Ensure reliable and interoperable communication between transportation and public safety agencies and use ITS to promptly disseminate travel updates to the public during emergencies.

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 ability to communicate both internally and externally is a critical technological capability required in an emergency. During a crisis, the need to acquire situational awareness drastically increases, and places great demand to get information from the public and to communicate to the public increase drastically. When a crisis occurs, fast communication between agency departments is crucial to stem anxiety, transmit instructions and begin the process of response and recovery. Rumor control is an important element to crisis management because inaccurate information about the safety of facilities can lead to inappropriate choices, or, in the worst case, panic. The following guidance, obtained from the examination of case studies, reveals key factors underlying effective communication in a crisis:

  • Establish reliable communication systems to stay in touch with the outer world in case of emergency. Reliable communications technology is particularly important for transportation agencies, in which many employees may be working in the field, driving vehicles or otherwise away from the central offices of the agency. The importance of accurate, frequent, and calming communication can be forgotten in the height of a crisis, as emergency responders focus on managing the immediate demands of the situation.
  • Use ITS effectively to disseminate travel related updates promtly during an emergency. Communication is vital and can facilitate the resolution of the crisis by encouraging cooperation and discouraging panic. On September 11, ITS technologies deployed in the New York City metro area aided both agencies and travelers in several ways. Most importantly, ITS were able to alert motorists to problems long before they reached the Manhattan area. Variable message signs (VMS) were used to communicate real-time information to travelers. Within two minutes of the decision to close the George Washington Bridge, the VMS alerted motorists ten miles away. The information provided by its 1-800 telephone lines was simultaneously updated, and the information was electronically transmitted for broader dissemination.
  • Consider several means of communication to inform the public of emergency related travel directions and updates. Since the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the transportation management center (TMC) staff has updated the tools for relaying traffic information. Cable Television is now used, real-time traffic information is available on the Internet, and Teletext—a scrolling sign placed at key points in the freeway system—alerts commuters to backups. For the Baltimore rail tunnel fire, the most significant contribution from advanced technology was VMS and HAR (highway advisory radio) which provided information to travelers on the closing of roadways into Baltimore. Maryland’s CHART[1] TMC posted messages on the portions of the Interstate system impacted by the incident.
  • Strive to establish interoperability among communication systems used by key agencies responding to catastrophes. The lack of interoperability between the communication systems of different agencies was a major obstacle to inter-agency cooperation during each of the events noted above, and intra-agency communications were hampered by the lack of sustained and reliable communications systems. Agency representatives highlighted the importance of having in place established modes and protocols of communication for telephone, fax, or Internet connections, with particular attention paid to ensuring redundancy in those systems.

Catastrophic events demand quick and coordinated response from various local and regional agencies, including those responsible for transportation and public safety. Ensuring that departments of transportation have the capability of communicating accurate and timely travel information to the public requires that transportation and public safety agencies have reliable communication systems in place with pre-established protocols. Public transportation agencies must strive to establish inter- and intra-agency protocols and redundant communication systems to help reduce chaos and make travel safer at times of crises.

[1] CHART (www.chart.state.md.us) is a joint effort of the Maryland Department of Transportation, Maryland Transportation Authority and the Maryland State Police, in cooperation with other federal, state and local agencies. CHART's mission is to improve "real-time" operations of Maryland's highway system through teamwork and technology.

System Engineering Elements

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