Ready When UR

April 2, 2018
ITS applications should not be overlooked during times of emergency

About the author: DeBlasio is a project manager for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Cambridge, Mass. Regan is a senior associate with Planners Collaborative, Boston. Both work for the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.


Incorporating intelligent transportation system (ITS) products and services into roadway and transit systems will definitely improve the efficiency and effectiveness of operations on a daily basis. But it is often overlooked that an installed system of ITS equipment may reap great benefits when available during emergencies or unplanned events.

As part of their ongoing effort to understand and evaluate ITS operations, managers from the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) ITS Joint Program Office and Federal Highway Administration Office of Operations commissioned staff from the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to conduct a series of case studies examining the effects of catastrophic events on the management and operations of the surface transportation system. The Volpe Center is a federal research, development, engineering and analysis agency housed in the U.S. DOT Research and Innovative Technology Administration. Case studies included the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001; the power outage in the northeast U.S. on Aug. 14, 2003; the fire in the rail tunnel under Howard Street in Baltimore on July 18, 2001; and the earthquake in the Northridge, Calif., area on Jan. 17, 1994. The Volpe Center team also was asked to conduct a case study on a planned event—the Democratic National Convention (DNC) that was in session from July 26 through July 29, 2004, in Boston. U.S. DOT managers wanted to understand how an event in which security took precedence over mobility would affect a regional transportation system.

During an emergency, transportation officials face an increased demand on their facilities and their personnel. In each of the examined events, the transportation network experienced some form of damage or closures. The use of technology can aid during these difficult and stressful times. From their review, the Volpe Center team identified a number of innovative uses of ITSs by various transportation agencies and how ITS technology was used to respond to these extraordinary events. During the events that were reviewed, transportation and public safety officials used ITS products and services not only within the affected area but also in the surrounding region. The three primary uses within the immediate area involved transportation management centers, video collection and distribution systems and traffic-signal systems. Uses outside of the area included variable message signs, highway advisory radio and websites. Regardless of the type of technology used or its location, all the interviewees stressed the need for redundancy of the most important electronic and communication systems. They also discussed the need for alternative communication sources.

Ready with redundancy

In each of the catastrophic events studied, portions of the ITS and communications system were rendered inoperable. This was due to damage caused either by the event, loss of power or a break in communications lines. This points to the need to build redundancy into the ITS technologies and to design against single points of failure.

To ensure continuing operations during catastrophic events, most toll authorities have redundant systems. For example, the New York Thruway managers design their technology systems to continue operations by building in redundant power and examining its systems to eliminate single points of failure. To ensure continuity, the thruway staff conducts monthly stress tests of its operations on emergency power for an entire night once a month.

But even the best-designed plans can fail. The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel at the U.S. and Canadian border has four separate power feeds to ensure against a loss of power. Unfortunately, on the day of the blackout all four sources were down, and the tunnel operators were forced to close the crossing. Because of the attacks on Sept. 11 and the blackout, managers at that facility have implemented new procedures to eliminate that problem from recurring. They have purchased additional and larger generators to power mission-critical activities and test these generators frequently.

Tunnel managers also took four steps to improve communications. First, to communicate with motorists, they installed a public address system in the tunnel to supplement their highway advisory radio system. Second, they modified their telephone system to bypass a switch if it failed during a power outage. Third, the staff installed a hard-wired communication system in the tunnel for emergency responders that, when necessary, they use with headsets. Fourth, they upgraded their cellular phone system to include push-to-talk services.

Centers of activity

In each of the large urban areas there was a transportation management center (TMC) in place during the event that affected them. Some of these centers acted not only to aid transportation staff to oversee traffic but as command centers for public safety officers involved in the response. The New York City area had two multiagency TMCs in operation during both events that occurred in that area. One was the Joint Traffic Operations Center in Queens, which monitors New York City streets, and the other was the INFORM TMC, which monitors the highways on Long Island. During the attack on Sept. 11, these centers helped to coordinate the activities of representatives from the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT), the New York City DOT (NYCDOT), the New York City Police Department and New York State Police. Unfortunately, during the August 2003 blackout the centers experienced severe problems with the loss of power.

To prevent a disruption from a power outage from happening again, managers at these and other TMCs have taken several actions. One was to review all backup power plans and improve them to eliminate single points of failure. Sometimes multiple sources of backup power were installed. In another instance, alternative backup locations were identified. Sometimes managers established them at another facility within their agency, and other times alternative TMCs were set up at a facility of another agency.

Another action that was taken to ensure continued operations after a power outage was the acquisition and use of mobile command centers. These centers are housed in modified trucks or buses and can be rapidly deployed to an incident or nearby area to allow agencies to continue operations. These units can contain what is normally found within a TMC—communication systems, access to video surveillance systems and remote controls for ITS field equipment. These mobile command centers were utilized extensively by various Massachusetts agencies during the 2004 DNC.

Go to video

During some interviews in the New York City area after the blackout, participants mentioned that the blackout caused more problems for them than the terrorist attack on Sept. 11 because of the loss of communications and video images. These interviewees were all accustomed to seeing what was happening on the roadway or transit system they monitored.

