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American Towman Magazine Presents the Week in TowingDecember 05 - December 11, 2018
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Storm Response Revisited

harvey dd8a0By Brian J. Riker

Hurricane Florence produced severe flooding from Virginia to the Carolinas and caused several deaths. It will require months of hard work by teams of dedicated professionals to clean up. Towmen have already stepped up to the task and are coming from across the country to lend a hand.

I would be derelict in my duties if I did not take this opportunity to remind you of some hazards and legalities of storm response. It is noble to want to help, but it must be done safely and legally.

Safety first, or as I prefer to say, safety always! With the immediate threat of the storm gone, you may be lulled into a false sense of security. Practice situational awareness at all times. Here are just a few of the many hazards that you may face during emergency storm response:


Missing sections of roadways, collapsed bridges or undermined pavement all pose a high risk of injury. Do not drive into floodwaters until they have receded enough to allow confirmation of safe road conditions.

Bacterial contamination in the water from damage to sewage treatment plants, failing septic systems and other infrastructure damage. Take precautions to avoid ingestion of floodwaters or direct exposure to your skin—especially if you have open cuts or sores.

Electrocution hazards from downed wires or flooded underground utility structures. Never assume that power is out until proven otherwise by a competent person from the electric utility service. As utility companies work to restore power they may miss some damage to their distribution system and could re-energize damaged lines accidentally.

Aggressive animals, snakes and marine life may pose a hazard if you are not alert for their presence. It is common for animals to be aggressive after a major storm; they are scared and confused, often displaced from their natural habitat and likely to strike.

Physical safety and security. Law enforcement resources are stretched beyond capacity during the initial phase of any natural disaster, which leads to an increase in theft and vandalism. Be alert for this type of activity, especially when working alone in remote neighborhoods.

Bring your own food and be prepared for limited supplies of fuel. I advise also bringing extra fuel filters and service equipment so that you can quickly repair your truck should you encounter water-contaminated fuel. Bottled water and other non-perishable food is easy to carry in the truck with you. I suggest being prepared for several days should you become stranded somewhere remote.

Waterlogged vehicles pose health hazards even after they have been drained of floodwaters. Mold and bacterial contamination grow quickly, becoming inhalation hazards. Take precaution to limit your exposure to the interior of these vehicles.

Flooded vehicles may have compromised safety systems. Even if they appear to be normal I advise against attempting to start them, as the supplemental restraint system, braking system and even the accelerator control system (gas pedal) may be compromised and could cause injury or death due to unexpected or unusual response.

Although the battery systems of electric vehicles are designed to remain safe from electrocution hazards when submerged, nothing is fail-safe. Always assume it is energized until proven otherwise; however do not attempt to disconnect the battery while still submerged. The presence of bubbling or fizzing from the battery compartment of electric vehicles is normal: it indicates the battery is not completely discharged. This process produces flammable gas and ventilation is recommended. Store these vehicles outdoors and away from all other vehicles, there is a possibility for them to catch fire are drying out due to short circuits, especially when exposed to salt water contamination.

There may also be communication issues. Cellphone service is likely to be disrupted when there are widespread power failures and fuel shortages. Two-way radio systems may be subject to interference from other local users since the licensing for those systems assume that users will remain local to their base location.

There are also legal issues to contend with. Depending on who requested your response, you may have some relief from state or federal motor carrier regulations. On Sept. 10, the FMCSA issued an emergency declaration of relief from some provisions of their regulations for motor carriers directly assisting in the emergency response.

This declaration does not supersede state-level licensing requirements nor does it apply to simple vehicle salvage operations such as transportation to salvage pool storage lots. The intent is to allow for unrestricted flow of emergency relief supplies such as food, water, fuel, generators, medical supplies and such.

If you are working at the request of a state, federal or local agency to clear the highway or assist with rescue efforts then you likely can use this emergency exemption. If you are only removing damaged vehicles from private property after an insurance company has declared them a loss, then you are still fully subject to all regulations including hours of service and state operating authorities, permits and licensing.

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