(On Nov. 5, 2018, KnoxTNToday.com published its first “Our Town Heroes” story introducing you to those who are first responders in the emergency services profession. Today is our 230th “Hero” story and our first about those inside the Tennessee Department of Transportation HELP trucks. – The Editor)
It’s dangerous work. Not for the faint of heart. It can be traumatic. And … we don’t need ’em ’til we need ’em.
We all spend time – sometimes more than we prefer – driving or stuck on local interstates. And we all see those ubiquitous lime-yellow HELP trucks day and night from the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) patrolling, waiting, watching or doing what they do best – helping.
Today’s Our Town Hero is David Wortham, 52, a Gibbs guy right down to the ground. For 24 of the program’s 25 years, he has managed day-to-day operations of the Region 1 HELP Incident Response team. As highway response supervisor, he is part of the 16-person team working out of TDOT’s Strawberry Plains Pike Region 1 offices.
It is a job he loves and enjoys. “There is a great satisfaction in helping people in a moment of need,” he said. “While car trouble isn’t on the level of other emergencies, it is very upsetting, especially on the highway or far from home.”
But “car trouble” is only part of what Wortham and his team deal with daily (5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Friday; and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends). If they are needed and requested by the Tennessee Highway Patrol to stay and help with traffic control at a serious wreck they do, all night if so needed.
“Our primary mission is to try and maintain open travel lanes and clear up any congestion that we can,” Wortham explains.
HELP units cover the highways and interstates here and in Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis.
He breaks down their assistance calls into three groups:
- Clearing debris on the road in the travel lanes – pieces of tire tread mostly from 18-wheelers and the shredded tread they leave behind; anything metal left from vehicle accidents; ladders that fall off trucks; and any other debris. This clearing work, he says, is the most dangerous job.
- Disabled vehicles stopped on the side of the road with flat tires, out of fuel, minor repairs like something being dragged under their vehicle and dead batteries. “We can do minor repairs and jump start them, but we do not do any repair work under the hoods,” he said.
- Vehicle crashes, from minor fender benders or rear-end wrecks up to major accident-crash incidents with injuries and fatalities. At many of those accident scenes HELP trucks may arrive before the emergency fire response engines, law enforcement or ambulances.
When it comes to the dangers of clearing debris, Wortham has a personal experience. “One time I saw some debris on I-640 and waited for the traffic to clear. I ran out and picked it up and started running back to my truck,” he recalls. “As I got closer to the truck a car flew past between me and my truck. I never saw it coming. He missed me by about six feet.”
During his years on the road, he’d had his share of arriving first at an accident with people with major injuries or who had died. “It’s traumatic. About 95% of what we respond to are minor accidents with no injuries. The rest can be bad with people critically injured,” he said. “It’s unnerving to see people suffering, but it happens.”
HELP trucks carry emergency medical equipment, traffic cones, traffic control signs, absorbent material, plus emergency and work lights. They also carry gasoline, diesel fuel and water.
“Once we’re all there on a major accident we work fast to set up a safe work zone for emergency units so they can do what they need to do,” he explained. “We work closely with the towing companies and when it’s over we sweep and clean any debris or fluids on the road.”
The job is stressful every day, and David and the family relax on Fort Loudon Lake. Wife Suzanne styles hair and they have two boys. Jacob is 29. He graduated from UT’s law school last week, takes the bar in July, is getting married in August and begins his new job at a Nashville law firm in September. Joel is 21 and in his third year at the University of Tennessee studying architecture.
Here are some things to know:
- How busy are these HELP trucks? Between May 1, 2022, and April 30, 2023, they responded to 18,682 calls (stops) and their busiest day is Thursday.
- HELP trucks are official emergency vehicles. You should always yield to a HELP truck. HELP trucks make frequent stops, so be especially careful to keep a safe following distance.
- HELP services are provided without charge.
- HELP operators do not accept tips.
- Thanksgiving traffic is the worst.
Wortham says drunk drivers are the major problem and a close second are the distracted drivers on their cell phones. “I’d guess that 95 of 100 drivers use their cell phones while driving and it’s dangerous.”
New hires undergo 8-10 weeks of training and 75% of that is on-the-job training. TDOT also utilizes the four-hour National Traffic Incident Management Responder Training course that teaches every responder how to safely and quickly clear traffic incidents.
Wortham says he is constantly preaching the dangers of complacency on the job. “When you start doing this every day you can get complacent and we beg people not to get used to this work. You don’t think about how dangerous it is sometimes and that’s when it’s dangerous.”
Every now and then something happens that’s a little funny. Wortham shared this one. “We had a guy in a red Ford Ranger run out of gas and he was against the median barrier. He actually called 911 and asked for help, and they transferred him to us. We sent a truck and had him on his way in about 5-10 minutes. Less than an hour later, we were told to be on the look out for a red Ford Ranger with a male driver. He had just robbed a bank, so we had inadvertently assisted his getaway.”
Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia. If you have someone you think we should consider, please email me at the link with my name.