In the best possible scenarios, emergency responders who rescue a driver from floodwaters look back a few years later and chuckle at the centenarian who was out to buy bananas in the middle of a hurricane. In the worst cases, they look back and remember the friend and colleague they lost in the raging currents while attempting to rescue a victim who shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
With soon-to-be-proposed legislation, representative Todd Stephens (R-151) hopes to curb the frequency of both those occurrences. Stephens' bill, called "Turn Around, Don't Drown," would impose a fine of $500 for driving around a barrier closing a road for hazardous conditions. It also calls for a 90-day license suspension if the driver's vehicle becomes disabled as a result of driving around a barricade.
"The goal here is to raise awareness," said Stephens. "If people are going to drive around a barrier and endanger first responders who would have to come and save them I think they need to pay a penalty for doing so."
Stephens is currently shopping an early version of the bill around Harrisburg in hopes of finding support and co-sponsors before hitting the floor.
Upper Dublin Township manager Paul Leonard, who was one of several public administrators that sat down with Stephens last year to talk about emergency response concerns, says the "Turn Around, Don't Drown" language comes from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) initiative that he and his staff have been promoting for years.
"It's been supported by numerous public safety agencies as an educational initiative to avoid tragedies," Leonard said.
Leonard says that Upper Dublin and surrounding communities have witnessed a number of tragedies in recent years. A 51-year-old woman was killed in Worcester last year, a man drowned in Whitemarsh last September, and a number of "close calls" occurred in Upper Moreland and other communities during the heavy rains last fall, Leonard said.
In addition to residents, Leonard hopes the bill would save the lives of first responders who are called to the scene. Leonard recalled an instance in Princeton, New Jersey when two responders were sent to check on a vehicle that had been abandoned by its operator. The responders realized that the water was too deep and that the vehicle was empty, but one was swept away in the current and drowned upon trying to return to safety.
"We've seen people move barricades; drive around them," Leonard said. "When we talk to people that were rescued, routinely we find out that they were on some mundane task that could have waited. [They say] 'I'm returning a video, or I had to go to the store to buy something.'"
Area fire chiefs also voiced support for Stephens' legislation.
"Their ignorance is putting the lives of emergency responders in jeopardy," said Perkiomen Township fire chief John Moran. "You can't fix stupid, but at least the authorities can fine them for it."
Eric Clauson, chief of the Fort Washington Fire Company, said residents often underestimate floodwaters.
"In many of these instances, individuals have driven around barriers or used poor judgment because they did not feel the water was deep," said Clauson, who added that the company performed over 36 water rescues last fall. "Water rescues are serious business. The power of moving water should not be underestimated."
While Norristown Fire Chief Thomas O'Donnell expressed his support for the bill, he suggested more could be done to prevent the situations in the first place.
"Outside of penalizing idiots for driving around barricades, I think that government also needs to put money towards preventing that from occurring," said O'Donnell. "Providing funds to put up actual gates that block the roads that are prone to flooding."
Norristown firefighter Captain Robert Spitko was honored with an award for valor from Norristown Municipal Council for his rescue of a woman from swift-moving floodwaters in Stony Creek during Hurricane Irene (that woman had not driven around any barrier, however.) Spitko will be honored again next week in Harrisburg by the governor during his budget address, scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 7 at 11:30
"People know that fire is going to kill them," said O'Donnell. "They think a pond of water, they can just drive through it. There are some missions that are not viable for us... I'm not in the business of sending my guys out on suicide missions."
While the current version of the bill doesn't provide funds for more permanent barriers, Stephens expressed a willingness to work with local authorities on the issue.
"There's always room for discussion on amendments," said Stephens. "I'm always interested in ways to help our first responders. We're in challenging budgetary times, but our first responders and emergency preparedness need to be a priority."
As it currently stands, residents can only be cited for driving around barriers under miscellaneous traffic violations, with tickets rarely topping $150. Officials hope that the education the bill creates, and not necessarily the fear of penalties, will help with prevention.
"Enforcement is important, but public education is equally important," said Clauson. "In many circumstances, we experience flash flooding in such a rapid fashion that getting barriers to all locations is not possible."