It was about 9:30 on a Tuesday morning, and Brian Farrar was sprinting down Interstate 5 in Lakewood with a wooden post over his shoulder.
Felon? Crazy man?
No, Farrar is a member of the state Department of Transportation’s Incident Response Team, a group of folks who patrol the state’s highways in search of broken-down cars, road debris or other hazards blocking traffic.
On this sunny morning, Farrar was retrieving the post from the southbound freeway lanes just north of the Bridgeport overpass.
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One motorist already had hit the beam and was pulled off on the shoulder with two flat tires.
After Farrar and colleague Kathy Vatter stopped traffic with their green-and-white trucks, Farrar hopped out, scooped up the post and ran back to this rig, stowing the chunk of wood in the bed.
Then he was back inside, heading south looking for more trouble.
“The goal is to clear back-ups in 90 minutes or less,” Farrar said.
That operation took about 90 seconds.
Stared in 1991, the statewide IRT program employs about 80 trained drivers operating out of 62 vehicles, according to a December 2015 report prepared by the Transportation Department.
The biennial budget for the program is $9 million.
Between October and December 2015, IRT drivers responded to 12,756 incidents on 493 miles of the state’s busiest roads, including I-5 and Interstate 205 near Vancouver, Washington.
That’s up from 10,782 incidents during the same time in 2014.
“Increases in traffic combined with record wet weather during the quarter likely led to the jump in the number of incidents,” according to the Transportation Department.
Six IRT drivers patrol state highways in Pierce and Thurston counties, and another driver is to join the rotation in July, said Vatter, who’s worked IRT in Pierce County for 23 years.
They rove from the King-Pierce county line in the north to the Tumwater area in the south.
Vatter said she drives between 25,000 and 30,000 miles annually for work. She also is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in case the Washington State Patrol requests help with a major incident of some variety.
“I didn’t know if I was going to like that, but I love it,” said Vatter, who lives in Lakewood.
It feels like you’re making a difference.
IRT driver Brian Farrar
So does Farrar, who resides in Lacey.
“Whenever a driver gets some gas or water or a tire change or a push off the freeway, they’re really grateful,” he said. “It feels like you’re making a difference.”
The Transportation Department reports the program also provided an economic benefit to the state to the tune of $21.9 million during the fourth quarter of 2015.
“These benefits are provided in two ways,” according to a department report. “First, by clearing incidents quickly, WSDOT reduces the time and fuel motorists waste in incident-induced traffic delay.
“Second, by proactively managing traffic at incident scenes, WSDOT helps prevent secondary incidents.”
Farrar pointed out that drivers who are determined to have caused a crash can be billed for the response team’s time and any damage to state property.
State Patrol spokesman Kyle Moore said the IRT program helps troopers by doing some of the grunt work required to keep the roads safe for the traveling public, such as changing a flat tire or removing debris from the freeway.
“They’re another tool in the tool belt,” he said. “In places where there is no IRT program, troopers have to do all that work themselves.”
The Transportation Department estimates that four to 10 minutes of traffic congestion (depending on traffic volume) can result from every minute a lane remains blocked.
“So incidents must be detected and cleared as fast as possible to minimize the impact on congestion, especially during peak periods,” the department says on its website.
“The average Washington motorist spends two weeks of every year stuck in traffic, so it’s easy to see why the Incident Response Team (IRT) serves a crucial role in keeping Washington moving.”
DOT’s Mike Evans said there are plans to expand the program by 10 drivers in the Puget Sound region.
“The future looks bright for the IRT program due to the success in congestion management,” he said.
Ready for anything
Vatter refers to her Ford F450 as “my office.”
The big truck carries a laptop, printer, coffee maker, microwave and radios that allow her to communicate to Transportation dispatch and the State Patrol.
“I rarely go into the office anymore,” she said.
The specially constructed bed cap has a variable message board on top to display warnings to motorists.
Inside the cab are 30 traffic cones, warning signs, a chain saw, a leaf blower, tow straps, fuel canisters, water tanks, various hand tools and a broom.
Vatter’s rig, which sports a rear license-plate frame emblazoned with “Lassie, Transportation 381,” also has a 100-gallon tank, so she can siphon fuel from a disabled vehicle.
25,000-30,000 Number of miles driven annually by IRT driver Kathy Vatter
“We’re ready for just about anything we encounter,” she said.
The IRT crew working Pierce and Thurston counties sees a lot of interesting things.
Farrar said he’s shooed cows off the road and once drove under a Joint Base Lewis-McChord helicopter that had gotten lost in the fog and was using I-5 as a guide home.
Most days, though, there are flat tires, overheated engines and fender-benders.
Tuesday morning was typical.
About an hour before Farrar made his mad dash with the post, Vatter stopped to help a 20-something woman with a flat tire on I-5.
Using a floor jack and cordless power wrench, Vatter made quick work of changing the tire and sent the woman on her way.
Vatter had some advice for drivers who find themselves with a flat on the freeway.
“If there’s rubber on the trim, drive your car off the roadway,” she said. “Your life is not worth the price of a tire. Safety is No. 1, for ourselves, our responders and the people involved in the collisions.”
IRT responses in Pierce and Thurston counties by year
Source: State Department of Transportation