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FIRST help on the road

I take I-94 to go to work in St. Paul. Whenever I drive, especially under snowy and cold weather conditions, I always hope and pray that my car doesn't break down and that it will take me safely to the destination.

This concern for safety is very real in my mind. But I take some comfort in knowing that FIRST help is on the road.

For people who live in Woodbury and commute to work in St. Paul, Minneapolis or other suburbs in the metro area on a regular basis, Mn/DOT's FIRST trucks should be a familiar sight on freeways. But do you really know what they do?

FIRST stands for "Freeway Incident Response Safety Team," previously known as "Highway Helper." It is an incident management and roadside emergency program provided by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

According to Mn/DOT's web site, the program was initiated in 1987 with three routes covering 40 miles. Since then, the program has expanded gradually over the years. Today there are 10 routes covering 220 miles of metro area freeways.

The primary purpose of the FIRST program is to minimize congestion caused by crashes or stalled vehicles and to prevent secondary crashes through the quick response and removal of incidents. The secondary purpose of the program is to assist stranded motorists.

The brightly-colored green FIRST trucks patrol the metro area freeways from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. during weekdays, with some limited coverage on the weekends. FIRST drivers detected 85 percent of the freeway incidents they attend while patrolling metro freeways.

FIRST trucks provide assistance to stalled vehicles, such as pushing disabled vehicles out of the traffic lanes using push bumpers, jump starting vehicles, changing flat tires, providing small quantities of free gasoline, calling tow trucks, removing debris from the traffic lanes and assisting motorists with emergency vehicles repairs.

FIRST trucks also assist State Patrol with first aid and traffic control at crash scenes. They are outfitted with portable message boards and can provide traffic control and scene security at crashes by activating their large arrow board on top of their truck. FIRST personnel are trained as EMS First Responders.

The FIRST program works closely with the Minnesota State Patrol.

When the state patrol receives a 911 call for emergency roadside assistance, they will then contact the Traffic Operations Dispatcher who will dispatch a FIRST truck.

FIRST trucks are dispatched by Mn/DOT's Regional Traffic Management Center. Using a Global Positioning System to track vehicles, the dispatcher can find the closest vehicle to an incident so they can respond as quickly as possible.

The next time you have a flat tire or other roadside emergencies on highways covered by the FIRST routes, call the FIRST Dispatcher at (651) 634-5000 or call 911 to request a FIRST truck.

The FIRST drivers have the proper equipment to quickly assist you in changing a flat tire and keeping traffic moving. Using their floor jacks, FIRST drivers can often have a flat tire changed in the time it would take an average motorist to just set up a typical scissor-type jack.

If you don't have a cell phone with you, you can wait for the FIRST truck to come. There are over 300 cameras on freeways that monitor the traffic flow in the Twin Cities metro area. If a crash or stalled vehicle is detected, a FIRST truck will be dispatched to the area to help.

About half of the traffic congestion on Twin Cities freeways is caused by incidents, including crashes, stalled vehicles or debris on the roadway.

By quickly detecting, responding to and assisting in the removal of incidents, FIRST program helps to prevent secondary accidents, reduce congestion and maximize the efficiency of our existing freeway system which means less delay, shorter travel times and a more reliable trip. The program improves the safety of motorists and provides needed assistance for those stranded.

I am thankful that I have never had to use FIRST services. It's comforting to know that if I ever have a need for assistance while driving home or to work, I can count on the FIRST help. -- as long as I am on I-94 and within the 694 and 494 loop.

For more information about FIRST services, visit