Video images played an important role during the 2004 DNC. Because of heightened security concerns, the traffic restrictions implemented in Boston and surrounding communities were unprecedented for the area. The main interstate highway running through the city, I-93, was to be closed from the late afternoon to early the next morning every day for the duration of the convention. State officials realized there was a vital need to increase the coordination of information and improve real-time knowledge of existing conditions in order to successfully accomplish their mission.

Managers and staff from the Massachusetts Highway Department sped up the design and implementation of a long-planned video sharing communications system. The Massachusetts Integrated Video Information System (MIVIS) includes both wireless and hard-wired systems connecting the major transportation and public safety agencies in eastern Massachusetts. The system integrated existing video resources from the MassHighway, the Boston Transportation Department, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), Boston Police Department and SmarTraveler, the private provider of regional traffic conditions information. Video images from the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority also were available through an existing feed to the city of Boston TMC.

Staff from each agency could access the cameras of all participating agencies to better understand existing conditions. They not only used feeds to the various operations centers, but they also were able to use hand-held personal digital assistants while in the field. In addition, all of the video feeds were made available to the federal security officials in the U.S. Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation, who, respectively, were in charge of security and communications for the convention.

Two examples exhibit how the MIVIS system helped during the convention and will continue to help during daily operations. For the first time, the MBTA staff was able to access city of Boston video images of downtown streets and monitor their bus operations, allowing them to reroute specific buses if they noted extreme congestion or traffic diversions. MBTA staff will continue to use the video system as one way to monitor bus operations.

The second involves the Massachusetts State Police (MSP), who were charged with closing down the highways before the convention began each night. MSP officers in the field and in the command center could view live video images of existing conditions from cameras and overhead from police helicopters when they were making decisions about when and how to close off access. In talking about closing down sections of I-93 and diverting traffic, the state police officer in charge, Major Michael Mucci, noted “because we had full information, we were able to make a better informed decision on how and when we closed off certain ramps leading towards Boston. This meant we could keep other areas open and not impede the flow of traffic.” The MSP will continue to use the video images when responding to incidents on the highways they patrol.

LEDs live longer

During the Aug. 14, 2003, blackout, the New York City Joint Traffic Operations Center (JTOC) and all of the city’s 12,000 signalized intersections lost power just before the afternoon peak commuter period, causing the streets to jam with vehicles and pedestrians and creating a massive gridlock. Before the power outage, NYCDOT staff were replacing their incandescent signal lamps with light-emitting diode (LED) modules.

According to Mohamad Talas, deputy director of the NYCDOT JTOC, “LED signals have a projected life of approximately 12 years, compared to 1 to 2 years for incandescent lamps. This will save the city approximately $6.3 million due to lower energy and maintenance costs.”

These cost savings, however, were not the only benefits gained from installing this new technology. Taking advantage of this improvement to its traffic operations technology, the JTOC staff is in the process of designating a series of evacuation routes out of Manhattan that involve 400 intersections. Each intersection will have backup batteries to operate the lights for approximately four hours and will be controlled at the JTOC. This action will ease the flow of traffic and pedestrians during extraordinary incidents.

Danger ahead

During an emergency it is important to keep people out of the affected area to allow first responders to do their job. One of the key ways that ITS equipment can be useful to transportation officials during an emergency is to alert travelers that they are approaching an area in which an event took place or is currently occurring. By coordinating with regional transportation agencies, information can be spread quickly and efficiently.

As an example, the I-95 Corridor Coalition, a consortium of transportation and public safety agencies from Maine to Florida, regularly alerts its member agencies of special events. During the 2001 Baltimore rail tunnel fire, the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2003 blackout, transportation operations centers operated by member agencies all along the Eastern Seaboard were able to alert motorists to avoid the affected area through the use of their variable message signs (VMS), highway advisory radio systems and websites. Within two minutes of the decision to close New York City’s George Washington Bridge on Sept. 11, VMSs operated by several agencies alerted motorists of the closure up to 10 miles away. The information provided by its toll-free telephone system was simultaneously updated, and the information was electronically transmitted for broader dissemination. Transportation staffs in Massachusetts and adjacent New England states relied heavily on VMS in the weeks leading up to the DNC and while it was in session to alert motorists of closures and detours.

Placing calls

Emergency situations typically generate significant demand for telephone services, often overwhelming the normal capacity of the local system. On Sept. 11, 2001, demand for cell-phone usage was estimated at up to 10 times the normal demand. Land lines experienced similar congestion. In the early 1990s the federal government developed and implemented two programs to allow for continued communications during a time of emergency, Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) for land-line telephones and the Wireless Priority Service its companion for cell-phone service. Members of public agencies responsible for restoration efforts and transportation to accomplish emergency response activities are eligible for participation in the program. On Sept. 11 and the days that followed there were more than 18,000 GETS calls with a completion rate of over 95%.

As part of its advance preparations planning, every transportation agency involved in operations and restoration of the system should consider signing up for these services. Information on how to sign up for and use the emergency communications system can be found at

For additional information, all of the case studies on unplanned events cited in this article and an analysis comparing these events can be found in the electronic document library on the website sponsored by the U.S. DOT ITS Joint Program Office. The documents can be found under the keywords “catastrophic events.” Information on the U.S. DOT’s current Emergency Transportation Operations initiative also is posted. The report on the DNC will be posted by the end of the summer of 2005. Volpe Center staff can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].

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