Reading through media reports on South African road accident and fatality statistics, you’ll come across terms like “slaughterhouse, bloody weekends and prayers for road safety on our roads”.
In 2018 the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) State of Road Safety Report showed South Africa’s road fatality count sitting at about 12 900 people per annum. This amounts to roughly 35 people dying on our roads each day. Whether you believe in the accuracy of our country’s crash data collection systems or not, the number is still too high if compared with leading first world countries like Sweden, who reported 287 road deaths for 2018. Comparatively, the Swedish population is roughly 6 times less than ours, but regardless of this, figures are still high, with the rest of Africa not looking any better.
With this in mind, you may ask the question – “What happens if I’m involved in a serious accident anywhere, on any road in South Africa? Will the response from law enforcement and emergency services save my life?”
Part of the answer lies in the readiness and efficiency of an Incident Management System that aims to effectively coordinate, pre-plan and manage incidents in order to save lives and restore traffic back to its normal operating conditions.
Since 2013 South African National Road Agency Limited (SANRAL) has formally been running the Road Incident Management Systems (RIMS) programs across its national road network. The Program aims to coordinate and administer activities for the skills training and development of emergency responders, involved in managing incidents on a daily basis.
How is Road Accident Management implemented on the ground?
When an incident occurs on the road, the person reporting the incident would normally call a known emergency number. From international examples we know that one emergency number is a common standard, especially for ease of remembering – example USA’s 911.
On most national roads, SANRAL displays brown informational signs to urge motorists to use 112 (EMS), 10111(SAPS) or 10177(FIRE) numbers for emergencies. In Gauteng the 0800ITRAFF number is displayed on electronic sign boards for SANRAL’s on-road services’ response.
What SHOULD happen is that when a 112 / 10111 / 10177 call centre operator receives the call, after obtaining information on the type of incident and location, the call be routed to a Centralised Communication Centre (CCC) in the caller’s region. The status of how this call routing is currently implemented is under investigation and review by RIMS Role-players and the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS). Many tests and discussions with role players have confirmed that routing to CCCs mostly does NOT happen when a caller dials the national emergency numbers. Organisations such as SAPS or EMS are contacted directly, at the call operator’s own judgement of where they think the closest response should come from.
To ensure the system works as intended, agreements and concepts of operations are needed to ensure that the call centre operators are trained to know what end where CCCs are located. The CCC’s should be reliable and sustainable, and regulations should be in place to ensure the routing is done correctly.
When emergency response is activated, SAPS, Traffic Police, Fire Departments, EMS Services are usually the first to be notified and dispatched to the scene.
Limpopo is divided into 5 District Municipalities, each with its own CCC and teams of responders for each emergency service.
On arrival at the scene, the first responder establishes a joint incident command post (JICP), usually in the form of an orange cone on the roof of their vehicle. The scene is then analysed in terms of type of incident, injuries and spillages.
The first responder secures or cordons off the area, puts traffic control measures in place and communicates with the CCC to give a status quo and requests additional assistance. Once additional responders arrive, they report to the JICP, which is the visible marker to indicate the central point at which to report on arrival at the scene.
An Incident Management Team can then start to form, with each emergency service represented for coordination of decision-making and actions to be taken. This is core to RIMS. The Management team nominates an incident coordinator, who is responsible for communication to the CCC, coordinating decisions made, and reporting to the media and other major stakeholders if a major incident has occurred.
Image 2 shows an example of a team sizing up an incident.
Activities under the Road Accident Management Program
Various meetings and training activities are coordinated and hosted by the Consultants for RIMS in each province.
Steering Committees and Task Group Meetings are held quarterly in each district of the Province. These Committees consist of representatives delegated for decision-making on behalf of their organisations. Other affected parties (Disaster Management, Environmental Affairs, Cross-Border and Road Accident Fund) and non-specialist services (Routine Road Maintenance and Towing Associations) also participate and form part of the overall RIMS System.
Post Incident Assessments (PIA) are conducted regularly, for major crashes, particularly where there were more than 5 fatalities. The PIA workshop discusses how incident management was implemented on the day, and reflects on challenges, successes and solutions to some of the ongoing issues faced by responders.
Post Incident Assessment case study: Fuel tanker catches fire on N1
A recent PIA was held for a fuel tanker that caught fire on the N1 between Codrington and Bela-Bela. The incident timeline showed the incident first reported at 14:30, but the road finally cleared and re-opened only at 22:00. As in many cases, law enforcement only plays a part role in the managing of incidents. Disrespect for the rule of law caused a fatality from a secondary accident which occurred hours after the road was closed to traffic. Trucks who forced their way through the initial closure were stopped and given the option to wait until the road was opened or return to an alternative route. One truck driver, among those who opted to stop and wait, became impatient and made a U-turn into the opposite carriageway. He had no visible bright lights and ignored traffic police. This resulted in an oncoming Hilux bakkie crashing into the back of the truck and being dragged for meters. The driver of the bakkie passed away on the scene and the driver was charged. The question is now – What sequence of events could have prevented this unfortunate fatality when the initial incident had resulted in no injuries? This is the sort of scenario that a well-coordinated RIMS system tries to avoid.
Staged accidents for Road Accident Management training activities
The program runs accredited 2-day training sessions and informal 1-day sessions, where responders are given a refresher opportunity on procedures and protocols that should already be entrenched from their basic training.
Simulation Exercises are hands-on tutorials that to an outsider would look like the real deal. A planning task team plans for weeks in advance, wrecked vehicles are towed to the scene and patients are staged.
For Limpopo, due to the high occurrence of Dangerous Goods Trucks on the roads, there is still a big need for Hazardous Materials training. Other high-profile accidents involve buses and minibuses, and often these vehicles are from neighbouring countries. Simulation exercises focus on these types of scenarios and help to train responders for the real-life situations. The Simulation Exercise recently held in Vhembe played out a crash with multiple injuries and fatalities (See Image 3).
Challenges and victories for South Africa’s emergency services
With a vast amount of challenges, starting from a lack of resources such as no water for fire trucks, no overtime funds available for responders to work weekends or month end, exacerbated by motorists not bothered to abide by rules of the road, you would think the emergency responder’s work is made almost impossible.
Traffic Police and SAPS officers are in the line of fire daily, EMS cannot operate in certain areas for fear of their equipment and personal belongings being hijacked. Forensic Pathologists deals with removing tens of deceased bodies at a time when a bus crash takes 12 lives at once.
The successes can however be measured in smaller doses. Daily messages on RIMS WhatsApp groups show how incidents are identified, notified and reported in time for lives to be saved. Out of control veld fires are brought under control and stray animals are reported as dangers to motorists. Regardless of overtime or mileage constraints, officials still respond even though they’re not reimbursed by their employers.
Those attending training give feedback to and encourage their colleagues to also participate. Simulations are well attended and participated in. Even with the statistics painting a grim picture of road fatalities annually, many more pieces of the Road Safety puzzle need to fall in place to bring the figures down. Emergency response has its role to play, and many of those executing are trying their best. Teamwork is evident from reports at PIAs and Steering Committee Meetings, and even though the incident management procedures and protocols are not always followed, responders still manage to save lives and clear the scene for traffic to proceed as usual.
The RIMS Legislation is currently under review at National Government. Hopefully by 2023 (10 years into the formalised SANRAL program) we will have the legislation passed to seriously give impetus for authorities to equip their officials with enough knowledge and resources to be more effective on the ground.