Highway Emergency Response Operators
Motorists can call 511 to request a HERO unit. HEROs operate on Interstate 985 and major interstates in metro Atlanta.
Justin Cochran talks in his two-way radio and glances at a laptop computer attached to the console of his truck.
This while steering his truck through Atlanta traffic, on and off interstate ramps and around busy side streets like he has Google Maps in his head.
And when there’s a stranded motorist, he pulls to the shoulder, bolts from the truck as traffic flies past and fetches the needed tools to get the motorist back on his way.
It’s all in a day’s work for one of the Georgia Department of Transportation’s Highway Emergency Response Operators, or HEROs.
“That’s the good thing about this job,” Cochran said. “You’re always able to help someone somehow.”
HERO, founded in 1994, covers 400 miles of highway, including Interstate 985’s 24 miles stretching from Interstate 85 in Gwinnett County to Jesse Jewell Parkway/Ga. 369 in Hall.
This spring, coverage extended 12 miles from Spout Springs Road in Flowery Branch to Ga. 369.
Operators basically provide support to law enforcement, help in clearing stalled vehicles from travel lanes and aid to stranded motorists with minor mechanical problems.
Working like a racing pit crew member, Cochran might find himself changing flat tires, jump-starting batteries, providing fuel or coolant, pushing vehicles to the shoulder and offering use of a cell phone — all at no charge to the motorist.
And many times, operators stop to clear debris from the road.
The Times rode recently with Cochran, a HERO supervisor, from the operation’s headquarters under I-85 in Atlanta — not far from the Piedmont Road bridge that collapsed earlier this year — through I-985.
During the mid-morning journey, Cochran made only one stop in Hall, where traffic was moving smoothly.
A Hall County sheriff’s deputy had parked on the road’s shoulder, a couple of miles north of the Friendship Road/Ga. 347 exit, and was walking in the grass not far from his patrol car.
“It was a scene he had been at earlier,” Cochran said as he returned to his truck, stopped right behind the sheriff’s vehicle. “He was looking to see if he could find something related to a wreck/chase.”
Those kinds of law enforcement-related stops happen occasionally, said Cochran, an 8«-year HERO veteran.
“Even though there was nothing we could do, at least we made sure our presence was known,” he said. “We’re out to (see) if he needed anything.”
The trip back to Atlanta was much more eventful. Cochran stopped behind one motorist stopped on the shoulder just south of the ultra-busy Jimmy Carter Boulevard exit in Gwinnett.
“By the looks of it, he may just be on his phone,” he said as he stepped from the truck and headed the motorist’s way.
He returned a few minutes later, nodding to say his suspicions were confirmed.
“He’s texting and sending emails,” Cochran said.
Continuing south toward Atlanta, he circled back off the interstate to respond to a stranded motorist.
“You always try to (dispatch) the closest unit,” Cochran said. “Sometimes, the closest may not be that close.”
And if traffic is really thick, HERO response may not be as quick as motorists — or HERO
operators — would like.
“Most of the time, motorists understand,” Cochran said.
Not far from the exit to HERO headquarters, he pulled in behind a vehicle that had hit something in the road that shredded a tire, forcing the motorist to the side of the road. Turns out the occupants were U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers assigned to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
They were grateful for Cochran’s help.
“HERO members are just that — a timely hero, especially on the hot interstate. Many are grateful for their service,” Customs and Border Protection spokesman Rob Brisley said by email later.
Hall County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Stephen Wilbanks said likewise for his department.
“They’ve been helpful a number of times during incidents on the interstate,” he said.
One of Cochran’s busiest days was March 30, when a blaze beneath the I-85 bridge near Piedmont burned to such a temperature that the overpass of steel and concrete collapsed.
“It completely interrupted the flow of traffic,” Cochran said. “They had to detour everything.”
A few months later, the bridge was back in working order.
“I do have to give construction crews credit for how well they worked to get it back together and back up,” Cochran said.
Overall, he said, “I’ve seen my share of stuff. It’s definitely an interesting job, a fun job.”
“And people are (mostly) grateful. Getting stranded is stressful on a lot of folks. It’s scary to be sitting on the side of the road with all this traffic flowing.”
He added, with a grin, “I can’t count how many times we’ve helped somebody and they ask, ‘How much do I owe you?’”