Sustain ITS network operations and interagency communications during emergencies by ensuring provisions for alternate power supply and telecommunications services.

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.

Technology has come to play an increasingly crucial supporting role in aiding transportation decision makers during normal day-to-day operations and, more importantly, during times of crisis. Technology can help agency personnel make better-informed decisions as events unfold and allow them to better coordinate responses with other agencies. It also allows agency personnel to collect and distribute real-time information so that the public can make individual and informed travel decisions. Once a catastrophic event has occurred, advanced technologies and ITS can provide information and assist decision makers in several ways:

  • Provide information on decisions regarding when and how to open or restrict facilities
  • Provide a mechanism by which information can be transferred to other public and private agencies involved in the response
  • Provide a way to inform the public about the status of the transportation system.

In order to sustain above services during emergencies, the availability of power supply and telecommunications service is vitally important. In this regard, key lessons learned from the analysis of past catastrophic events are:

  • Ensure sustainable operations of transportation technologies at times of emergencies. Agencies should consider the availability power supply and other needs of equipment during the purchasing process and should provide for backup power whenever feasible. Sustainability in a crisis is of particular importance for communications technology that can communicate information both within the agency, such as e-mail systems, and to the public, such as VMS. As many agencies discovered during the 2003 blackout, advanced technology is vulnerable to the loss of power at any point along the information chain, from equipment in the field to the control centers. One official in the Great Lakes region commented that without power, ITS data “go right in the wastebasket, during a time when you could ultimately use it the most.”
  • Identify priority ITS technology networks and provide them with backup power supply. As agencies incorporate ITS equipment into their daily operations activities, it is important to identify those parts of the ITS network that should be capable of operating during a blackout or other emergency situation, and allocate capital and operating funds to maintain backup power supply in those parts of the system. Agencies should insulate their communications equipment from failure by installing backup power supply sources—generators or batteries—where appropriate.
  • Avoid failure in your emergency telecommunications links by implementing both the wire-line and wireless services. Each of the events studied included different failures of communications technology. During the 2003 blackout, the plain old telephone system proved to be the most reliable form of communications technology, as cell phones, cell phone towers, radio repeaters, and Internet connections failed due to a loss of electrical power. In contrast, landline telephones were knocked out of service during the first hours of the Northridge earthquake as telephone switching centers shut down because of the high percentage of receivers knocked off the hook by the vibrations and aftershocks. Communication problems involved both dealing with technology failures, as well as disseminating informed, timely information within an agency, among agencies, and to the general public. Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) and the Wireless Priority Service (WPS) are two government sponsored priority communications systems that provide pre-approved users with priority routing of landline (GETS) and wireless (WPS) calls during times of emergency and crisis, even during periods of peak demand.

Indeed, managing transportation operations during catastrophic events is a daunting task. The lessons learned above emphasize sustaining critical networks and facilities in order to execute effective responses to emergencies. The lesson further emphasizes having a backup arrangement to ensure power supply and telecommunications services in order to sustain operations of ITS equipment along the key transportation networks, share information with other regional agencies and the public–all of which are important to assure safety and mobility of people and to reduce the adverse impacts of a catastrophe.