Preparedness & Recovery

Drivers Needing Rescue from Ohio Floodwaters Can be Fined But Rarely Are

The bottom line from first responders is simple: Don't drive onto flooded roads. It takes only a few inches of water to move a vehicle and you can't see what's underneath the water's surface.

by Marc Kovac, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio / August 7, 2017
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(TNS) — The first call came into the Basil Joint Fire District station in Baltimore just after 9:30 p.m. on July 13 amid the deluge that inundated parts of northwestern Fairfield and southwestern Licking counties.

A 2016 Chevy Silverado had stalled "while crossing deep water" on Allen Road, and its occupant needed to be rescued.

A little more than an hour later, firefighters in the same department received another call. This time, two other people were trapped in their vehicle on a road covered with 2 feet of water.

Rescuers had to don special protective gear, enter the floodwaters and haul people to safety.

Such rescues can be costly for fire departments, both in terms of money and rescuers' safety, and they tie up responders when there are other emergencies that require attention.

They also could be expensive for drivers. A state law enacted a couple of years ago allows fines of up to $2,000 for those who venture into clearly marked flooded roadways.

But it doesn't appear that many people have had to break out their wallets after ignoring road closed signs. Doug Stern, spokesman for the Ohio Professional Fire Fighters, said he could find no department that has charged motorists for flooded road rescues.

Part of the issue could be the way the law is written: Signs noting the potential fine have to be posted.

That was news to Fairfield County EMA Director Jon Kochis, who provided testimony to lawmakers in support of the law change.

He didn't realize until the water hit the road that new signs had to be in place to fine stranded drivers.

"I never picked up on that part," Kochis said. "We knew that it had to be an identified road, closed by a sign, but that extra piece, that you could be fined, that escaped me."

The new law

Senate Bill 106 was passed by lawmakers in late 2014 and signed by Gov. John Kasich, taking effect in March of the following year.

Among other provisions, the law prohibits drivers from guiding their vehicles onto clearly marked flooded roadways, with more than $2,000 in potential fines to cover the rescue costs.

The bill was named in memory of Allan H. Anderson Jr., a veteran dive team member at the Wellington Community Fire District in Lorain County who was killed in 2006 while trying to rescue two teens whose vehicle had been swept off a flooded road.

Wellington Fire Chief Mike Wetherbee, who supported SB 106, and his department kept close tabs on the legislation during those proceedings and the subsequent enactment. When the new law took effect, the local firefighters association paid for more than 20 new signs that read "Road Closed, High Water, Max Fine $2,000."

The signs cost about $100 each and were distributed to townships that the Wellington department covers with roads that are prone to flooding. So far, firefighters there have not had to rescue anyone from a flooded road or issue any resulting fines.

"I'm very happy we haven't had to enforce this," Wetherbee said. "It's not about the money to us. ... We don't want to lose anybody, especially one of our own, again."

The new signs

But other counties apparently haven't been fining drivers who need to be rescued, either. Nor does it appear that many have moved to make or purchase new signs.

Matt Bruning, an ODOT spokesman, said two state district offices ordered a combined six of the new "flooded road" signs, complete with the fine warning. Otherwise, he said, he was unaware of any other ODOT offices that have put the new signs to use.

Fairfield County Engineer Jeremiah Upp said he has heard from a couple of townships inquiring about the new sign requirements. But he said the county has not yet had any made.

That's not to say that his department isn't working to keep people off of inundated roadways.

"If it's bad enough and deep enough that it's dangerous, we put barricades up," he said.

Kochis said the extra sign language poses a burden for counties like his that have flood-prone roads. Responders didn't have enough high-water signs during last month's heavy rains.

"We closed so many roads that we ran out of road-closed signs," he said. The new law, he said, "creates a lot of unnecessary work and cost. We're looking at every road-closed sign, you need to have that small sign" noting the potential for fines.

Thankfully, no on was hurt last month and the rescues by the Basil Joint Fire District were completed quickly.

"Luckily for us, the two that night were in standing water, not rushing water," Kochis said.

The bottom line from first responders is simple: Don't drive onto flooded roads. It takes only a few inches of water to move a vehicle and you can't see what's underneath the water's surface, Kochis said.

"When you're driving down a road, it could be perfectly flat water, it doesn't look that deep," Kochis said. "But that culvert's gone, and there's a 6-foot-wide trench ..."

Licking County's EMA Director Sean Grady watched as the occupants of a car were rescued in his county during the July flooding.

"The water was actually moving the vehicle when they kept trying to get the people out of the car," he said.

'Life or death'

Rep. Tim Schaffer, a Lancaster Republican, was the primary co-sponsor of SB 106. He said his original bill required roads to be clearly marked as closed due to flooding. The language about the fine was added as an amendment during legislative deliberations to gain needed support for passage.

To date, Schaffer said he hasn't heard of anyone being fined.

"I wondered in the last month or so, with all of this incredible flooding we've had, if any of the local agencies were using that," he said.

Schaffer ultimately was supportive of the final bill and the signage requirement to further hammer home to motorists the seriousness of driving onto flooded roads.

"These high-water signs, that's not a suggestion," he said. "That has the force of law behind it. It's not a polite suggestion, this is a life or death decision."
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mkovac@dispatch.com

@ohiocapitalblog

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