Responsibility for emergency road closures needs clarification from state agencies

Michael Blackford
Pratt Tribune
Road closures, like this one earlier this year on U.S. Highway 54/400 west of Pratt, are often necessitated by accidents, and enforced sometimes by local, county and state authorities.

A meeting on July 13 at 1:30 between Pratt County first responders and the Kansas Department of Transportation at the Pratt LEC was attended by representatives of the Sheriff’s department, County Road department, Emergency Management, 911 Dispatch, EMS/Fire Rescue and KDOT. The meeting was to discuss the issue of emergency closure of state and federal roads.

Pratt county has had problems in the past with getting KDOT workers to respond quick enough to handle road closures because of emergencies that create a hazard to drivers, first responders, or victims in accidents or other issues. The authority to close state/federal roads rests with the Kansas Secretary of Transportation. Authority is set by Kansas statute 68-406, last revised 2014.

Leisa Mauch, KDOT Highway Maintenance Superintendent, explained after hours employees are guaranteed two hours of overtime each time they are called to cover an issue and that time begins at the time of the phone call requesting their help, not at the time they leave the shop. Employees must report to the shop before going to the location and the response time from county request to KDOT workers showing up will be about 60 minutes. Mauch requested that the county assess the situation and not request help if the road can be cleared within 30 minutes. Mauch shared the numbers of call outs requested by Pratt County versus surrounding counties in KDOT district five-area one and Pratt has more than everywhere else. She expressed concern that the last three resulted in a call out for two employees but before they could leave their houses Pratt County cancelled the request. This is the reason her office has questioned the accuracy of the need for KDOT response when Pratt County calls. Mauch also stated the Pratt local shop has a supervisor and three workers, they should have nine men on the crew. The state pay for these workers is less than they can get from almost any other employer, including the Gyp plant. Mauch assured the county employees that KDOT does not charge anyone except insurance companies when vehicles have crashed and are the reason they had to respond.

Tim Branscom, Pratt County Emergency Management, stated that all counties in Kansas are updating their Emergency Operations Procedures and several are receiving help from Topeka. Branscom expressed the idea that most other counties will have the same language in their EOP as what Pratt currently operates under.

Jimmy White, Pratt County Sheriff, said he is concerned that when local first responders close a state/federal road because of an emergency they may carry some amount of liability. White’s concern is equally as valid if they do not stop traffic. The statute is clear they do not have authority to take this action, but it is equally clear the danger that exists if action is not taken immediately.

Several persons stated that when in the thick of an emergency it is difficult to determine if the road can and will be cleared within 15 minutes or 45 minutes. The idea that there is any less danger to first responders, victims, and drivers in the first 30 minutes than exists after that amount of time seems ridiculous. The statute requires Pratt County to inform KDOT of emergency closure and they will continue to do so. If it appears that it could take longer than 30 minutes to clear the roadway, help will continue to be requested. How KDOT or the Transportation Secretary respond to that information or requests will be on their shoulders.

No resolution was reached between the county and state agencies but the meeting was civil and each expressed their concerns and desire to work together. County employees think action may need to come from Topeka instead of the local district office in order to see a better response time in our rural areas.