Getting nowhere fast

An engine sounds its siren as it pulls out of the Cannon Street fire station Thursday.

A firetruck waits to get out of a downtown Charleston station, siren blaring and lights flashing, while a driver sits oblivious in her car, blocking the truck while she motions for pedestrians to cross in front of her on Cannon Street.

A crew can’t get out of a fire station in North Charleston because traffic on Remount Road is backed up from Rivers Avenue.

A driver near the Charleston medical complex won’t get out of the way of an ambulance. Finally, a police officer sees what’s going on and pulls him over for a ticket.

Another ambulance driver is sounding the siren to try to get drivers to move over. One driver not only won’t move, he puts his hands over his ears to block out the noise.

These are a few of the scenarios emergency crews in the Charleston area deal with every day. They say sometimes it’s because drivers don’t know what they’re supposed to do when they hear a siren, other times it’s because traffic has gotten so bad there’s simply no way motorists can get out of the way, and sometimes drivers just don’t seem to care.

Handling a firetruck in downtown Charleston is never easy, with the historic city’s narrow streets and ever-increasing traffic.

Getting out of the station on Cannon Street can be a particular challenge, especially with road crews working to make it a two-way street. It can sometimes take a half-hour to go less than a mile between the West Ashley bridge and King Street.

The incident with the driver who wouldn’t get out of the way happened about 5:15 p.m. May 21. Engine 106 was delayed about two minutes responding to the call, Chief Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh said. Fortunately, the delay didn’t hurt anybody. The crew was called to assist EMS, and medics got to the scene first.

Julazadeh was not immediately able to say how much the construction has slowed down response times in general.

Battalion Chief Richard Williams has been stationed on Cannon Street since 2004. He doesn’t think drivers are less willing to move over but they often are unable to because of the traffic.

“The congestion in the upper King Street area has exponentially increased in the last four or five years,” he said. “It’s hard to move around. Really and truly, they will be in a situation where there’s nowhere for them to go due to congestion.”

The Cannon Street station has been there for decades, and there are no plans to move it.

North Charleston is considering moving the station on Remount Road.

Chief Greg Bulanow was stationed there in the mid-1990s, when the area was much less congested. Now trucks often have a hard time getting out of the station.

“We experience that on a nearly daily basis,” he said.

Once a truck gets out and starts heading toward the scene, the crew never knows what to expect on the road, he said.

“Either the call goes very well and everyone seems to get out of the way or it’s just a battle where you’re constantly having to slow down because people won’t move over,” he said.

Some drivers pull to the left instead of the right, forcing the truck to go between them and drivers on the right. That can be dangerous.

“We don’t want to go down the middle of the road passing cars on both sides,” Bulanow said.

Bulanow said he doesn’t think most drivers are unwilling to cooperate but they are unaware of what’s going on around them, especially with cellphones.

“My sense would be that they’re more distracted,” he said. “Also with the increased congestion, maybe there’s a level of frustration and they’re in more of a hurry and not noticing their surroundings.”

Charleston Police Sgt. Matt Wojslawowicz was the one who ticketed the driver for not getting out of the way of the ambulance. It happened a few years ago when he was a patrolman. The driver told him he didn’t realize he was supposed to get out of the way.

“The problem, I think, from our standpoint is some people just don’t know,” Wojslawowicz said. “They get what I would call vapor lock. They see a police car coming and just don’t know what to do.”

Police have written 18 citations in the past five years for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle. The tickets were for violating state law 56-5-2360. It’s a 4-point penalty and a $237 fine.

The law says drivers on two-lane roads should pull over to the right and stop until the emergency vehicle has passed. On multilane roads, drivers should move out of the way but don’t have to stop.

Obviously not everybody is getting the message, even though it’s summarized on Page 88 of the S.C. driver’s manual. Some drivers simply slow down, while others move to the wrong side.

“One person will pull to right, one person will stay where they are, one person will pull to the left, and what they end up doing is blocking all available paths of travel,” Wojslawowicz said.

Of course, police also are required to be careful when they’re speeding to a scene. An officer who breezes through a red light and causes an accident would be held responsible.

“Certainly, all emergency drivers need to drive with due care and caution,” Wojslawowicz said. “But if it was your house that was being robbed, would you want the police department taking their time getting to the house?”

Ambulance drivers constantly fight drivers to pull over, and it seems to be getting worse, Charleston County EMS Director Don Lundy said.

“We have a constant problem of people not getting out of the way for emergency vehicles,” he said. “This is my 41st year and it has always been a problem, but in the past six to eight years it appears people are more ‘me’ oriented. It seems they don’t care if an ambulance or police car is hurrying to help someone because it isn’t them.”

Lundy recalled when he was at an intersection where all lanes were blocked by stopped cars.

“I got behind the inside-lane car and had my siren going, assuming they would pull ahead and over to the right,” he said. “Instead, the driver put his hands over his ears as if to muffle the sound.”

State law also requires drivers to slow down and stay clear of emergency personnel handling an accident on a roadside. Avoiding getting hit is a constant concern for state troopers.

“When emergency vehicles are on the side of the roadway, it is important for the passing motorist to switch over to another lane or slow their speed,” Highway Patrol Lance Cpl. Hannah Wimberly said. “It is hard for personnel to change a tire when they have vehicles passing less than a foot away from your back. As emergency personnel, we know how dangerous our jobs are and expect the unexpected, but getting run over by a vehicle can simply be avoided.”

State law 56-5-1538, also known as South Carolina’s “Move Over law,” requires drivers to slow down and move over a lane if possible when approaching an accident scene. Drivers who don’t slow down can be fined $500, more if they cause an accident.

The law also applies to fire, EMS and road crews and tow trucks.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.