Identify all transportation, incident management, and emergency response entities and strive to resolve issues with semantics and terminology among different agencies.
The experiences in multi-agency coordination, emergency response, and transportation operations within the National Capital Region on September 11, 2001.
Made Public Date


United States

Effects of Catastrophic Events on Transportation System Management and Operations: The Pentagon and the National Capitol Region - September 11, 2001


In March 2002, a report titled "Effects of Catastrophic Events on Transportation System Management and Operations, the Pentagon and the National Capital Region, September 11, 2001 Findings" documented the actions taken by transportation agencies in response to the terrorist attack on the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia (VA) on September 11, 2001. The report described the impacts of catastrophic events on the transportation system facilities and services. The findings were a result of the creation of a detailed chronology of events in the National Capital Region (NCR), a literature search, and interviews of key personnel involved in transportation operations decision-making following the attack.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon resulted in substantial, immediate, and adverse impacts on transportation, and influenced the longer-term operation of transportation facilities and services in the region. The crisis revealed important information about the response of the transportation system to a major crisis and the ability of the transportation operating agencies, along with their public safety and emergency management partners, to respond effectively to the crisis. The report emphasized the transportation aspects of this catastrophic event and lessons learned that could be incorporated into future emergency response planning.

Lessons Learned

In preparation of regional crises, all transportation, incident management, and emergency response personnel should be identified; their roles, responsibilities, and lines of authority should be documented; and issues related to semantics and terminology among the different agencies should be resolved. These developments will facilitate shorter response times for incidents involving multiple jurisdictions and/or agencies and eliminate any potential confusion that may be caused by differing vocabularies among jurisdictions, disciplines, and technical areas.

The jurisdictions, agencies, and planners in and around the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area have learned the importance of coordination and cooperation among transportation, public safety, and emergency management agencies. Learning from experiences and incidents, both locally (e.g., Air Florida crash in the Potomac River in 1982, the crash of a truck carrying highly explosive black (blasting) powder near I-395 in Virginia) and internationally (the Tokyo subway system Sarin gas attack in 1996), the DC area agencies have worked to coordinate their efforts despite the differences in operating philosophies, responsibilities, and capabilities. Among the agencies that provide transportation and emergency services in the region, they have established a regional planning forum for working together during crises. The following provides additional insight into improving coordination and cooperation among agencies.

  • Identify all transportation incident management and emergency response personnel, and document their roles, responsibilities, and lines of authority. The Washington, D.C. metropolitan area is one of the most congested in the nation. The regional forum for interagency communication is the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB), which is the federally designated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the region and plays an important role as the regional forum for transportation planning. The TPB also consists of a number of technical committees where issues requiring coordination at the staff level are addressed. The agencies also have extensive working relationships for coordination of signal systems across political boundaries and for coordination of transit operations with Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).
  • Establish points of contact and a communication network specifically for transportation and public safety agencies. There is also recognition of the need for improved communications among transportation, law enforcement, public safety, and emergency services agencies. A regional initiative, CapWIN, is undertaken to improve communications in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. The CapWIN project is a partnership between the States of Maryland and Virginia, and the District of Columbia to develop an integrated transportation and criminal justice information wireless network. This project will integrate transportation and public safety data and voice communication systems, and will be the first multi-state transportation and public safety integrated wireless network in the United States.
  • Strive to resolve issues with semantics and terminology among different agencies to improve communication and coordination of emergency responses. A vocabulary that has common meanings across jurisdictions, disciplines, and technical areas is required for effective communication and coordination. Having a common understanding of terminologies enables agencies to communicate, coordinate and effectively utilize the resources available.
  • Consider developing an emergency response plan that coordinates command, control, and communications among regional agencies. The greatest obstacle to effective response on September 11, 2001 was a breakdown in collective control as there was no effective coordination of command, control, and communications. This lack of coordination on decisions relating to management and operation of the transportation network within and across jurisdictions led to an unanticipated rush of commuters in the District of Columbia just as the region's transportation network was winding down from the morning peak period service pattern. Because there was no communication between Virginia DOT and agencies in D.C., including the National Park Service and D.C. DOT, the region's transportation agencies (Virginia DOT and Maryland DOT) operated in a reactive mode and could not communicate with other agencies. Although the region's transportation agencies took a variety of actions (e.g., adjusting signal timings for heavy traffic, displaying VMS messages, and opening HOV lanes to all traffic) to handle the unexpected demand on the transportation system and get people out of Washington and away from the Pentagon, they were not able communicate/coordinate with other agencies. Consequently, the VDOT center in Northern Virginia responsible for traffic operations in the area could not coordinate with WMATA, the region's transit provider to use reversed HOV lanes as a route for Metrobuses to facilitate the movement of southbound transit-dependent travelers out of the District.

The March 2002 report "Effects of Catastrophic Events on Transportation System Management and Operations, the Pentagon and the National Capital Region, September 11, 2001 Findings" points out:


  • “The consensus among the region's transportation officials was that the events of September 11 have spurred interest in improved coordination and cooperation; in greater application of advanced technology for operations, system management, and security enhancement, and in improved preparation for emergency response, including evacuation procedures and emergency support functions. Through the leadership of the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board and the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments (WashCOG), the region's transportation, public safety, and emergency management agencies are establishing plans and procedures that will enhance their capability to respond to future crises.”

This lesson suggests that emergency management planning should to be coordinated between different agencies and neighboring political jurisdictions. The experiences in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area have led the regional agencies to work together to identify lines of authority among persons and agencies, strive to resolve different terminology, and develop systems to improve coordination and communication between agencies for future crises.