Need a Hero? Call 511
Interstate safety service returns to Coweta area
by Sarah Fay Campbell
The HERO is here.
Travelers along Interstate 85 in Coweta this week may have seen a brightly colored emergency vehicle and its occupant bringing gas to the stranded, clearing the roadway, changing tires and jump-starting batteries.
The Georgia Department of Transportation began operating its HERO Motorist Service along I-85 in Coweta on Saturday. The HERO — which stands for Highway Emergency Response Operations unit, patrols the interstate from Exit 61 in Fairburn to Exit 47, Bullsboro Drive. The unit is also available to respond to serious events as far south as the Coweta County line.
If you need assistance, dial 511.
The HERO unit can provide full service from 5 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., seven days a week. The service runs 24 hours a day, but there are fewer personnel at night, and they would probably "only come down for major events,” said Major Dennis Greene, deputy chief for the HERO service.
Greene said the service is a bit short-staffed right now, but several new HEROs are currently being trained, and as the number of workers expands, the availability of services at night should increase.
The HERO service first came to Coweta several years ago when major work was being done on Interstate 85. But when the work was completed, the HERO left.
The service has been expanded over the years, and, in August, Coweta County Commissioner Paul Poole asked his fellow commissioners to request the service for Coweta County. Months later, the service was extended to Douglas County, and GDOT representatives met with Coweta officials to discuss a Coweta HERO.
“I’m thankful they’re here,” said Poole. “It’s a great service.”
Bill Gehrmann is one of the Coweta HEROs. He worked in Coweta when the service was here before, so he was chosen to man the new route.
Gehrmann started on Monday, and Tuesday said he’d helped 12 or 13 motorists. That’s a slow start. “I’ve done as many as 30 in one day,” he said.
The main function of the HERO unit is to clear the roadway when there is an accident or when a motorist breaks down. The HERO assists other agencies in clearing the road and making it safe. Gehrmann's truck can push or pull vehicles out of the roadway, and can even flip them over.
“We’re capable of towing a fully loaded tractor-trailer,” Gehrmann said. When he’s not responding to accidents, Gehrmann is on patrol looking for stopped vehicles. He can change a tire, jump start a battery, or provide a gallon of gas.
Thanks to flashing lights and traffic cones, the HERO can help make conditions safer for motorists who are broken down. And with a large jack, an air compressor and an impact wrench, he can change a tire in minutes.
Changing a tire on the side of a busy interstate can be dangerous for drivers.
“Most people don’t realize just how dangerous it is,” Gehrmann said. “I’ll pull up on a vehicle where they’ve got the trunk open” and are ready to change the tire very close to the travel lanes. Gehrmann will tell people when they need to drive a little farther to where it is safer.
Motorists who have issues south of Exit 47 may be able to get assistance from the HERO. It all depends on what else is going on. “If the unit is anywhere close, they’ll do it,” Greene said.
Even with his flashing lights and cones, “I’ve been hit four times,” Gehrmann said. “People do not pay attention.” Last year, on I-85 near Cleveland Avenue in College Park, a HERO was killed while assisting a motorist. That was the first fatality since the service started in 1996.
It can be a dangerous job, but it’s also rewarding.
“It’s a great job,” said Gerhmann, who became a HERO after a career with the airlines.
“At the end of the day, you know you’ve helped people and maybe saved a few lives.”
Greene said the HERO service has received a warm welcome from local public safety officials.
Poole has been one of the biggest proponents of bringing HERO service back to Coweta.
“It’s just a great service and helps protect us and everyone out there,” Poole said. When you break down on the interstate, especially if you have a family in the car, getting help from the HERO is “so much safer."