Staffing shortages force GDOT to scale back roadside assistance in metro Atlanta

Credit: Andria Brooks

Credit: Andria Brooks

Staffing shortages will force the Georgia Department of Transportation to temporarily reduce the hours and service area of the units that aid stranded motorists along metro Atlanta highways.

By July 1, Highway Emergency Response Operators (or HEROs) will patrol the region’s highways from 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. on weekends. Currently, they provide 24-hour service.

In addition, GDOT will scale back the service area for the HERO units. They currently patrol about 382 miles of highway in metro Atlanta. Beginning in July, they will patrol 247 miles -a 35% reduction.

For example, HERO units currently patrol I-85 northeast of Atlanta up to Buford Drive (Exit 115) in Gwinnett County. The revised service area will end at Jimmy Carter Boulevard (Exit 99).

Credit: Courtesy of GDOT

Credit: Courtesy of GDOT

GDOT’s CHAMP roadside assistance units – which cover interstate highways outside metro Atlanta – will cover about 135 miles that the HERO units will stop patrolling. The CHAMP units will patrol the affected areas from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

Some HERO operators will remain on call overnight to respond to major incidents. GDOT’s 511 telephone assistance operators will still be available 24 hours.

GDOT says the reductions are needed because it doesn’t have enough HERO operators to provide regular service. The agency has 125 operators when fully staffed, but it currently only has 65.

GDOT Operations Director John Hibbard told the State Transportation Board Wednesday that refocusing the service will allow HERO operators to better serve the region during the hours when 91% of crashes occur.

“We’re going to provide a better level of service right now, even as we build back to a staffing level that allows us to return to 24-hour operations,” Hibbard said.

HERO units assist stranded motorists by changing tires, jump-starting batteries, providing fuel and helping in other ways. At accident scenes, they also help clear the road and direct traffic. GDOT began 24-hour HERO service in 2014.

Transportation board member Curt Thompson noted that most of Gwinnett County will not be served by HERO units under the new plan. He wondered how motorists there would be affected.

Hibbard said that the CHAMP units could respond to incidents in Gwinnett. And HERO Manager Jason Josey said his crews could still respond if needed.

“We’re going to strictly prioritize our calls,” Josey said. “But we’re not in the business of saying ‘no.’”

GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said the HERO program’s difficulties in recruiting and retaining employees are similar to those seen by other first-responders, such as police and fire departments. Staffing shortages have stretched the units too thin, affecting response times.

It’s unclear how long the reduced HERO service will last. Dale said the agency hopes to restore service in 2024.