State Department of Transportation honors first responders

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Jake Magee
Wednesday, November 15, 2017

EDGERTON—Gary Wedel vividly remembers the day he suffered burns and other injuries while working on the Interstate.

Wedel, who's been a tow truck operator for 40 years, was hooking up a vehicle on Interstate 90/39 when a truck with a trailer full of gas tanks sideswiped the vehicle.

"Everything blew up and burned," Wedel said.

Wedel was among many area first responders invited to a state Department of Transportation event honoring emergency crews for their work. The department gave responders a free lunch, had a small presentation thanking them and displayed emergency vehicles and equipment.

While tow truck operators aren't typically thought of as first responders in emergencies, they're sometimes called on for help. Last week, a fire department called Wedel's towing service, Dewey's Towing and Recovery, to help lift a semitrailer truck that had fallen on a vehicle and trapped a driver inside on Highway 14, he said.

"It can be hell," Wedel said of working on the Interstate. "Cars flying by you as fast as they can go -- 60, 70 miles an hour."

Wedel's son is a tow truck driver, too, and Wedel's wife, Jean Rogers-Wedel, said worrying about her family can keep her up at night.

"She doesn't sleep when we're out working," Wedel said.

Adding to the complication of responding to Interstate emergencies is construction underway between Beloit and Madison. Lack of shoulder access and extra traffic congestion make responding more difficult, said Bill Ruchti, deputy chief of the Janesville Fire Department.

"As soon as you narrow the area that traffic can pull over and move over for you, it becomes very challenging for us," he said.

Interstate construction is one of the reasons the fire department recently bought a pickup truck fitted with extrication equipment. In situations where traffic is too congested for a fire engine to pass, Ruchti hopes the pickup will be able to squeeze by and start helping victims, he said.

Department of Transportation Deputy Administrator Dewayne Johnson said there's nearly one crash every five minutes in Wisconsin. He urged drivers to slow down, move over and focus on the road when passing the scene of an accident. Oftentimes, one accident becomes two as drivers are distracted by the scene of the first crash, officials said.

Federal Highway Administration Division Administrator Michael Davies said 13 percent of emergency responders who die on the job die in traffic accidents. It takes a partnership between industries, state and local governments and regular motorists to keep the transportation system safe, he said.

During a speech at the event, Rep. Don Vruwink shared his own experience with first responders and thanked them for their work.

Last year, Vruwink was the first person on the scene of a crash. One of the victims called out to him for help, and another was unconscious. Vruwink was relieved when first responders arrived and took over, he said.

"I'm thinking, 'How can you guys do this every day, respond to these situations?'" he said. "I can't appreciate enough all the work police officers, firefighters, first responders do."

He also talked about the time in college he got into a car accident of his own after falling asleep at the wheel.

"I remember when the first responders got to me how careful they were with me," he said.

Sen. Janis Ringhand, also at the event, said more than 1,800 crashes were reported on I-90/39 from the state line to Madison between 2012 and 2015. In those crashes, 591 people were injured, and 11 were killed, she said.

"This new, expanded and redesigned corridor should be safer for our people who travel through here and our first responders," she said.

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