No doubt, you’ve seen them while cruising — or inching — along Interstate 5 during rush hour. They’re the white pickups with an orange stripe down the side and in bold, evergreen lettering: WSDOT.
If you caught a glimpse of one of their drivers, it may have been Glen Wohlsein, one of five employees covering the Southwest Washington region for the state Department of Transportation’s incident response team.
Wohlsein, 45, has worked for the agency for the last 20 years. He works a split shift perusing area highways from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. During the break, he goes back to his home in Washougal to hang out with his dog, a mix, named Kody.
“I work during the four-hour morning rush hour and then four hours of afternoon rush-hour traffic,” Wohlsein said. Two others are on call 24/7. While Wohlsein often focuses on areas near I-5, the five employees cover seven counties.
“We’re kind of stretched thin right now, as far as coverage,” he said.
The team “roves” around the highways, as Wohlsein calls it, looking for anything that could burden traffic flow, such as removing debris or helping people stuck on the side of the road. For instance, this reporter was aided by an incident response worker once when she ran out of gas.
“We’re looking at ways how we can clear the roadway the fastest,” Wohlsein said. “I’m pretty aggressive in clearing the roadways. We push, pull, drag, to clear the roadway as soon as we can.”
The Columbian caught up with Wohlsein to learn more.
Tell me about yourself.
I was born and raised in Vancouver. I moved out to Washougal about five years ago, so that’s where I’m living now. I went to Mountain View High School, Class of 1993, and started working for the state Department of Transportation; I’ve been with WSDOT for 20 years. It’s been a fun ride so far.
What exactly do you do? How do you help?
Basically, out here we’re patrolling the freeways during the peak hours of traffic. We’re responding to collisions, hazardous debris on the freeway and other freeway hazards. But anything that has to do with traffic-related issues. We’re trying to clear the roads if there’s something blocking or a hazard out there.
Tell me about the average day.
Right now, since we have the new bus lane on I-5 stretching from Hazel Dell down to the bridge, first thing in the morning, I drive the shoulder and make sure there’s no big debris that would impact the buses if they need to use that lane. They can only use that lane if traffic is under 35 mph — so doing that and out there ready to respond to hazards. We’re checking on abandoned vehicles, disabled vehicles, removing debris if that’s out there blocking the roadway. Most of the calls come through the state patrol radio. So they’ll put out to the local patrols, which includes WSDOT incident response, and we’ll answer up for it and take care of it soon as we can.
What types of incidents do you typically see?
Well, a typical day includes collisions, rear-end collisions. We do respond to the bigger collisions like fatalities or, say, like a big semi-truck rollover. Those are the bigger incidents. We have laptops, so our trucks are like a moving office. Every contact we make is a report that we make on the computer and it goes in a database. There’s always something, everyday.
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How has the pandemic impacted your job?
As far as traffic — it’s not back to normal I know that — because generally before the pandemic, we always had backups. Almost every morning there was a backup. Now, it’s free-flowing. I think that’s because more people are working from home.
So you’ve been doing this for the last 20 years, that’s a long time. What have you seen change?
Basically, it goes back to the cellphone use. I don’t see any change in that as far as less use of that. Cellphone use is a big one that causes distracted driving; it goes along with impaired drivers. Also, we still have that move over law for emergency vehicles, and I don’t see much of a change in that; we’d really appreciate it if more people would either slow down and if they can safely move over to the next lane.
What are some of the challenges you face in this work?
Traffic and dealing with people who are distracted drivers. You have to keep your head on a swivel and be paying attention and keep your eyes on the traffic. It just takes a split second and that could be a horrible thing. We want to make sure we go home to our families at night.
How can people be safer on the road?
I think more it’s just having compassion. Think about others, you know? Other people have families to go home to, too. Traffic is just going to get worse so we need people to be paying attention out there. It’s just growth — and you know we’re not building more freeways, so we have to deal with what we have right now. With growth comes congestion and that’s all traffic.