Near the middle of the Buckman Bridge, on the northbound side just before the incline, a red Ford Explorer is festooned, tucked uncomfortably between a lane of traffic and the concrete barrier that prevents cars from careening into the river. The driver is a young man, his head under the hood.
He is visibly nervous, even agitated, for his car, because he’s trapped in a narrow emergency lane, or because it’s in the middle of a bridge, maybe, probably, all three.
Outside the confines of a car, the Buckman is an unfriendly place. It is a loud, sterile landscape, a rigid and unforgiving mix of metal and concrete dangerously active with hurtling vehicles.
The driver mumbles something unintelligible over the roar of cars whizzing by. It’s almost unbearably loud.
“I don’t want no pictures of myself or my truck,” he repeats at a shout, anxiously eyeing my camera.
Meanwhile, Cody Parham, the Road Ranger who has come to assist him, is as cool as a cucumber. He’s done this too many times to count.
Anyone who spends any time on any highway in Northeast Florida has probably seen the First Coast Road Rangers’ vehicles, those white Ford F-150s with the green-and-yellow branding and electronic truck-mounted message boards.
Parham has raised his board and turned on a message. It alternates between a left arrow and the words “MOVE OVER” in all caps, a reminder to obey Florida’s Move Over Law.
The driver of the Explorer declines Parham’s offer of a quick tow off the span. He already has a tow truck on the way.
By now, another Road Ranger, Rich Tripp, has arrived and is placing cones along the edge of the emergency lane. He points toward the other side of the road, motioning for cars to move over. Together, Parham and Tripp create a safe zone until the tow truck arrives.
”Our goal is to keep traffic flowing and to keep the road clear,” Parham explains. “We work pretty much every accident on the highways and help with traffic management.”
Parham is the supervisor of Road Ranger Operators, overseeing a fleet of nine trucks shared by 16 drivers. There are eight Rangers on patrol at any given time between 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., five days a week. Operators watch for disabled vehicles in four overlapping segments around the I-295 beltway, while the two drivers guard I-95 from Yulee to World Golf Village Parkway, one guards the entire length of J.T. Butler Boulevard and one covers I-10 as far west as Macclenny.
They have a dispatcher at the Traffic Management Center, the agency that monitors the roads through video cameras along the highways. That dispatcher sits next to the dispatcher from the Florida Highway Patrol.
“Law enforcement is the first one to call us,” says Parham. “At an accident, we can handle traffic, keep the officer safe, keep the road safe. You got law enforcement there, fire rescue and first responders there, they’re all on foot and it’s dangerous.”
The Rangers have been contracted by the state since 2007, and because of that government connection, the drivers must pass a background check and have a clean driving record.
“My guys are first aid and CPR certified, too,” Parham proudly says.
All this might come as a surprise to anyone — and there are many — who thinks the Road Rangers organization is a private service. On the contrary, it falls under the purview of the Florida Department of Transportation.
“We’re not here to interfere with enterprises [such as] AAA,” says Ron Tittle, FDOT public information officer. “This is incident management, we’re just trying to keep the roads flowing.”
Parham confirms that aside from providing a gallon of gas, changing a tire
or filling a radiator, the Rangers don’t perform repairs.
Back on the road after the Explorer is safely off the Buckman, Parham continues navigating the highways. He drives in the right lane, five miles under the speed limit. Tittle is along for the ride with Parham, and they talk about traffic as if they were talking about the weather. The dispatcher chimes in intermittently with something new to report: A van out of gas near Monument Road, an overturned vehicle near Old St. Augustine Road, a big rig in need of a safe zone near Airport Road. The dispatches come in smooth staccato, blending with the sounds of the asphalt and the men’s conversation.
Parham has an eagle’s eye for disabled vehicles; he spots one across eight lanes of traffic on I-95 south near the San Marco Boulevard off-ramp.
As he merges onto I-295 south from I-10 west, Parham comments about the fact that there are more accidents on this ramp than anywhere else on the highways.
“It’s probably that blind curve,” offers Tittle, and everyone nods in agreement.
“This is what we do, man. We help out a ton of people,” says Parham. When asked why he does this, he points toward a narrow strip of emergency lane. “There’s a difference between changing a tire and changing a tire right there.”
First Coast JaxLegal Road Rangers
*347 for dispatch; firstcoastroadrangers.com