Adequately plan for the ATIS operational needs for communicating with the public during disasters.

Experiences of a panel of experts in disaster information dissemination.

Date Posted

Communicating with the Public Using ATIS During Disasters - Concept of Operations

Summary Information

Over the past several years, the occurrence of major disasters, from weather events to post-9/11 threats of terrorism have highlighted the need for effective communication with the public regarding disaster-related travel. This concept of operations document, which is part of a study on "Communicating with the Public Using ATIS during Disasters," provides a high level system overview of who, what, when, where, why, and how agencies and data need to interact and operate to deliver appropriate and necessary traveler information to the public using ATIS devices and mechanisms. This document provides assistance and guidance to regions and individual agencies as they develop traveler information systems, with a specific focus on information dissemination during disasters.

A workshop was convened with a panel of subject matter experts on disaster information dissemination, including individuals from transportation, transit, regional planning organizations, police, fire, emergency management, and private sector traveler information providers. The panel provided their perspectives on operational roles and responsibilities and information flows leading to effective information delivery, and provided feedback on the problems, needs and issues they experience when responding to disasters. Based on these insights, recommendations were developed for enhancing ties between emergency response and the application of ATIS assets.

An ideal ATIS disaster system requires significant advance planning on the part of transportation agencies and emergency management agencies to ensure proper communication with the public. Based on feedback from a panel of experts on disaster information dissemination, the following set of lessons learned addresses ways in which agencies can better plan for effective communication with the public during disasters.

  • Coordinate with other jurisdictions when developing your disaster plans. Disasters often have large scale impacts that can affect multiple jurisdictions within a state, or even an entire region of the country, so it is important to coordinate across jurisdictions. For example, through better coordination, the local ATIS and media can inform the public on what to do or where to go once they have relocated to a distant, and often unfamiliar community.
  • Forge relationships ahead of time, informing all relevant agencies of the capabilities and limitations of the ATIS. In planning for disasters, it is important to establish relationships among all the relevant agencies. All agencies and key individuals that may have direct control over a major event should be educated about the information gathering abilities and limitations of the TMC and the dissemination abilities and limitations of the ATIS. Other supporting agencies (i.e. transit, public health) should also be aware of the ATIS and should know what to expect or receive from the ATIS in the event of a disaster. Likewise, large employers and large facility managers should be recruited to receive email, text, and other alerts during a disaster.
  • Ensure adequate capacity for ATIS dissemination tools. Transportation agencies need to be aware and ensure that ATIS tools have enough capacity to handle larger volumes (i.e., increased calls to 511, increased access to the website) over the course of a disaster. This is of particular concern in urban areas, where extremely large numbers of residents (much larger than usual) may seek information during a disaster.
  • Plan for power and communication redundancy. Often during a disaster, the communications infrastructure experiences reduced capacity or even failure. To ensure proper communication during such situations, power and communication redundancy should be well thought out in advance. Particularly in urban areas, agencies need to be aware and plan for ATIS tools experiencing reduced capacity, or even failure, due to limited electrical power. When communications or power failures occur, alternative means of communications should be utilized, including in-person communication through loudspeakers, HAM radios to communicate with the media or other public agencies, static or flip-down signs posted along specific routes, and the full utilization of broadcast radio.
  • Perform practice scenarios and update procedures manuals. Agencies that performed practice scenarios and that maintain up-to-date procedures manuals can more effectively manage information dissemination during a disaster.
  • Educate the public in advance. The public needs to be educated in advance on what to do (or not to do) during a disaster, where to go for information, and what to expect (i.e., services may be limited or disrupted). In emergency prone areas, this education should be started at an early age and incorporated in the school curriculum. Even in areas where disasters are not a common occurrence, pre-education is important. The general public can be educated through public service announcements and advertising about the types of disasters, what to expect, and how to be prepared. In particular, this type of education should inform the public on the level of information that is likely to be available during and immediately after a disaster, so they do not develop unrealistic expectations of what various public agencies can do and what information will be made available.
  • Establish emergency points of contact in advance. For larger groups or sensitive locations, emergency points of contact should be established, so information can be directly disseminated to those contacts during a disaster. These may include, but are not limited to:
    • High rise building and office park facility managers
    • Hospitals
    • Nursing homes
    • Large public facilities
    • Convention and Visitor Bureaus
    • Trucking associations
    • Towing community
  • Be flexible. During the course of a disaster, transportation agencies may serve many different roles, including being an early responder, a coordinator of travel-related information, and later, serve as a support to the Incident Commander or agency in charge by supplying resources as necessary and taking actions as directed. Agencies need to be able to adapt to these different roles in order to more effectively manage the dissemination of information during a disaster.

Advance planning plays a significant role in ensuring effective communication with the public during a disaster event. Agencies must plan for adequate infrastructure to support the operational needs of the ATIS system, and they must be prepared to deal with communication and power failures during the course of a disaster. Transportation and emergency management agencies and operators must also develop relationships ahead of time, so that they are familiar with their roles and responsibilities during a disaster event, and they are aware of the capabilities (as well as the limitations) of the ATIS. Similarly, agencies need to educate the public on what to expect during a disaster and how to be prepared. Advance planning is critical to the effective dissemination of information during a disaster and can contribute significantly to improved public safety.

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