In preparation for managing transportation in catastrophic emergencies, identify agencies and their decision makers to interact with, and establish effective coordination with them to execute response.

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 operations during multi-agency response to catastrophic events nationwide offers some valuable lessons learned as presented below.

  • Conduct emergency transportation planning in concert with other local and regional transportation agencies as well as emergency response agencies. The importance of emergency planning in concert with other agencies was a constant theme throughout each event. Transportation agencies are interdependent, all working together to create an efficient transportation network. Coordination among agencies during emergencies can exist on two levels: that of the institution and that of the individual. The Baltimore rail tunnel fire also demonstrated the need to also ensure that response plans incorporate private industry. Through a memorandum of understanding between NJ Transit (New Jersey Transit) and private carriers, private fleets were available to assist in the movement of stranded commuters on the day of the blackout.
  • Consider the practicality of sharing responsibilities among agencies and identifying decision makers in the event of a catastrophe. Agencies should consider the practicality of who the decision makers are, and how to share responsibilities within and across agencies. Education, training, and drills may help agency members make better decisions under unusual or stressful circumstances. The response to catastrophic events usually requires participation by federal, state, regional, and local jurisdictions and agencies, and representatives of these entities must coordinate their actions in order to respond effectively. Internally, transportation agencies need pre-established plans, which are well understood and have been rehearsed by staff. Externally, transportation agency personnel must know the functions and capabilities of other transportation and non-transportation agencies and understand the delineation of authority among the agencies. Furthermore, agency personnel must know how to provide the media and the public with accurate and timely information.
  • Continually reassess the coordination plan among the local and regional transportation, public safety, and rescue agencies. Coordination among agencies should be an on-going activity and continually reassessed, particularly after a serious incident. Since September 11 and the blackout, some of the major transportation agencies in the New York City region have become linked by dedicated telephone landlines into each other’s offices. The lack of communication and coordination among transportation agencies was apparent after the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Staffs at agencies operating in the region had not previously developed working arrangements. There was no communication to Virginia DOT from agencies in D.C., including the National Park Service and the District of Columbia DOT, regarding transportation facility closures that affected traffic flowing into Virginia, although requests were made. This put the Virginia DOT staff in a reactive mode. Interviewees also stressed the need to develop strong working relationships with non transportation agencies; most importantly, law enforcement and emergency response agencies.
  • Establish clear delineation of authority for multi-agency emergency response. Multi-agency response requires preplanning that will establish a clear delineation of authority during emergencies. In Washington, the lack of formal coordination on September 11, 2001 led to a June 20, 2002 regional agreement among federal, state and local officials on how to coordinate response to transportation emergencies. The establishment of mutual aid agreements in advance of an emergency can make it possible for agencies and communities to share equipment as necessary and possible. This helps to reduce the need for costly expenditures and inefficient searches for equipment at the heights of crises. Following any kind of emergency, it is vital that the partner agencies that worked together to review and evaluate their performance and cooperation during the emergency in order to learn lessons that can be imparted in future responses.

Managing transportation operations during catastrophic events is a daunting task. The lessons learned above emphasize adequate emergency management coordination planning among the local, state, federal and regional transportation agencies in concert with the law enforcement, public safety and rescue agencies. Effective cooperation, coordination, and clear delineation responsibility among the agencies reduce the adverse impact of a catastrophe and assure safety and mobility of people.