First responders face challenges on 26

Date Published: 
July 18, 2014

During road construction, drivers can wait in traffic for a minute or 10. But what about fire trucks and ambulances that don’t have a minute to spare?

Continuing until at least the summer of 2016, the State Route 26 Mainline Improvement Project will sometimes close lanes of traffic between Clarksville and Ocean View. But, at the beginning of road closures this year, the Route 26 project team and emergency responders made plans for the construction period.

To improve response time, Millville Volunteer Fire Company Fire Chief Doug Scott recently requested volunteers stay at the firehouse Monday to Thursday nights “so we can at least get that first truck on the road after 7 [p.m.]” It’s not guaranteed, but could help in the busy season, with road closures only allowed overnight until 6 a.m. (Daytime road closures will resume in October.)

Fire trucks are used to zipping down Route 26, so what happens when flaggers are only releasing one lane of traffic at a time?

Fire police manage traffic during an incident, so several of Millville’s fire police have been assigned to communicate with the on-duty supervisor of the flaggers.

There is a radio channel dedicated for that, said Scott. They might say, “House fire in Ocean View. Expect apparatus headed east.”

Then, individual flaggers are notified on their own radios in the field. They’re responsible for moving traffic in favor of the ambulance or fire truck.

But that’s not the only concern. Volunteers must reach the station, too, so traffic needs to hurry in both directions.

“You can sit there for a long time,” Scott said. “If they don’t recognize our guys, we can have some issues.”

That’s just for one fire company. “It gets extremely complicated” on a multiple-alarm fire, Scott said. For example, a fire in the Bay Colony community, north of Millville, might also draw trucks from Frankford and Dagsboro, plus a ladder truck borrowed from Bethany Beach.

“We could have people coming in multiple directions,” trying to reach their respective fire houses, then shuttling off to the incident. That could be a recipe for traffic tangles, but it’s getting smoother.

“They’re getting to a point where they’re starting to recognize our cars,” Scott said of the flaggers, even if the firefighters don’t have a flashing dashboard light. “They’re working with us the best they can.”

“People need to be aware of their surroundings,” especially in construction zones, added Ken Cimino, AECOM’s on-site public outreach coordinator, at the July 15 emergency services meeting for the project.

The Delaware Department of Transportation hired AECOM as a construction management company for this 901-day project, which began in January. Tidewater Utilities is also simultaneously expanding sanitary sewer service from Old School Lane in Ocean View to Windmill Drive in Millville.

Currently, Route 26 is always at least partly open, but it will close in two spots from January to March of 2015, when small bridges get replaced near Lord Baltimore Elementary School and Millville Town Hall.

Before beginning the “Route 26 Mainline” project, DelDOT rehabilitated the “Route 26 Detours.” These State-owned roads are an alternative to Route 26 and were improved to be able to handle the expected traffic from people avoiding the main road during construction.

“DelDOT owns 80 percent of the roads, mostly primary and secondary,” Cimino said. Those roads get State maintenance and become designated detour routes.

But that doesn’t mean people will use them.

“All detour routes are signed. But people will use what they want,” Cimino said. “It’s human nature. The shortest distance between two roads is the distance they’re gonna take — nothing you can do about it.”

As happened during the springtime closure of the Central Avenue intersection with Route 26, DelDOT posts a recommended detour, but that can’t stop people from using any number of back roads.

That includes the fire department. The Millville Volunteer Fire Company will take the fastest route to an emergency, Scott warned. That definitely includes tiny Dukes Drive, which some fear could be torn apart by three months of icy weather and emergency travel.

“What is the chance of paving [Dukes Drive]?” Scott asked.

“None,” Cimino said, especially after the State completed the $10 million detour upgrades project. “It’s narrow. It’s residential. You don’t want to send big trucks down there” as a mandated detour.

“We can take another way, but it’s minutes it’s costing us,” Scott said. “Maybe my job is to knock on doors” and tell local residents what to expect, he added.

“Is there any discretionary money to fix the road before we tear it up?” Scott asked state Sen. Gerald Hocker and state Rep. Ron Gray.

“Yeah,” Hocker said slowly. “But you can’t spend it twice,” he said, adding that it’s better spent afterward, to repair what damage is done.

Looking at traffic

Unfortunately for motorists, many of the project-area intersections are losing smooth transitions during construction. Typically, intersections have a detector that senses when a vehicle is waiting. A car pulls forward to the red light, and the traffic signal knows to proceed to turn green, while switching to red for other traffic.

But for the construction period, the DelDOT Traffic Management Center switched signals to a “fixed-time” system, which gives each crossroad a specific amount of time on green, even if no car is waiting.

Hocker noted that Route 26 traffic was horrendous on Independence Day weekend because of the right-turn lane at Fred Hudson Road.

Despite that heavy traffic, the MVFC didn’t have too many calls, Scott said.

But DelDOT is adding Bluetooth technology throughout Sussex County, including from Central Avenue to Route 1, that will help measure travel times.

“Most new cars have Bluetooth, and most people don’t know how to turn it off,” said TMC’s Gene Donaldson. “We don’t know who owns it or anything.”

With the measuring system, TMC reads the Bluetooth signal and assigns it a number, then measures the route and time to the next destination.

“We can tell what the [traffic] volume was at any minute in the last couple years,” Donaldson said.

If there are traffic signal problems, Donaldson encouraged people to speak up.

“We don’t always know. Please call us,” said Donaldson. “It’s really a two-way conversation. Don’t assume we know things,” although he said they know most of what’s happening with the project area.

Drivers are being encouraged to contact the 24-hour TMC hotline at (302) 659-4600 (or dial #77 on Delaware cell phones). Radio alerts about known traffic problems are broadcast on 1380 AM, to help drivers avoid snarls. Additionally, the DelDOT mobile phone app links to all Delaware traffic cameras, travel times and radio alerts.

Excavation is continuing for stormwater management ponds being created along Route 26. Construction is progressing away from the Food Lion and Giant shopping centers, toward new drainage pipes at Woodland Avenue and Railway Road.

Soon, curbs and gutters will be placed at Old Mill Road, Cedar Neck Drive and Central Avenue, and motorists can envision the future expansion of the roadway, as typically the empty swaths of grass are footprints of the new road.

Mediacom is done with relocating its wires along the construction area, and Delmarva Power is finishing with its own utility relocations.

DelDOT is also keeping an eye on the effectiveness of the work schedule. Traffic management will review the Route 26 project in late July. Considering hours, traffic volume and project team concerns, they might make recommendations for shifting work hours. However, any schedule changes — even if approved by contractor George & Lynch — probably wouldn’t occur until next year, since summer is half over.

Residents and businesses are being encouraged to contact Ken Cimino anytime with questions or concerns at (302) 616-2621, or through email at Kenneth.cimino@aecom.com or at 17 Atlantic Avenue, Suite 2, in Ocean View.

The next emergency services meeting will be in September, to review summer work and discuss autumn concerns.