EVERETT — Trucks and cars whizzed by at highway speeds just feet from Ken Buretta’s workspace. Unfazed, the Incident Response Team crew member nimbly replaced a damaged tire on the shoulder of I-5 in less than five minutes, getting the driver back on the road.
He was about to end his shift when he heard a call over the radio about a stranded driver in south Everett with a blown tire. She had a spare, but the freeway is an especially dangerous and daunting place to change a flat.
“We’re like a NASCAR pit stop,” Buretta said. “We get ourselves out of harm’s way — and them too — as quickly as possible.”
The Washington State Department of Transportation launched its first incident-response teams in the 1960s, according to Jim Danninger, WSDOT’s traffic maintenance superintendent. These crews were initially tasked with removing disabled vehicles on the I-90 and Highway 520 bridges. With little to no shoulders, getting these cars off the corridors as quickly as possible was essential to keep traffic flowing.
The program expanded in the mid-90s when I-5 and I-405 started to lose shoulder space. The Incident Response Team has since grown to dozens of drivers, who monitor state roads around major cities. In 2018, crews responded to more than 60,000 incidents across the state, Danninger said. On average, scenes are cleared in about 13 minutes, according to a WSDOT report.
“Without the program it would be hard to get anywhere,” Danninger said. “The roads would be more clogged than they are already.”
Team members assist at accidents — directing traffic — but also remove debris from the roadway and aid drivers by changing out a faulty spark plug or supplying a gallon of gas.
These things are something a state trooper can do, but the Incident Response Team is an extra set of eyes on the roadway, said trooper Heather Axtman of the Washington State Patrol.
Crews work closely with state troopers.
“That cooperation took a little while to figure out,” said Mark Dunkin, a member of the Incident Response Team in Snohomish County, which launched in 2002.
“Everyone wants to be in charge at a scene,” he said, “but things work better when we work together.”
The early shift
For Buretta, a supervisor who’s often away from his desk, it’s a personal challenge to clear the roadway as quickly as possible.
“Push, pull or drag: We’re getting the road open,” Buretta said. “Every 10 minutes a car is in the way causes a seven- to 10-minute backup. A fender-bender can cause a backup for miles.”
Buretta leaves his home in the city of Snohomish before the sun rises to monitor the morning commute.
He’s one of three out in the early hours overseeing the state roads in the county. Another team takes over for the evening rush. With no incident to manage on a clear morning in late March, Buretta settled in near the U.S. 2 trestle.
Pink streaks of light streamed through the sky bringing daybreak when his first call came over the radio. A semitruck, likely going too fast, left the road near Marysville on I-5. It was now sitting in a trench.
“Traffic came to a stop and they probably had to ditch it to not hit someone,” Buretta surmised, approaching the incident.
A crew from a local towing company and the state patrol was already on scene when he arrived.
With things under control, Buretta left after about 40 minutes. He was asked to return a short time later when troopers decided a lane needed to be closed to free the stuck semitruck.
Activating his traffic arrow sign atop his pickup, he jumped out. Buretta placed orange safety cones in the far-right lane, never turning his back to traffic speeding by.
The disabled rig was pulled onto solid ground, and he quickly gathered the cones.
“Ready to play again,” Buretta said, getting back into his vehicle as the semitruck continued down the highway.
Next he came across a car stalled on the side of the freeway. Again, in just a few minutes the car merged back into traffic after Buretta installed a new spark plug.
“Another happy customer,” he said, his smile never leaving his face.
From the bizarre to the dangerous
After rush hour, calls usually slow, but Buretta said incidents can easily accumulate as cars are able to travel faster.
“I love my job. There’s a lot of people who need assistance,” he said. “I get to be a good Samaritan every day.”
His day doesn’t always go as smoothly as it did on that shift last month. On the slow days, the hours can drag by. And there is also the bizarre; like when Buretta was called to help clean up more than 13 million honeybees that had spilled out onto I-5.
“It was chaotic, all these nervous bees,” he said.
The ones whose hives had broken were landing on people, Buretta added. He walked away with only one sting.
On Thanksgiving Day in 2016 Buretta wasn’t as lucky. He was sideswiped by a car as he was about to get out of his truck to help a stranded motorist. It took months for him to recover.
“I’ve been fighting migraines ever since. When I concentrate, it hurts,” Buretta said. “Give us a little bit of wiggle room. Most people don’t have a truck going by their desk at 60 mph. Give us some room, please.”
Often the only protection for team members is a 4-inch painted line.
Though each collision or spill has its own set of problems, Buretta tries to plan his approach before arriving.
“We get to play MacGyver. Rolling up to scenes, I have to figure out how to get vehicles to a safe place,” Buretta said. “You got to calculate risks and do what you can to mitigate them.”
There’s an accident … what should I do?
• Dial 911 if debris is in the roadway, your vehicle becomes disabled or you are involved in a collision.
• If possible, get to the shoulder. The safest place to wait is in your car with your safety belt secured.