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HEROs can be just that to those stranded on interstates
Safety unit does, however, strive first to help with accidents, clearing roads
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Georgia Department of Transportation’s Highway Emergency Response Operator unit operator Chris Middleton works Interstate 85 between Sugarloaf Parkway and north of the I-985 junction in Gwinnett, but he also could be dispatched to I-985 as needed. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

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Listen to Paul Marshall, a Georgia Department of Transportation spokesman, as he talks about the origins and the main purpose of the DOT’s HERO unit.

FLOWERY BRANCH — South Hall motorists may soon see the bright yellow truck a little more often as they’re tooling down Interstate 985.

The Georgia Department of Transportation has started a Highway Emergency Response Operators unit on I-985 between Interstate 85 in Gwinnett County and Spout Springs Road at Exit 12.

The program, which started about the time of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, works to respond to road incidents and clear roads so that normal traffic flow can be restored.

Motorists may have noticed the HERO sign at the Spout Springs interchange, just past the entrance ramp to southbound lanes.

"Right now, on a given shift, operators may often be responsible for more than one route due to staffing shortages," DOT spokesman Paul Marshall said.

"Currently, until (an) upcoming group completes ... training and becomes certified, we’re patrolling (the I-985) route on an as-needed basis."

Until then, and even afterward, "motorists should be aware that if they become stranded on I-985, that doesn’t necessarily mean a HERO will be available," Marshall said.

"But it is fair to say that if there’s a major incident on I-985, or a disabled vehicle affecting multiple lanes, like a tractor-trailer (truck), a HERO will probably be dispatched to handle it."

HERO operator Chris Middleton routinely works Interstate 85 between Sugarloaf Parkway and north of the I-985 junction in Gwinnett, but he could be dispatched to I-985 as needed.

That hasn’t happened so far, as he made his first trip to the stretch of road last week to provide a tour of the I-985 and talk about his work.

Middleton, who lives in Griffin, has worked with HERO for about three years, moving from Augusta, where he worked for the Martinez fire department.

"I knew very little about (HERO). I saw them once or twice in Augusta," he said, as he wheeled his vehicle off Spout Springs onto I-985. "They normally would come to Augusta during the Masters Tournament, assisting with traffic control."

As he scanned his surroundings on I-985, Middleton noted a couple of troubling issues — one of them not seeing enough interchanges, limiting the speed at which a HERO operator can respond to an incident in opposite travel lanes.

Also, "what’s going to make this route kind of challenging and is something I’m going to note to the supervisors when I get back is ... if I need to get to Exit 12 really quick for something, there are no cut-throughs in the road," he said, heading south toward Buford.

A cut-through is a path connecting opposing lanes on the interstate for use by emergency vehicles only.

Last year, the DOT installed cable barriers on I-985, from Interstate 85 to U.S. 129, as a way to prevent cars from traveling across the median and hitting a vehicle going in the opposite direction.

HERO operators search the road for obstructions, from large pieces of shredded tires to refrigerators.

They also help people stranded in roads move to the shoulder, holding up approaching traffic as needed to make the maneuver.

When possible, HERO operators help people stuck on road shoulders. The HERO truck contains some basic necessities and equipment — such as a gallon of gas —to help motorists back on the road and, at least, to the next interstate exit.

For those seriously stalled, operators can help with getting a tow truck dispatched to the scene.

Middleton, who said he always has been drawn to service-oriented jobs, counts many rewards in his work.

"I enjoy the fact that we help people out. I like being in a unit where if somebody is in trouble, we get there and we get it taken care of," he said.

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