Emergencies, such as the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, sometimes call for extraordinary or unusual trucking operations. Who knew earlier that officials would erect a field hospital in the middle of New York City’s Central Park? Yet, wherever it may be located, a hospital requires deliveries of equipment and supplies that may require heavy-duty trucks and trailers.

Similar circumstances occurred during Hurricane Katrina, where relief facilities were set up in affected neighborhoods – or what used to be neighborhoods before the devastation. Trucks brought the reconstruction materials, the food, the donated clothing and other needed supplies. Often they were forced to use residential streets and alleyways, where normally trucks are neither welcomed nor expected. But thankfully, motor carriers and professional truck drivers responded, as they are doing in today’s crisis.

Still, safety must remain paramount in any response – even where emergency operations are required and federal/state governments have relaxed or waived regulations to facilitate trucking operations. After all, relief cannot be provided if supplies do not or can’t get to where they are needed.  Moreover, a truck stalled, broken down, placed out of service or involved in a crash can become a barrier to others on their own emergency missions.

What steps can truck drivers and fleets take to be safe during an emergency?

Know Your Route.  Drivers anticipate road closures during hurricanes, tornados, floods and heavy snowstorms. But health emergencies can also re-route commercial traffic away from vulnerable populations or toward truck marshaling yards or alternate delivery locations. For example, a COVID-19 relief load labeled for the hospital shown on your map may actually be intended to arrive at a parking lot nearby where the cargo may be transferred to vans or smaller trucks that can better negotiate city streets. Dispatchers and/or drivers should confirm delivery locations ahead of time, if possible. Safe driving means knowing your next turn – in advance.

Follow Directions from Emergency Officials.  Law enforcement, first responders and other emergency officials may be dealing with rapidly evolving conditions. They may require you to stop, re-route or await further directions. Your safety and that of others depends on the cooperation of professionals like you.

Give Advance Notice and Have Your Paperwork Ready.  During Hurricane Katrina, well-intentioned community groups gathered donations and sent volunteered trucks off to deliver needed supplies, only to have many of those loads turned back. Why? At destination, relief officials had no idea the trucks were coming and had no place to park or unload them. The lesson we learned from Katrina and other disasters is always to alert emergency officials coordinating the relief efforts of what you are bringing and when you expect to arrive. Be ready with the paperwork they may need to appropriately and safely direct you, to maximize the relief you have brought.

Empty Streets? Beware!  Emergencies may mean little to no traffic. Watch out, because an ambulance or emergency vehicle driver may not expect to see a truck heading their direction or crossing in front of them. Natural disasters may also leave debris on the roadway. Keep an eye out for hazards. You may be on an emergency mission, but your first mission is to drive safely.

Don’t Push It.  In many emergencies, as with COVID-19, federal and state regulations may be relaxed or waived to facilitate emergency response. Regardless of what may be permissible under law, safely stay within the limits of your equipment and your physical condition. An increased speed limit, for example, may not be safe under actual weather or road conditions.  An oversize/overweight variance granted by the state may not match what your truck can safely handle. The hours-of-service flexibility that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration allows for COVID-19 response came with the reminder to motor carriers: drivers who are tired must be allowed to rest.

Everyone who responds in an emergency is a hero, even when you and your truck are not always welcomed or expected, as long as you respond with safety in mind.