Valiantly patrolling the city's freeways, "Baywatch Trucks" remain ever-vigilant for distressed motorists.
By Mike Gibson
FEBRUARY 14, 2000: Carol Seaver says she never heard the tell-tale "pop," the vehement exhalation of a steel-belted radial in the throes of mortality. Just an odd ticking sound, followed by an increasingly bumpy ride.
Seaver pulled her aging gray Buick off to the side of I-40 East at the Cherry Street exit and called AAA via cell phone. The service couldn't guarantee a quick response, however, and Seaver had just settled in for what promised to be a long, cold wait on a frigid late January afternoon, when a friendly fellow in a yellow maintenance truck pulled in behind her and offered to change the flatfree of charge.
Seaver's tire is like a wartime relic, a ravaged pinwheel of disenfranchised rubber strips and steel shards coiled at odd angles, sticking out like stray springs on a discarded mattress. But in mere minutes, Ed Stooksbury has the Buick propped on a portable red hydraulic jack, the afflicted radial removed, and a diminutive "doughnut" spare mounted and secured snugly in its place.
Stooksbury finishes and sends the obviously grateful Seaver on her way, then gets back in the truck to continue his route, an inexorable circling of the 640-to-I-40-East Asheville Highway exit loop.
Stooksbury, bespectacled and modestly bearded in his mid-thirties, is a highway response supervisor for the Tennessee Department of Transportation's Highway Incident Management team. Currently stationed only in Knoxville and Nashville, the teams are part of a fledgling program to provide motorists in the state's major urban areas with mobile response to a host of highway ills.
"No one really knows what we do," Stooksbury laughs. "They call these trucks the 'Baywatch' trucks."
What they actually do, says Stooksbury, is a little bit of everything; Stooksbury's supervisor truck and the bulkier yellow responders driven by most of the unit's nine members are equipped with "a Heinz-57 assortment" of tools, gas, antifreeze, water, engine oil, fire extinguishers, first responder medical kits, oxygen, fuses, batteries, clamps, jumper cables, flares, highway cones, light checkers, dry sweep to absorb diesel spills...
"Incident management is the new kid on the block in emergency response," says Stooksbury. Most team members are veterans of police, fire, or EMS; Stooksbury is a former emergency medical technician and a reserve member of the Knox County Sheriff's Department. Born in East Tennessee, he worked three years in St. Petersburg, Fla., EMS before returning home and taking the reins of the fledgling local TDOT response team.
Training for the program, which was inaugurated hereabouts in July, includes first responder medical certification. Besides the occasional roadside medical emergency, one of the squad's more vital services is to set up "safe" zones for other emergency vehicles at accident scenes. "It's one of our main missions," says Stooksbury, "keeping the road clear for the other responders. We've got orange highway cones and flashing directional arrows mounted on top of the trucks."
The team's most common responses are more mundane, howeverchanging flats and providing red-faced, gasless motorists with a splash of fuel. "That, and we give out lots of directions," says Rodney "Sarge" Holbert, a burly former military man now boasting 15 years in state employ. "Everyone wants to know how to get to exit 407 or Highway 81."
Serious incidents are surprisingly rare, says Holbert. "Lots of people expect that we must see lots of fatalities, but I don't know that we've seen one since we started last summer."
Nonetheless, both Holbert and Stooksbury have in recent weeks pulled in behind "beached" vehicles to discover the drivers in the midst of cardiac arrest. At a Lovell Road-area mishap, Stooksbury discovered a drunken pedestrian who had fallen from an interstate overpass into a cluster of bushes. His body limp and pliant, the inebriated foot soldier was found little the worse for wear.
Even more bizarrely, Stooksbury was present recently when a piece of a semi brake broke off and, in a Disneyfied chain of misadventure, dislodged a trailer hitch on another vehicle that veered across traffic and nearly wiped out half-a-dozen cars.
"On top of it all, the truck driver was Polish, so we were having a linguistic problem," says Stooksbury. "His dispatcher was trying to get him to leave the scene."
"We see lots of the same kinds of calls, but a few of them will catch you by surprise," says Holbert. He remembers an 18-wheeler stalled across two lanes of interstate traffic in the midst of an electrical storm. When a bolt of lightning struck the rig, which toted some 80,000 pounds of frozen cranberries, it lost power and was disabled completely.
Holbert was able to tow the monolith onto the shoulder and wait for a wrecker to show. "The load was okay," Holbert reassures. "There wasn't any spoilage or anything."
An afternoon on the road with Stooksbury and co. doesn't yield any frozen food follies or other bizarre happenstance, just a few blown tires, a minor fender bender or two, a smoking semi, and lots and lots of "wave-throughs"motorists who have pulled over to read a map or use a cell phone and simply wave their would-be rescuers on. Many answer, in now-standardized East Tennessee fashion, with an earnest grin and an exclamation of "'Preciate it."
"People are pretty friendly when they realize we're just here to help or check up on them," Stooksbury says. "We're not cops. We don't carry weapons. We're not out here to enforce anything."
Almost inadvertently, Holbert defuses a potentially explosive roadside scenario when he pulls in behind three cars and a tense-looking trio of motorists. The accident, involving a youth in ubiquitous low-slung britches and a sporty gray Mazda and a 40-ish woman in a blue Chrysler Cirrus, is apparently of relatively minor consequence until the third driver, a cranky fellow in a minivan, pulls over and begins doling out unsolicited advice.
"Both of the other two said he was very upset, and he had nothing to do with any of it," says Holbert, noting that the exacerbating party quickly departed at the hint of official response. "That's not uncommon, that someone else will come along to an accident scene and blow things out of proportion."
Stooksbury would like to see an increasingly proactive TDOT response unit in years to come, but right now funding is limited. The program patrols only the major highways around Knoxville and Nashville, with units in Memphis and Chattanooga set to roll out this spring.
The Knoxville station, located at the TDOT headquarters off Strawberry Plains Pike, circulates only four trucks during any given shift, and resources are inadequate to provide overnight service or to keep a sufficient number of trucks functional during heavy snows.
"We're slowly expanding our response capabilities," says Stooksbury. "There's room to improve, but we're still way ahead of most states. As awareness of our service increases, it will become more of a priority."
That awareness has already begun to spread in, um, some rather unique ways. It seems that a Nashville newspaper profiled that city's incident management unit and quoted a team member who claimed that certain female motorists responded more...zealously than others upon noting the approach of the 'Baywatch' lookalikes.
"That quote caught on and for the first month in Nashville, women were baring their breasts for the operators," Stooksbury cackles. "They would ride up to the trucks and pull up their shirts. It's a trend we've considered trying to start in Knoxville, too."
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