Employ the use of critical ITS technologies in the emergency management of transportation operations during biohazard incidents.
Application of technology for transportation operations in biohazard emergencies.
Made Public Date


United States

Applications of Technology to Transportation Operations in Biohazard Situations: Final Report


For the United States, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent anthrax scare raised the specter of future attacks involving any number of hazards. After these events the federal government embarked on a series of projects to support communities in their emergency preparedness for a full range of potential threats. The federal initiatives encouraged state and local transportation agencies, which have a long history of preparedness for severe weather, to expand preparedness to encompass man-made emergencies, including the release of biohazards.

Emergency transportation operations during a biohazard incident may differ significantly from those required in other types of emergencies, such as hurricanes, floods or snow-storms. The release of a biohazard is not likely to be known ahead of time (unlike weather conditions). Further, the detection of biohazards is difficult before and during their release because they are predominantly colorless, odorless and are easily concealed. Note also that, the variety of biohazards renders their identification challenging. They consist of three main types: bacteria, viruses and biological toxins, with effects that may not be evident immediately but emerge over time. Another complicating factor is that biohazards can be released intentionally, accidentally or through naturally occurring processes in the environment. The appropriate emergency response may differ depending on the cause of release. If the release is intentional, the transportation network itself could be a target. Finally, transportation management during a biohazard emergency may require simultaneous but conflicting operations, such as minimizing the mobility of exposed populations, evacuating non-exposed populations and maximizing the mobility of responders.

Lessons Learned

In response to the events of 9/11, state and local transportation agencies strengthened their efforts to develop emergency plans that address man-made incidents. The release of biohazards by design or accident is a potential threat to transportation security. To support transportation planning for biohazard emergencies, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and ITS Joint Program Office (JPO) conducted a study to identify ways transportation agencies can mitigate harm from biohazards. The analysts recommended that agencies adopt a set of critical Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) tools to support transportation operations and consider best practices in the emergency planning phase as follows:

  • Identify and incorporate ITS technologies in your agency’s emergency planning for biohazards. Analysts of the FHWA study identified the specific ITS technologies for consideration in the development of the state and local transportation agencies’ response to biohazards. These technologies are used to support communications, surveillance and detection, traveler information and traffic management, and they include the following:
    • Mobile Communications. Mobile communications include two-way radios, cell phones and satellite telephones. Mobile communications support communications between and within the different agencies responding to emergencies. They enable communication between the responders at the scene and the operators at command centers, allowing responders to report on the status and required resources. The involvement of multiple agencies from the local, state and federal levels requires that mobile communications share a common platform for interoperability.
    • Mobile Data Terminals. Mobile data terminals are small computers in emergency response vehicles that support the transmittal of information including images and data from the scene to management centers. Similar to mobile communications, mobile data terminals facilitate the exchange of information and the ability of operators at management centers to manage operations and allocate resources.
    • Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) Cameras. Decision-making requires real-time situational awareness of the scene on the ground. CCTV cameras, which are used in day-to-day traffic management, can also be used to monitor infrastructure for suspicious activity. During a biohazard emergency, CCTV cameras allow agencies to remotely assess the scene of a biohazard release and determine what resources are needed to reduce the threat. CCTV cameras also support the management of transportation operations by allowing transportation management centers to monitor and manage traffic flow near a biohazard situation.
    • Vehicle Probes. Like CCTV cameras, vehicle probes support surveillance and detection activities. Vehicle probes act as moving sensors that obtain data on vehicle speed and travel time traffic conditions, using technologies such as Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL), Automatic Vehicle Identification (AVI) and Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS). These technologies can support incident management and traffic management during a biohazard incident.
    • Traveler Information Technology (Variable Message Sign (VMS) / Highway Advisory Radio (HAR) / 511). As in any emergency response, providing the public with accurate, timely and actionable information is essential. In biohazard emergencies, it will be necessary to communicate with the traveling public the nature and extent of the incident as well as specific information on road closures, evacuation routes and alternate routes. VMSs are an especially valuable tool because all vehicles that travel by a VMS should see the message, whereas travelers may not choose to tune into the station broadcasting HAR. However, VMS does not have sufficient space for detailed information, but it can direct travelers to HAR or 511 for more detailed information. Agencies deploying these technologies for a biohazard incident should use a combination of technologies to maximize the number of travelers receiving emergency information.
  • Establish working relationships with relevant public safety agencies. Managing transportation operations in a biohazard emergency requires coordination across transportation and emergency response agencies. Sharing transportation emergency response plans with the local and state emergency planning committees will help responders identify transportation resources, points-of-contact and ITS tools applicable in biohazard incidents. Related agencies and organizations include law enforcement, fire and rescue, regional departments of health and hospitals.
  • Increase employee awareness of biological threats. Transportation agencies should increase employee awareness and knowledge of biohazards. Increasing awareness can enhance the ability of employees to prevent, identify, confirm and monitor biohazard threats and the activities that precede biohazard events. Training should include the agency’s procedures and protocols for responding to biohazard emergencies. A useful resource for increasing awareness of biological threats is “The Learning Tool” on the U.S. DOT ITS website, (located at http://www.its.dot.gov/eto/docs/transops_biohazard/learning_tool/index2.htm).

This lesson learned proposes that planning for a biohazard involves deploying key ITS technologies in communications, surveillance and detection, traveler information and traffic management, establishing cooperative relationships with other public safety agencies and increasing awareness among transportation personnel of biohazards. Adopting these ITS tools, coordinating with related agencies, and increasing awareness of personnel promote the safety of emergency operations by reducing the harm of biohazards incidents.

Applications of Technology to Transportation Operations in Biohazard Situations: Final Report

Applications of Technology to Transportation Operations in Biohazard Situations: Final Report
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Federal Highway Administration

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