GDOT announced Wednesday to its board that they are consolidating the HERO program because of major staffing issues and increasing response times.
The state’s Highway Emergency Response Operators will no longer patrol the freeways 24/7, decreasing the fully-staffed hours to 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. This focuses the breadth of the work corps into a time period that covers 91% of Atlanta’s crashes, GDOT told 95.5 WSB in an exclusive briefing on the issue.
Since the pandemic, GDOT has faced the same workforce problems that many industries have and they currently have only 60 operators of the 125 needed to operate at full force around the clock. The staffing shortage has caused their normal target response time to incidents of 10-20 minutes to double or triple.
HERO will also cut back the radius of its patrolling area by 35%. The yellow trucks will still respond to high-level incidents outside of that sphere and some units will be on call for major problems in the overnight hours, too.
The change in hours and coverage area will not affect the operation of the Peach Pass Express lanes in the Northwest and South Metro areas.
The state has struggled to recruit workers for this roadside service job in the last few years because of the hours (shifts sometimes run longer if an operator gets stuck on a major incident), the risk, and the pay. GDOT recently approved a $10,000 increase in starting HERO pay to $38,000.
Failed drug tests and background checks also thin the worker pool. Some prospective operators also back out of the job when they go on their first ride along. This prompted HERO to revise its training to make the roadside portion an earlier part of that process and weed out the squeamish.
The 511 Traffic Management Center will remain operating 24/7 and the state urges motorists to call 511 if they spot trouble or get stuck at any hour. The 511 operators can still contact proper first responders, if HERO is unavailable. The 511 TMC still manages and monitors traffic at all hours, as crews work construction and other incidents inevitably block lanes.
GDOT began the HERO program in 1994 ahead of the ‘96 Olympics to quickly clear incidents from travel lanes and keep traffic moving. The service has only been 24/7 since 2014.
GDOT tells 95.5 WSB that they hope to have implemented this change by July 1st, but they hope to build the staffing up enough to return to 24/7 coverage by the summer of 2024. The CHAMP program, which runs 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and serves more outlying areas, will remain unchanged.
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