WISCONSIN (WKOW) — First responders risk their lives every day to protect their communities and now they’re calling on the public to help protect them.
They’re the first ones to respond to a crash on the highways and often the ones who are most at risk of being hurt.
Their concern has prompted fire officials to begin working with lawmakers to hold drivers more accountable for hitting a responder.
Distracted driving is a topic that hits close to home for Endeavor firefighters, who lost one of their own in 2015.
“When a line of duty death happens, the most important thing is learning from the line of duty death and using that line of duty death in positive ways,” said Chief Mike Bourdeau.
Stories of loss, close calls
Firefighter Larry Millard was hit and killed by a driver while he was responding to a medical emergency on the exit ramp of I-39 in Endeavor.
Millard, who had been with the department for decades, was standing right next to his truck.
“Larry was doing exactly what he was supposed to do, he was protecting that ambulance crew and he was setting up cones, following proper procedure and that’s when he was struck and killed,” Bourdeau said.
Bourdeau, who was working for a nearby department at the time, was called to respond. He said it was a very emotional time for area firefighters.
“We had actually talked about traffic safety the night before at training in Oxford, so it was kind of a very surreal feeling,” he said.
Delton firefighters know that fear their colleagues went through. They nearly lost a firefighter last year, too.
“It was very, very sobering. We were all scared afterwards, because we nearly lost one of our brother firefighters,” said Chief Darren Jorgenson. “Spouses were scared. Our family members were scared because it hit us right at home. And it doesn’t get any more personal than that.”
Firefighter Joe Sabol was directing traffic on I-90/94 near Lake Delton in February 2018 when a car skidded into him. He was in critical condition in the hospital, but has since recovered and is back on the job.
It’s close calls like his that make it difficult for responders to go out and do their jobs.
“We do have family members that we need to get home to,” Jorgenson told 27 News. “We’re out there doing the best that we can.”
Firefighters aren’t the only ones at risk at crash sites. Tow truck drivers come within inches of cars when recovering vehicles on the interstates.
“It’s constantly one eye on the work and another eye on the traffic to see who’s coming; how close, how fast, so that our people do not get injured,” said Jerry Blystone, who owns Blystone’s Towing in Portage.
Blystone says it’s rare now to go on the highway and not have close calls. His workers have to stand on or near the fog line as they work, on the driver’s side, putting them even more at risk of being hit.
“How close we are to injury or death when a vehicle passes within a foot of you,” he said.
Blystone and his team are still shaken by a hit-and-run involving one of his workers. Norman Bartnick was towing a vehicle in snowy conditions on I-90 near Portage in 2007 when he was hit by someone who drove away.
“There was not much our operator could do, he was hurt badly, he was bleeding badly,” Blystone told 27 News.
Bartnick never fully recovered from his injuries. He passed away last week from an unrelated illness.
The driver who hit Barnick was eventually found and arrested for hit and run and other traffic violations. He was ultimately sentenced to probation.
Marquette County’s district attorney determined there would be no criminal charges for the driver involved in Larry Millard’s death.
In Delton’s case, the woman who hit Sabol died in the crash.
All three responders agree, the punishments for the drivers involved in the incidents were too light.
“We think that when people do things recklessly, we think that when people do things with utter disregard for everybody else’s safety, and then they cause an accident cause injury, that they should have to face consequences that are greater than just a ticket,” Jorgenson said.
Responders taking action
Now, the fire officials are leading an effort to work with lawmakers to hold drivers more accountable for hitting a responder. They’re planning a meeting with local legislators next week to share their stories.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Katrina Shankland’s office is drafting legislation that could bring changes to the state’s laws. She hasn’t revealed details as plans are still in the works, but told 27 News the bill might look at replicating the state’s rules in construction zones.
A law took effect in 2016 banning the use of cell phones in construction zones in Wisconsin. Fire officials want to see a similar ban in emergency zones, to cut down on distracted driving.
Rep. Shankland tells 27 News she’s still having conversations with other lawmakers to come up with a draft for the bill.
Shankland is hoping to find penalties for distracted driving that would reflect the gravity of the dangers for responders, she said.
Changes at the station
The fire departments have made their own changes to improve safety, as they wait for action from lawmakers.
Crews have started bringing out more trucks and cones to block crash sites and provide more flashing lights. Firefighters train regularly for safety response.
Delton just added a new truck with a digital message board, to catch drivers’ attention when needed.
But ultimately, the fire officials say it comes down to awareness and cooperation from drivers on the roads.
“Making sure they do what they’re supposed to do and they slow down,” said Bourdeau. “We can only do so much changing the way we do things. We gotta get help from those drivers on the roadways.”
They ask every driver to put down their phones and pay attention to what’s ahead on the highway.