TALLAHASSEE, Florida -- A Florida Highway Patrol sergeant expressed concerns about reopening an interstate highway shortly before two massive crashes that killed 11 people.
A report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement says the FHP erred in reopening fog- and smoke-shrouded Interstate 75 shortly before the crash in January.
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The FDKE report, though, said there were no criminal violations.
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At least a dozen cars and pickup trucks, six semi-trailer trucks and a motorhome collided in north Florida near Gainesville. Some vehicles burst into flames, making it difficult to identify the victims.
CURRENT TRAFFIC CONDITIONS
The highway was blanketed with smoke from a wildfire as well as fog.
The report also makes recommendations officials decide whether to change protocols for determining when to shut down and reopen highways. What follows if the executive summary from the FDLE report.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY FROM THE FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF LAW ENFORCEMENT REPORT
You can read the entire report here
During the early morning hours of January 29, 2012, eleven fatalities and six traffic crashes occurred on Interstate 75 in Alachua County, Florida.
The crashes were the result of poor visibility in Paynes Prairie, a low-lying section of the interstate, south of Gainesville. Governor Rick Scott directed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) conduct an investigation into the events which led to the fatal crashes and evaluate the protocols of involved government agencies. FDLE evaluated the protocols of agencies involved in the events of January 28-29, 2012.
FDLE also conducted an analysis of hundreds of hours of radio dispatch recordings, telephone recordings, Computer Aided Dispatch records, and audio/video recordings of the events. FDLE conducted interviews of dozens of sworn and civilian witnesses, each of whom had information pertinent to the investigation.
After a thorough analysis of the above mentioned information, FDLE has developed several key findings regarding this event:
- The issue of the impact of smoke/fog on traffic safety was presented to the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) in 2008. However, after the fatal traffic crashes on Interstate 4 in Polk County, Florida, FHP failed to adequately create and implement effective guidelines for Troopers to follow when dealing with events related to limited visibility on public roadways. The specific changes to FHP's policies and procedures were limited, and subsequent training provided to command personnel was ineffective and poorly memorialized.
- During the evening of January 28, 2012, Troopers failed to adequately communicate critical information amongst themselves regarding the fire on Paynes Prairie. Specific information regarding the fire was provided by the Florida Forest Service to FHP's communications center in Jacksonville, Florida. However, detailed information regarding the potential limitation of visibility during the early morning hours was not documented and adequately relayed by FHP's communications center to Troopers in the field.
- The FHP was responsible for the decision to reopen Interstate 75 during the early morning hours of January 29, 2012. Specifically, the decision was made by FHP Lieutenant John January 2012 Interstate 75 Incident Review Gourley after his evaluation of conditions which, at the time, appeared to be favorable toward restoring the flow of traffic. All other government agencies who participated in the event, including the Florida Forest Service, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, acted in support of FHP's direction toward road closing and reopening activities.
- After the decision was made to reopen Interstate 75 on January 29, 2012, adequate resources were not dedicated to effectively monitor the environment, particularly when there was an apparent fear that limitation of visibility would likely reoccur. Approximately twenty minutes prior to the fatal crashes, FHP Trooper Steven Downing reported the existence of dense smoke on US 441, in Paynes Prairie, less than one mile east of Interstate 75. However, no immediate measures were taken by FHP to actively monitor the conditions on Interstate 75 in Paynes Prairie.
- On two occasions, prior to the reopening of Interstate 75, FHP Sergeant Bruce Simmons voiced concern to Lieutenant Gourley regarding the potential reoccurrence of poor visibility on Interstate 75. After the fatal crashes, Sergeant Simmons reiterated his concern to other law enforcement personnel. A subsequent memo written by FHP Captain Coby Fincher indicated Sergeant Simmons met with Captain Fincher, on January 31, and recanted his verbal disagreement with Lieutenant Gourley's decision. However, Sergeant Simmons advised Captain Fincher's memo was false and was not an accurate reflection of their meeting.
Based on the above findings, FDLE has developed three primary recommendations:
All FHP policy related to traffic control should be clearly documented under one section within the FHP Policy Manual. Rather than suggesting "guidelines," the policies should specify mandatory protocols to be followed during all incidents that affect traffic flow and roadway safety. In the creation of new policy, FHP should consider the following items:
- Policy should mandate adherence to specific steps to be taken to evaluate information which may be pertinent to decisions that can affect safety on the roadways.
- Policy should mandate interaction between FHP command personnel and other governmental technical experts whose subject matter expertise may help FHP make accurate, informed decisions regarding the closing and opening of roads.
- Policy should identify a clear level of command whose responsibility is to make decisions regarding the closing and opening of roads.
- Policy should dictate the dissemination of accurate information regarding fire incidents to all FHP members. Specifically, FHP troop personnel should have direct access to a list of all wildfire and prescribed burn incidents in the state each day. This information is critical to troop personnel when evaluating potential visibility problems on the state's roadways.Florida Department of Law Enforcement Page 3 April 2012
Florida's public roadway signage should be evaluated for its ability to appropriately warn travelers of conditions which may impact visibility on the roadways. Certain low-lying areas of the state, such as Paynes Prairie, are frequently subject to environmental conditions that may cause limitations in visibility. Implementation of an effective means of monitoring these areas, and forewarning travelers of adverse conditions could enhance safety on the roadways.
FHP should conduct an internal inquiry to clarify the conflict in sworn testimony provided by Sergeant Simmons and Captain Fincher regarding their meeting on January 31, 2012.
After careful evaluation of the facts, FDLE concludes that no member of the Florida Highway Patrol or other government agency acted with criminal intent when making decisions that impacted the events leading to the fatal crashes of January 29, 2012. Rather, agency personnel acted in a manner which they believed was appropriate and in the best interest of restoring the safe and orderly flow of traffic to the roadways.
FDLE's investigation has revealed the need for several changes to Florida's public roadway safety efforts. Immediate changes should be made to FHP protocol and an evaluation of the state's roadway signage and monitoring capabilities should occur.