They play a critical role in keeping our highways safe: Georgia Department of Transportation’s HERO units.
But as families get ready to hit the road for the Thanksgiving holiday, Channel 2 Action News has learned that the specialized unit is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, posing a potential public safety issue.
The Highway Emergency Response Operator units are often the first ones on the scene of a crash or a stalled vehicle on the area’s interstates.
Multiple sources confirmed to Channel 2′s Michael Seiden that more than a dozen operators and supervisors have either tested positive or been exposed to COVID-19.
One source told Seiden that even before this outbreak, they were already understaffed. And now, they’re worried about the upcoming Thanksgiving travel.
Trying to get some answers, Seiden started his day Tuesday at the GDOT training center in Cobb County, where he attempted to speak with members of the HERO unit.
Seiden learned at least two operators tested positive for the virus and that many others were exposed.
“I heard there was a big COVID outbreak?” Seiden asked one of the HERO operators, who did not identify themself. “I guess you were one of the lucky ones?”
“I don’t know if I’m one of the lucky ones,” the operator said, neither confirming nor denying the reports of the outbreak.
Seiden found a lot of HERO units parked outside the training center with very few operators.
Some operators, who asked us not to identify them, told Seiden off-camera that the units in Cobb County and in Atlanta are both severely understaffed, with operators and trainees in quarantine, creating a potential public safety issue.
Seiden contacted GDOT about those concerns. A spokeswoman confirmed that they are dealing with operators testing positive for COVID-19. And although she wouldn’t confirm the exact number of employees currently in quarantine, citing privacy concerns, she did send Seiden a statement, saying:
“Our standard staffing level at current head count is about 20 HEROs working across metro on general purpose lanes during AM; then 20 HEROs working during PM rush.”
She also said they have a smaller group on overnight and weekends.
“HERO continues to patrol and respond to incidents as dispatched/requested as normal,” the statement read.
Caleb Crotts is a former GDOT operator who said he resigned over the summer after six years of service.
“That’s a lie,” he told Seiden. “Staffing is extremely low. It’s unsafe. It’s unsafely low. When I worked on overnights, we only had three people. We were lucky if we had four.”
“And that’s to cover 500 miles of interstate?” Seiden asked Crotts.
“Yes,” Crotts replied.
“Their job, No. 1, is to not only keep you safe, but it’s to clear travel lanes as quickly as possible so they can keep traffic moving,” WSB Triple Team Traffic reporter Doug Turnbull said.
Turnbull is best known for keeping Georgians sane while trying to navigate the afternoon gridlock.
“Certainly, a downturn on HERO operators is going to make traffic move less efficiently in the long run. So, yeah, we definitely, especially in this holiday travel time, we want to see them out there we much as possible,” Turnbull said.
Despite many HERO operators in quarantine, they are not the only people patrolling the metro’s roadways.
State troopers and city and county law enforcement are helping people with car troubles 24/7 as well.
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