Develop and rehearse an emergency response plan for managing catastrophes with minimum panic, disruption and loss.

Experience nationwide with responding to catastrophic events

Date Posted

The Effect of Catastrophic Events on Transportation Systems Operations and Maintenance – Comparative Analysis

Summary Information

In order to provide a better understanding of how the surface transportation system is both affected and utilized in an emergency situation, the U.S. Department of Transportation ITS Joint Program Office and the Federal Highway Administration Office of Operations commissioned a series of six case studies examining the effects of catastrophic events on transportation system management and operations: Blackout, New York-New Jersey-Connecticut Metropolitan Area, August 14, 2003; Blackout, Great Lakes Region, August 14, 2003; Terrorist attack, New York City, September 11, 2001; Terrorist attack, Washington, D.C., September 11, 2001; Rail tunnel fire, Baltimore, Maryland, July 18, 2001; Earthquake, Northridge, California, January 18, 1994. Each of the events resulted in substantial, immediate, and adverse impacts on the transportation system, and each had a varying degree of influence on the longer-term operation of transportation facilities and services in its respective region. This comparative analysis summarizes the surface transportation activities associated with these catastrophic events and the lessons learned from each. Among the lessons learned are the importance of advance preparations and interagency cooperation, the impact of the use of advanced technologies to distribute real-time information and the need to have system redundancy.

The analysis of transportation agencies' planning for response to emergencies in the event of catastrophes offers some lessons learned as presented below.

  • Create an emergency response plan to manage catastrophic events. Emergency planning provides agencies with many advantages during a crisis, for example:
      • Predetermined roles
      • Clear and understandable chains of command
      • Availability and readiness of appropriate supplies
      • Advance identification and rectification of weaknesses in the emergency response.

    Good advanced planning should include not only planning for the immediate period of a crisis, but also for recovery and restoration afterwards. Emergency preparation can include everything from the drafting of an emergency response plan to the stockpiling of certain emergency items to the rehearsal of particular crisis scenarios, all in the service of planning and training for an actual emergency.

  • Rehearse the emergency response plan to manage catastrophe with a minimum of panic, disruption and loss. After the development of plans and procedures, it is crucial for an agency to practice. The benefits of having prepared in advance will dramatically increase the chances that an emergency can be managed with minimum panic, disruption, and loss. Emergency response plans should be drilled and rehearsed. Several agency representatives interviewed emphasized the importance of drilling staff members in the details of emergency response plans and of providing training and encouragement for emergency response planning. On September 11, 2001, due to prior training, NYC Transit was able to begin emergency operations of its subway system within one minute of the attack on the World Trade Center. Emergencies can be used as learning tools, allowing agencies to pinpoint their vulnerabilities and better plan for future situations.
  • Use experience from previous catastrophes into design, operations, and management. The need to learn from previous events and to incorporate that learning into an agency's response plans cannot be overemphasized. For example, learning from an earthquake in 1989, Caltrans management began a statewide retrofit program for bridges judged to be at risk to damage from an earthquake; not one of the 122 bridges that had been retrofitted in Los Angeles County as a result of the program sustained severe damage during the Northridge earthquake in 1994.
  • Ensure that agency staff members know their responsibilities in an emergency. It is vital that emergency response plans make it possible for agency staff members to know their responsibilities in an emergency and to easily and quickly step into their assigned roles, with minimum confusion and wasted time. City and County of Los Angeles managers were able to activate the regional Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and begin emergency response procedures within minutes of the Northridge earthquake. This EOC was first established in response to the events associated with the 1992 Los Angeles riots, as state and local officials realized that they needed a regional operations center to handle large-scale events that required the coordination among emergency response and other related agencies, such as transportation.
  • Continually update the emergency response plans and their corresponding preparations. To be most effective, emergency response plans and their corresponding preparations should be continually updated. Following the 2003 blackout, managers at the Ohio DOT reviewed the performance of its emergency planning efforts, allowing them to evaluate and improve their emergency response plans for the future. Emergency planning should be done for the needs of equipment, as well as for the needs of people. In advance of the 2003 blackout, the Ohio Turnpike had put extensive thought and effort into planning for the needs of its computer equipment in case of emergency. A backup generator capable of powering the main data center of the Turnpike for 10 hours had been installed, including appropriate cooling and ventilation equipment, in order to allow the Turnpike's main network to run without interruption during the period of the blackout.

The above lessons learned from managing catastrophic events emphasize adequate emergency management planning in advance, developing and rehearsing of a response plan, and continually updating the response plan with new learning in order to reduce the adverse impact of catastrophe and to assure safety and mobility of people.