Ensure redundancy of critical components in transportation support systems to be used in case of an emergency.

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.

Redundancy, the ability to activate backup systems in cases of system failure, is a major element in emergency response and recovery plans. The backup systems needed in a particular emergency will be determined by the nature and scope of that emergency. The systems in each of the six incidents reviewed failed or required backup in different ways, depending upon the characteristics of the emergency. Lessons learned on redundancy from these incidents are presented below.

  • Ensure redundancy for systems to be used in case of an emergency. At a minimum, emergency response planners should design redundancy into the emergency response and recovery plans for the following key areas in a regional transportation network:
      • Activation and management of agency personnel
      • Communications within agencies and across agencies
      • Utilities
      • Control centers
      • Access to equipment and supplies
  • Prioritize system redundancy plans according to the agency’s strategic functions. Although it may not be cost-effective for all transportation agencies to consider full redundancy, key functions will require redundancy. As illustrated in the review of emergency incidents, having a source of backup power is perhaps the most important investment an agency can make. Backup power is crucial because it enables most other systems—including communications, life-safety, and security systems—to operate. The review also showed that the need for transportation networks to generate revenue, even under emergency conditions, played a major role in the decision to purchase redundancy for toll operations and facilities.

    In both Baltimore and New York, agency officials identified the need to have redundant supplies of equipment. Perhaps even more important is a good inventory of where supplies are kept or could be readily purchased, as well as awareness of pre-existing relationships and the supplies held by other agencies. For example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey requested backup supplies from sister agencies in Philadelphia and Baltimore as soon as the 2003 blackout occurred.

    The review of the incidents revealed that the existence of parallel systems or the rapid implementation of additional service facilitated the capacity of the system to move people and goods.
  • Provide backup power to key components of an Emergency Operations Center (EOC). At the start of the 2003 blackout, numerous agencies immediately activated their EOCs but still had problems related to a lack of backup power. The problems were associated with several secondary but essential functions in the EOC that did not have a backup power supply, and therefore should be considered in emergency planning:
      • Electronic keyed door security system
      • Centrex (central exchange) phone system
      • Fueling system for public and private vehicles
      • Air conditioning, especially for equipment and electronics rooms
      • Internet server hosting agency e-mail systems
      • Radio communications systems
      • Building security systems
  • Consider building an alternate control center – either physical or virtual – to avoid total systemic failure. To be effective, emergency response centers must not rely upon only one location or one source of power, emergency telecommunications systems must have redundancy built in, and emergency transportation procedures must have sufficient stores of fuel. Training and incident command systems can help prepare and empower day-of-event decision makers. Redundant control centers were used on September 11, 2001 when the New York City Office of Emergency Management (NYC OEM) and Port Authority’s Command Center was destroyed and the Port Authority personnel moved to a backup control center in New Jersey (NJ), and NJ TRANSIT and NYC Transit staff deployed mobile command centers. Currently, TRANSCOM, a transportation operations coordinating committee in the New York City metropolitan area, is in the process of establishing a virtual center in which its employees can use laptops at other agencies or remote locations to connect into the system and disseminate information.
  • Ensure alternate telecommunications systems are in working condition. At the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit, Michigan, in the United States, with Windsor, Ontario, in Canada, cell phones and two-way pagers connect all managers and supervisors. They lost communication with their partner agencies, and the availability of their cell phones was intermittent. Although two-way radios continued to operate, a repeater went out immediately, and staff couldn’t communicate with Canadian Customs. Communications immediately after the Northridge earthquake were difficult for both emergency workers and residents. Power was out for most of the area, which affected the operation of the central phone system. There were numerous fires at electrical stations and telephone switching stations. In the aftermath of the Northridge Earthquake, California officials came to rely more on cell phone technology than radio technology, but cell phone communications in the canyon areas was intermittent due to terrain and limited coverage. On September 11 in New York City, and to a lesser extent in Washington, D.C., immediate communication with agency field staff and emergency responders was difficult because telephone landlines were damaged and cellular communications systems were overloaded. In addition, radio communications for the NYC Fire and Police departments were compromised because of the use of outdated equipment and the destruction of radio towers and repeaters located on or in the buildings in the World Trade Center complex. Two-way radios helped field personnel communicate during the evacuation, although some field personnel were without radios and thus were out of touch.

The ability to activate the backup systems supporting an agency’s critical operations is extremely important and must be given adequate consideration in the planning and design of an emergency response and recovery plan. The specific types of backup or redundancy required are determined by the nature and scope of operations of the particular emergency. The redundancy enhances an agency’s ability to stem chaos and assure some degree of safety and mobility in transportation operations in the event of catastrophic incidences.