down when passing an emergency vehicle. The law called for vehicles passing emergency vehicles to move over from the closest lane to the flashing vehicles or reduce speed to 20 miles per hour less than the posted speed limit when the posted speed limit is 25 miles per hour or more; or five miles per hour when the posted speed limit is less than 25 miles per hour.

Those who violated the law could face a fine ranging anywhere from $500 to $2,000.

Throughout the years, lawmakers have updated it to fit the needs of those who spend time on the side of the roads working and in 2011, tow trucks were added to the list.

The Texas Department of Public Safety wanted to make sure this became a reality. In a press release from June 2012, the department states: “DPS issued more than 17,000 warning and citations last year for violation of the Move Over/Slow Down law and another 6,000 through the first five months of this year.”

Then, in 2013, the Texas Department of Transportation also pushed for the same protection. TxDOT vehicles stopped with overhead flashing blue or amber lights were added to the list with the law going into effect on Sept. 1, 2013.

In a press release that year, TxDOT said: “We are very pleased the Legislature recognizes the dangers our employees face each day while working to maintain and build the state’s vast highway network,” said TxDOT’s executive director, noting that more than 100 TxDOT employees working in construction areas have been struck and killed by motorists since 1938. “We are hopeful that this new protection for our crews will lead to fewer preventable deaths and injuries.”

But firefighters say some drivers need a reminder.

“Pay attention to the road,” said Garee “Pay attention to other drivers and give those responders the space to do what they need to do.”

The Austin Police Department responded to the crash around 3:30 a.m. and the driver who crashed into the fire truck was not arrested. Whether or not the driver will receive a citation is still under review at this time by APD.

KXAN reached out to other emergency and law enforcement agencies for comment:

We greatly appreciate the efforts of drivers to observe the Texas Move Over Law. By slowing down or changing lanes, our deputies and the people they’re assisting are better protected from roadway dangers.” — Kristen Dark, Sr. Public Information Officer, Travis County Sheriff’s Office

What we tell people is look for cues those visual cues, blinkers, look for hand gestures of the medics trying to direct traffic as they are responding. Those things are very important because we are trying to communicate with nonverbal cues and in many cases to other drivers so that we can let them know what our intentions are and that’s what we’re trying to do, we are trying to take the guessing game out of it.” – Cdr. Mike Benavides, Public Information Officer, ATCEMS

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